Bessie Head 1937–1986
(Born Bessie Amelia Emery) South African-born Botswanan novelist, short story writer, and nonfiction writer.
One of Africa's most renowned women writers, Head explored the effects of racial and social oppression and the theme of exile throughout her short fiction. In particular, Head's stories focus on the profound impact of racism on the people of South Africa. Head was of mixed race, and she experienced discrimination both in her birthplace, South Africa, and in her adopted land, Botswana. Her work casts a distinctly feminine perspective on the ills of societal injustice and the psychological costs of alienation.
Head was born the daughter of an upper-class white woman and a black stableman. When her mother was found to be pregnant, she was committed to a mental hospital and deemed insane. Head was born in the asylum but was sent to live with foster parents; later, she was placed in the care of white missionaries. Her mother committed suicide when Head was still a girl. As a young adult, Head was trained as a teacher and taught elementary school for several years in South Africa. In 1961 Head married a journalist and shortly thereafter they divorced. At the age of twenty-seven she left for Botswana with her young son because, in her words, she could no longer tolerate apartheid in South Africa. Unfortunately, conditions in Botswana were not much better. For the next fifteen years she lived as a refugee at the Bamangwato Development Farm, combating poverty. Head published her first novel, When Rain Clouds Gather, in 1969. At the time of her death in 1986 from hepatitis, she was working on her autobiography.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Head's collection of short stories, The Collector of Treasures, and Other Botswana Village Tales (1977), investigates several aspects of African life, especially the social condition of its women. The tales are rooted in oral storytelling traditions and in village folklore, and much of the material is derived from interviews conducted by Head with the villagers of Serowe. By connecting past to present, the stories reveal the inevitable friction between old ways and new. The posthumously collected stories of Tales of Tenderness and Power (1989) have been praised for their insight into African history, culture, and the role of women. The collection demonstrates Head's development from early, anecdotal pieces to the work of a mature author. The Cardinals, with Meditations and Short Stories (1993) contains a novella and seven short pieces set in South Africa. The central novella concerns a woman called Mouse who was sold by her mother as a child. She grows up to be a newspaper reporter and becomes involved with a man who, unbeknownst to either of them, is her father.
Head's short fiction is highly regarded critically and has aided in establishing her as a distinguished African author. Commentators have praised Head's exploration of such concerns in her short fiction as societal displacement, the search for identity, racial discrimination, and the treatment of women in African society. Critics have found parallels between the dominant themes of her work and Head's own life. Another defining subject of Head's short fiction is the devastating impact Western religion and its monetary-based economy and culture has had on traditional tribal and village life in Africa. Reviewers contend that Head's short fiction is heavily influenced by myth, folklore, and oral traditions. Some critics consider her stories didactic and immature, but most perceive Head's short fiction to be insightful and sensitive portraitures of African life.