Head is known for her writings exploring the sources of racial and sexual inequalities in southern Africa. A mixed-race South African who spent most of her life as an exile in her adopted land of Botswana, Head wrote from the perspective of an outsider attempting to understand her environment and her social position. In her works, Head addresses problems of sexual and racial discrimination in Africa by emphasizing the similarities among all forms of prejudice, stressing such themes as the disintegration of rural traditions, the corruption of authority, and the equally powerful forces of good and evil.
Head was the daughter of an upper-class white woman and a black stablehand in South Africa. When her mother, Bessie Emery, was found to be pregnant with the child of a black South African, she was institutionalized by her parents and labeled insane. Head was born in the asylum but was quickly sent off to live with white foster parents, who later became ashamed of Head's dark skin color and sent her to live with Catholic missionaries. When Head was about thirteen, her mother, still institutionalized, committed suicide. Head was trained as at teacher and taught elementary school children for several years in South Africa. In 1961 she married a journalist but divorced shortly thereafter. When she was twenty-seven Head left for Botswana with her young son because, according to her, she could no longer tolerate apartheid in South Africa. For the next fifteen years she lived in poverty as a refugee at the Bamangwato Development Farm. Despite the harsh living conditions, Head found in her village a sense of community she had hitherto not experienced, and she did eventually gain Botswanan citizenship. After suffering a psychological breakdown, which became the focus of her novel A Question of Power (1973), Head dedicated herself to writing and maintaining a seedling nursery for vegetables. She later represented Botswana at writers' conferences in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia. She died of hepatitis in 1986.
Throughout her career, Head emphasized the need for Africans to abandon power struggles. She stated that until she moved to Botswana in 1964, she "had never encountered human ambition and greed before in a black form." In South Africa her experiences with domination had been primarily with the white system of apartheid; in Botswana, she found that similar structures of oppression toward women and other social groups existed in tribal communities. Head's first novel, When Rain Clouds Gather (1968), was an attempt to suggest an alternative to the desire for power. This book focuses on Makhaya, a young South African who leaves his country only to become an outcast in Golema Mmidi, a refugee community in Botswana. Many of the stories in Head's later book of short stories, The Collector of Treasures (1977), reiterate the futility of power struggles.
In her later works Head identified oppression and discrimination as major tools for those in power. In her novel Maru (1971) two village leaders fall in love with a young Masarwa school-teacher, Margaret, who admits her association with the Masarwa, who have traditionally been considered inferior to other black Botswanans. As both men vie for her affections, they begin to understand the plight of the Masarwa people, and a union is ultimately created between the two groups through Margaret's marriage to one of the village leaders. Head called her autobiographical novel A Question of Power "a private journey to the sources of evil." Elizabeth, the protagonist, is a South African refugee in Botswana who experiences temporary insanity. In dreams and fantasies she encounters both local and mythical figures representing the nature of her femininity and Africanness. This psychological work explores the roots of female oppression and questions the existence of God.
In addition to her fiction, Head wrote two studies on Botswana, both of which combine local folklore with historical information. Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (1981) recounts tales of the Bamangwato nation from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and A Bewitched Crossroad: An African Saga (1984) focuses on African tribal wars in the early nineteenth century.
Although critics have tried to identify Head as a "feminist" or "African" writer, Head herself resisted these labels, seeing her works instead as individually crafted pieces that did not fall into ideological categories. Critics have noted that Head respected but did not idealize African history and tradition. Rather, she worked for substantial change in customs, envisioning equality for citizens of Africa. Scholars have identified themes of exile and oppression in her works, and commented on the universal relevance of Head's social observations. Commentators have also noted feminist themes in Head's short stories and novels such as A Question of Power, focusing discussion on the topics of sexuality, male images of authority, and the subjugation of women that are presented in these works.
When Rain Clouds Gather (novel) 1968
Maru (novel) 1971
A Question of Power (novel) 1973
The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales (short stories) 1977
Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (history) 1981
A Bewitched Crossroad: An African Saga (history) 1984
Tales of Tenderness and Power (short stories) 1989
A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings (essays) 1990
A Gesture of Belonging: Letters from Bessie Head, 1965-1979 (letters) 1991
SOURCE: Head, Bessie. "The Woman from America." In A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings, selected and edited by Craig MacKenzie, pp. 31-36. Nairobi, Kenya: Heinemann, 1990.
In the following essay, originally published in 1966, Head describes her friendship with an American woman who had married a Botswanan and moved to Head's village.
This woman from America married a man of our village and left her country to come and live with him here. She descended on us like an avalanche. People are divided into two camps. Those who feel a fascinated love and those who fear a new thing. The terrible...
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SOURCE: Head, Bessie. "Despite Broken Bondage, Botswana Women Are Still Unloved." In A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings, selected and edited by Craig MacKenzie, pp. 54-57. Nairobi, Kenya: Heinemann, 1990.
In the following essay, originally published in 1975, Head discusses the treatment of Botswanan women as chattel in spite of changes in their legal status.
In the old days a woman was regarded as sacred only if she knew her place, which was in her yard with her mother-in-law and children. A number of oppressive traditions, however, completely obliterated her as a thinking, feeling human...
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SOURCE: James, Adeola. "Bessie Head's Perspectives on Women." In Black Women Writers across Cultures: An Analysis of Their Contributions, edited by Valentine Udoh James, James S. Etim, Melanie Marshall James, and Ambe J. Njoh, pp. 13-38. Lanham, Md.: International Scholars Publications, 2000.
In the following essay, James discusses Head's analysis and interpretation of contemporary feminism in South Africa in her novels.
Bessie Head, who died prematurely in 1986 at the age of forty-eight years, is recognized today as one of Africa's leading writers. At...
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DOROTHY DRIVER (ESSAY DATE 1993)
SOURCE: Driver, Dorothy. “Reconstructing the Past, Shaping the Future: Bessie Head and the Question of Feminism in a New South Africa.” In Black Women’s Writings, edited by Gina Wisker, pp. 160-87. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
In the following essay, Driver discusses Head’s treatment of the “new” woman in South Africa in her short stories in The Collector of Treasures.
Black women have long operated at a disadvantage. Now you as the storyteller are going to shape the future.
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Abrahams, Cecil, ed. Tragic Life: Bessie Head and Literature in Southern Africa. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1990, 131 p.
Collection of essays that explore Head's personal life, politics, and spirituality.
Eilersen, Gillian Stead. Bessie Head: Thunder behind Her Ears: Her Life and Writing. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1995, 312 p.
Covers Head's life and development as a writer, with information on her travels abroad.
Bazin, Nancy Topping. "Venturing into...
(The entire section is 500 words.)