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Bessie Head 1937–1986

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(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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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The Collector of Treasures, and Other Botswana Village Tales 1977

Tales of Tenderness and Power 1989

The Cardinals, with Meditations and Short Stories 1993

When Rain Clouds Gather (novel) 1969

Naru (novel) 1971

A Question of Power (novel) 1973

Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (nonfiction) 1981

A Bewitched Crossroad: An African Saga (nonfiction) 1984

A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings (nonfiction) 1990

Michael Thorpe (essay date 1983)

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SOURCE: Thorpe, Michael. “Treasures of the Heart: The Short Stories of Bessie Head.” World Literature Today 57, no. 3 (summer 1983): 414–16.

[In the following essay, Thorpe surveys the defining characteristics of Head's The Collector of Treasures, describing the stories as “rooted, folkloristic tales woven from the fabric of village life and intended to entertain and enlighten, not to engage the modern close critic.”]

My title and principal subject are drawn from Bessie Head's short-story collection The Collector of Treasures (1977); her novels have been admirably appraised elsewhere.1 The stories lend themselves especially well to an understanding of Head's aims as a writer. Their subtitle, and Other Botswana Village Tales, indicates her kinship with the village storyteller of the oral tradition. Hers are rooted, folkloristic tales woven from the fabric of village life and intended to entertain and enlighten, not to engage the modern close critic. They are subtly didactic: it seems apt to apply to them Wordsworth's prefatory comment on the moral purpose of his Lyrical Ballads that “the feeling therein developed gives importance to the action and situation, and not the action and situation to the feeling.” Like earlier established and better-known African writers such as Ngugi and Achebe, Bessie Head (b. 1937) wishes to present, in a human and humane light, African life before as well as after the white man's coming. She seems, however, more deeply troubled than they by the contradictions within customary life, the difficulty of reconciling what she roundly calls “the insane beliefs of a primitive society”2 with the mutual care and concern she has also found in a village community.

The stories invariably contain authorial comment, sometimes quite lengthy analysis of “the people” or “the society” they explore. In fact, the narrator seems often to be telling the story as an exploration, as a way to develop or even question her own understanding. There is no settled or dogmatic view of her society; the author's hard-won values, rather than the people's, ultimately hold sway. She is thus a teacher, not solely “to help my society regain belief in itself,”3 but as a reformer, insistently reminding her audience and herself of the intractability of evil.

Head's complex standpoint seems to stem in part from her unusual relationship to Botswana society. She is herself a “Coloured” South African who came to Botswana after a brush with the Afrikaner authorities in 1964. For many years she lived simply with her son in the village of Serowe, a woman and an alien exile. She was not readily accepted in a male-dominated society where—a reiterated theme—“women are just dogs” (81). The anguish of her early years there, including a breakdown and a painful readjustment to life, is movingly rendered in her admittedly autobiographical novel A Question of Power (1974). Nevertheless, unlike many South African exiles who have become divorced not only from their own country and people but from Africa itself, she has determinedly rooted herself in Botswana and become a creative interpreter of its life. In but not of it, sympathetically attached but inevitably distanced, she is perhaps unique among black African writers in her relationship to the society of which she writes.

Hers is a dual relationship. On the one hand Head performs the task of rehabilitating the precolonial past in order to show—again in Achebe's words—“that African people did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans.”4 On the other she anxiously questions that society's shortcomings, seeing them as not merely the consequence of colonial victimization, but part of the universal enigma of human folly.

Even in her stories set in the past one finds a characteristic ambivalence. The piece that opens The Collector of Treasures, “The Deep River: A Story of Ancient Tribal Migration,” and her most recently published story, “A Power Struggle,”5 are presented not as “history” but as fictionalized versions of what little she has learned from “our traditional historians,”6 versions infused with her own preoccupation with power and its relationship to the individual, whether ruler or ruled. Both stories describe a dispute over succession to tribal kingship: in each case the rightful heir chooses exile rather than compromise or conflict. One protagonist, “in a world where women were of no account,” stands by his dead father's “third junior wife” and her son, whom he himself has fathered; rather than split the tribe, he simply leaves. The other, when challenged openly for the succession by his brother, “refused at crucial points to assert his power. … If power was the unfocused demoniac stare of his brother then he would have none of that world” (“A Power Struggle”). He too leaves, but little by little many of the people follow him, abandoning the murderous brother. In both stories an ugly Hobbesian universe is fleetingly illuminated by the noble dissent of an exceptional individual whose action forces people “to show their individual faces”; in each, one finds Head's delicate ambivalence: “Theirs was not a tender, compassionate, and romantic world. And yet in a way it was” (“Deep River”). Each story has a quasi-mythical pattern: brother and brother, good and evil are opposed; the people may choose. Their choice, or rather their capacity to choose, is vitally important. “A Power Struggle” closes with these words:

This thread of philosophical beauty was deeply woven into the history of the land and the story was repeated many times over so that it became the only history people ever knew. But when the white strangers came this history ended as a new order was imposed on life. The people's kings faded from memory to become myths of the past and no choice was left between what was good and what was evil.

In Serowe Head describes the tradition of migration as one “established over the centuries to avert bloodshed in a crisis and underlying the basic nonviolent nature of African society as it was then. This gives the lie to white historians who, for their own ends, damned African people as savages.”7

The remaining twelve stories in The Collector of Treasures concern the present; they read, once one becomes aware of Head's concerns, like subtle inducements to her African readers to learn again to choose between good and evil. While evil is easily recognizable as a constant—witchcraft, human sacrifice, the abuse of women—the storyteller shows her hand most plainly in her efforts to provide models of the good. She is writing, to use Alan Paton's refrain in Cry, the Beloved Country (see WLT 57:2, pp. 233–37), for “the broken tribe,” its pride and value almost fatally eroded by the years of colonial subjection. The title story (pp. 87–103) is bisected with a long excursus characterizing “two kinds of men in the society.” While the lesser is responsible for “the breakdown in family life,” his type is explained in historical terms that invite understanding: when independence arrived, “it provided the first occasion for family life of a new order, above the childlike discipline of custom, the degradation of colonialism”; but a man arrived at “this turning point, a broken wreck with no inner resources at all. … He spun away from himself in a dizzy kind of death dance of wild destruction and dissipation.”8 Dikeledi, the story's protagonist, is married to such a man and can only yearn from a distance for Paul Thebolo, “another kind of man in the society with the power to create himself anew. … He was a poem of tenderness.” Thebolo and his wife befriend her, and she enjoys, for herself and her children, the “kindness and love” they bestow. When her husband returns and, jealous of Thebolo, forces himself back into the house, she castrates him and accidentally kills him. It is an act of self-sacrifice and self-violation to which, we can believe, Dikeledi has been driven, out of tender care and protectiveness toward her children, an act committed with hands which—as is seen in the story's opening prison scene—are “soft, caressing, almost boneless hands of strange power—work of a beautiful design grew from those hands.” In her society this precious power has been wrenched to perform an atrocious act, but Dikeledi remains a tender, virtuous being. The two truths are reconcilable only within the bounds of Head's story, but that story also is typically a parable of good and evil, of the interwoven but by no means wholly “beautiful design.” Beauty is immanent and can be brought forth in unexpected places if only Head's storytelling art is heeded.

It is not until the last page of the closing story, “Hunting” (104–109), that Head describes Thato, a woman blessed with a caring husband “incapable of hurting life” and gifted, like herself, with the unerring heart of a good storyteller. This is Bessie Head's gift: one hopes that, like those of the grandmother in the pathetic story “The Wind and a Boy,” her stories might awaken “a great tenderness” (73). Frank but unsentimental appeals to the heart give the tales one voice: the key words are heart, love, tenderness, compassion, sensitivity, care—and power, a force for good and not only for evil. Of Mompati, the garrulous village shopkeeper in “The Village Saint,” we are told, “It mattered that some living being cared intensely and vividly and gloriously about his fellow men” (16). And if we believe in this man and this story, it is partly because in others Head does not shrink from the harsher truths: in a later selection a woman, almost driven mad by the “evil source” of witchcraft, recovers despite the prejudice and ignorance of her fellow villagers and becomes a bleak witness; “There is no one to help the people, not even God,” she says. “I could not sit down because I am too poor and there is no one else to feed my children” (56). There is also that most terrible yet most compassionate of her stories, “Looking for a Rain God.” In a time of doubt and desperation an old man is inspired by “an ancient memory … buried by years and years of prayer in a Christian church” of “a certain rain god who accepted only the sacrifice of the bodies of children.” While their elders struggle with this terrible memory and cure, the children play, mimicking the masterful ways of grown-ups: “You stupid thing! How could you have lost the money on the way to the shop! You must have been playing again!” The story continues, “after it was all over,” to narrate the horrified fellow villagers' suspicions; the killers are arrested and condemned for “ritual murder, … but all the people who lived off crops knew in their hearts that … they could have killed something to make the rain fall” (59–60). This, characteristically, is the voice of understanding, not condemnation.

However, while Head recognizes the two truths—or two sides—there is no moral ambivalence. This is seen most clearly in “Jacob: The Faith-Healing Priest,” where the narrator is a firm guide to values: “There is much to be said about the love and sharing to be found within tribal societies and much of this is true—but true too is Jacob's uncle,” who, since the children are not pure Botswana by birth, treats his orphaned nephews as “an inferior species.” So true are both he and Lebojang, the corrupt, faith-healing priest, that “Jacob” has the force of a parable of goodness more desired as an ideal than upheld as a living reality. There is, nevertheless, a seeming ambivalence toward “the people.” They are often shown as weak, credulous dupes of their society's evil power-brokers, but the evil is in them too. From story to story the viewpoint fluctuates: “People were never fooled by façades,” (13), yet they put faith in the corrupt Lebojang; “What was harmful to them they rejected” (37), but not before they have yielded all too willingly to its fascination; “Custom demanded that people care about each other” (43), but several stories portray the isolated individual, misunderstood and shunned, exposed to “the general dirt of the village” (100). Such contradictions, inherent in life itself, in the gap between “custom” and practice, the ideal and the reality, contribute to the sense these stories convey of a living struggle for true values and worthy action. Like Doris Lessing, who refuses in her African stories to treat white color prejudice as a unique white evil, Head seeks to combat “the atrophy in the imagination that prevents us from seeing ourselves in every creature that breathes under the sun.”9

The narrator's or, rather, storyteller's teaching never becomes abstract. Character and relationship are the stories' substance, steadily reinforced with organic imagery and description. Images of harmony and tenderness predominate: “a stream of holiness” (11), the lives of those who love “flow together”; “the bundles of neat tears” shed by Johanna, who finds joy at last as Prophet Jacob's wife (33); the “soft, caressing almost boneless hands of strange power” of Dikeledi (90). There is also the image from common life raised to poetic intensity, as in this passage on the link between the “good story-teller” Thato and her husband:

It had been such a new and intoxicating experience watching the tractor turn up the land; the perfume of the newly-wet earth arose and floated everywhere and the man's work was compact and professional, just the way he had been taught in the agricultural demonstration school he attended. By late afternoon he had ploughed up all their land. … By night, an unmoving image had haunted her dreams of a man's head turned sideways in fixed concentration as he closely watched the contours and furrows he created behind him. She had cried a little to herself; he had seemed a creature too far removed from her own humble life. There were so many women like her who could work and plough and life wasn't going to offer them any spectacular rewards.


This description, evoking an image of order and tranquillity, comes near the close of the collection; Thato herself, however, tells stories of the “incredible muddle and nonsense people made of their lives every day. … Nothing could sort out the world. It would always be a painful muddle” (107). In Bessie Head's telling there is pain enough, but it is pain relieved constantly by the clear light of a compassionate, understanding heart. In the moral confusion of the post-colonial, post-missionary period she is one of a precious few African writers who have restored to her people, through visionary candor, the “choice between what [is] good and what [is] evil.”10 Her stories merit the authority and force of that “law” or traditional custom which, she has said, “is written in the heart of the good.”11


  1. See A. Ravenscroft, “The Novels of Bessie Head,” in Aspects of South African Literature, C. Heywood, ed., London, Heinemann, 1976, pp. 174–86.

  2. Bessie Head, The Collector of Treasures, London, Heinemann, 1977, p. 85. Subsequent page references to this volume will be included in the text.

  3. Chinua Achebe, “The Novelist as Teacher,” in his Morning Yet on Creation Day, London, Heinemann, 1975, p. 44.

  4. Chinua Achebe, “The Role of a Writer in a New Nation,” Nigeria Magazine, 81 (June 1964), p. 158.

  5. Bessie Head, “A Power Struggle,” Bananas (London), 22 August 1980, pp. 23–24.

  6. One such “traditional historian” is the 104-year-old Ramosamo Kebonang, whom Head interviewed for Serowe, Village of the Rain Wind (London, Heinemann, 1981; see WLT 57:1, p. 160), her documentary account of the life and history of the Botswana village where she lives.

  7. Serowe, p. 95. Cf. Basil Davidson, The African Slave Trade, Boston, 1961, p. 30: “There is scarcely a modern African people without a more or less vivid tradition that speaks of movement from another place. Younger sons of paramount chiefs would hive off with their followers, and become paramount themselves in a new land.”

  8. Cf. Bessie Head, A Question of Power, London, Heinemann, 1974, p. 45: “How can a man be a man when he is called boy?” As John Mellors notes, the “feminist standpoint [which has been too heavily stressed in women's responses to her work] is tempered by ascribing the men's insensibility not to an inherent brutishness but to the effects of a colonialism which has left the male a broken wreck with no inner resources with which to adapt to his ‘new-found liberty’” (The Listener, 20 April 1978, p. 510).

  9. Doris Lessing, “Preface,” in her African Stories, New York, Ballantine, 1966, p. viii.

  10. From the ending of “A Power Struggle,” quoted earlier in this essay.

  11. Serowe, p. 83.

Ursula A. Barnett (essay date 1983)

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SOURCE: Barnett, Ursula A. “Short Stories.” In A Vision of Order: A Study of Black South African Literature in English (1914–1980), pp. 198–203. London: Sinclair Browne Ltd., 1983.

[In the following excerpt, Barnett explores the roles of religion and morality in The Collector of Treasures.]

Bessie Head, in a volume of short stories entitled The Collector of Treasures,1 is concerned with ideas similar to those in her novels. This time she makes use of incidents that have been related to her, and of Botswana history, legend and myth, as the basis for her fiction. She explores the meaning and values of traditional life and as usual goes right to the heart of everything that she examines. What is it for instance, she wants to know, that prevents a city-reared girl, significantly named ‘Life’2 in the story that takes its name from the character, from finding her niche in the village community? Or rather, why is it that the rest of the people do not find the everyday round of village life deadly dull—‘one big, gaping yawn’—in its unbroken monotony? The answer lies in contact between people:

… one day slipped easily into another, drawing water, stamping corn, cooking food. But within this there were enormous tugs and pulls between people. Custom demanded that people care about each other, and all day long there was this constant traffic of people in and out of each other's lives. Someone had to be buried; sympathy and help were demanded for this event—there were money loans, newborn babies, sorrow, trouble, gifts. Lesego had long been the king of this world; there was, every day, a long string of people, wanting something or wanting to give him something in gratitude for a past favour. It was the basic strength of village life. It created people whose sympathetic and emotional responses were always fully awakened, and it rewarded them by richly filling in a void …3

The help people give each other therefore brings meaning to a hard life. When Dikeledi, in the title story,4 who has killed her husband, is befriended by another inmate in prison and thanks her for all her kindness, the woman replies, with ‘her amused, cynical smile’: ‘We must help each other … This is a terrible world. There is only misery here.’5 The treasures that are collected by Dikeledi in this story—one towards which the other stories lead, as the author tells us, ‘in a carefully developed sequence’6—are ‘deep loves that had joined her heart to the heart of others.’7 Dikeledi (her name means ‘tears’) has had a hard life, her husband deserting her and her children and leaving her to support them by doing handicraft. After accusing her of infidelity with a neighbour, because he cannot understand friendship and compassion, and having led a debauched life himself, the husband returns to her. ‘Garesego's obscene thought processes,’ the author writes, ‘were his own undoing. He really believed that another man had a stake in his hen-pen and like any cock, his hair was up about it.’8 Dikeledi prepares his meal and bath and when he is asleep she takes a knife, cuts off his genitals and watches him bleed to death. The tragic story ends on a faint note of brightness in the flashback account of why Dikeledi went to prison. There is still the help and compassion of the community to be relied on. Her neighbour enters the hut:

He took in every detail and then he turned and looked at Dikeledi with such a tortured expression that for a time words failed him. At last he said: ‘You don't have to worry about the children, Mma-Banabothe. I'll take them as my own and give them all a secondary education.’9

Head subtitles the collection ‘Tales’ rather than stories and stresses the narrative note when she tells them. ‘People say,’ is how she ends the story ‘Jacob: The Story of a Faith-Healing Priest’10 when she tells about the soul of a man sentenced to death for ritual murder returning from the grave.

The tales are firmly based on Botswana soil. We see the fertile areas where the ‘people … are eating water-melon and fresh green mealies,’ and ‘from their lands … are about to harvest bags and bags of corn,’11 and others in the grip of devastating drought. Head is well acquainted with Botswana life and history. The first story in the collection, ‘The Deep River,’12 is subtitled ‘A Story of Ancient Tribal Migration’ and in a footnote the author tells us that it is a reconstruction in her own imagination of some historical data given to her by the old men of the tribe. Legend and myth, too, are worked into some of the stories. In the dialogue Head makes use of African proverbs and acknowledges an indebtedness to Professor C. L. S. Nyembezi's ‘beautiful’ interpretations of Zulu Proverbs (Witwatersrand University Press, 1954). For ‘those graphic paragraphs on the harvest thanksgiving ceremony which appear in the first story’ she acknowledges a Tswana school textbook in a footnote.13

With this background and within thirteen finely executed and gripping stories, Bessie Head once again explores the themes of good and evil, and the significance of religious belief, as she did in her novels. The outlines of right and wrong are still blurred. Can the girl Life be blamed for going back to promiscuity when she cannot fit into tribal life? Was her husband justified in killing her as his calmness seems to indicate and as even the judge seems to think when he gives him only five years? Dikeledi's murder of her husband and similar murders by her cell mates are accepted as inevitable by the other characters in the story, but is the husband entirely to blame for his evil ways? He too has suffered from a disorientation under the changing conditions in Botswana which Head describes. First there were the rigid and often uncompassionate traditional customs, then the evil system of the colonial days that separated families and kept them on the point of starvation, and then finally, the sudden huge increases in wages under independence. Head leaves these questions open for there is no ready answer.

Bessie Head has no time for the trappings and hypocrisies of religion, whether it is of the Christian or African kind. ‘Heaven is not Closed’14 is the title of one of the stories; it negates the words spoken by a missionary priest. “Heaven is closed to the unbeliever …,’ he says to a young girl, Galethebege, who tells him she wishes to get married but that the man she is to marry will do so only under Setswana custom. She is a devout member of the congregation but respects her man's devotion to his own religion. Her intention in approaching the missionary had been ‘to acquire his blessing for the marriage, as though a compromise of tenderness could be made between two traditions opposed to each other.’15 Instead, he excommunicates the girl.

Galethebege never gives up her belief in the Christian God. The story is told by an old man, her husband's brother, after her death at the age of ninety. ‘Today,’ he says to his grandchildren:

… it is not a matter of debate because the young care neither way about religion. But in that day, the expulsion of Galethebege from the Church was a matter of debate. It made the people of our village think. There was great indignation because both Galethebege and Ralokae (the husband) were much respected in the community. People then wanted to know how it was that Ralokae, who was an unbeliever, could have heaven closed to him? A number of people, including all the relatives who officiated at the wedding ceremony, then decided that if heaven was closed to Galethebege and Ralokae it might as well be closed to them too, so they all no longer attended church.

When the old man finished his tale his listeners:

… sighed the way people do when they have heard a particularly good story. As they stared at the fire they found themselves debating the matter in their minds, as their elders had done some forty or fifty years ago. Was heaven really closed to the unbeliever, Ralokae? Or had Christian custom been so intolerant of Setswana custom that it could not hear the holiness of Setswana custom? Wasn't there a place in heaven too for Setswana custom? Then the gust of astonished laughter shook them again. Galethebege had been very well-known in the village ward over the past five years for the supreme authority with which she had talked about God. Perhaps her simple and good heart had been terrified that the doors of heaven were indeed closed on Ralokae and she had been trying to open them.16

Religion, for Head, is significant only for the acts carried out in its name. What kind of God is it, the people in the village of Makateng want to know, who inflicts suffering on a good man like Jacob, the faith-healing priest. Jacob answers the question by saying that every time he hears the voice of God a great peace fills his heart. The people cannot understand this but ‘the way in which he expressed this relationship in deeds arrested the attention. Everything about him was very beautiful and simple and deeply sincere.’17 ‘Witchcraft,’ in a story of that title,18 is even more bitterly condemned as a disease and ‘one of the most potent evils in the society.’19 In ‘Jacob …’ and ‘Looking for a Rain God’20 Head expresses her horror at ritual murder and infanticide.

Bessie Head is therefore completely independent in her beliefs and will accept ideas only if she has tested them against her own values. She feels free of the bonds of both the Western and the African world and will accept neither blindly. She refuses to romanticise the African world. She cannot accept the lack of individual freedom of the early days, when men lived by the ‘traditions and taboos outlined by the forefathers of the tribe’21 without the option of assessing whether they were compassionate or not.

One of the ‘most bitter-making things’ in the lack of the ancestors' ‘attention to individual preferences and needs,’ the author says, was the way women were relegated to an inferior position in life, something from which they were still suffering today, in spite of the fact that with nothing to do during the dry season women often drifted to the church and acquired an education superior to that of the men. This Head tells us in the novel Question of Power, when she describes Mma-Millipede. In the same novel, we are told how Elizabeth's husband Dan exerts a mental stranglehold over her, the ‘supreme pervert’ ‘thrusting his soul’ into her ‘living body.’22 Head's ideal man is one like Makhaya, in the novel When Rain Clouds Gather, who asks his sisters to address him by his first name instead of the referential ‘Buti’ (Elder brother) and tells his mother when she protests: ‘Why should men be brought up with a false sense of superiority over women? People can respect me if they wish, but only if I earn it.’23 In the short story collection the treatment of women leads to tragedies such as that of Dikeledi in the title story. One of her cell-mates tells Dikeledi her own story:

‘Our men do not think that we need tenderness and care. You know, my husband used to kick me between the legs when he wanted that. I once aborted with a child, due to this treatment. I could see that there was no way to appeal to him if I felt ill, so I once said to him that if he liked he could keep some other woman as well because I couldn't manage to satisfy all his needs. Well, he was an education-officer and each year he used to suspend about seventeen male teachers for making school girls pregnant, but he used to do the same. The last time it happened the parents of the girl were very angry and came to report the matter to me. I told them: “You leave it to me. I have seen enough.” And so I killed him.’24

In the story ‘Life,’ another reason, besides boredom, why the girl cannot become accustomed to village life is that she cannot accept her husband's claim of ownership over her. In ‘The Special One,’ an elderly widowed school-teacher, Mrs Maleboge, loses a case against her brother-in-law who stole her inheritance because, as she tells everyone, ‘women are dogs in this society.’25 Her friend Gaenameltse, a lively young woman, loses her divorce case because the husband invokes an old tribal taboo against intercourse during menstruation to boost his image. ‘She was trying to kill her husband,’ a gossip tells the narrator. ‘Many women have killed men by sleeping with them during that time. It's a dangerous thing and against our custom. The woman will remain alive and the man will die.’26

As a craftsman, Bessie Head is unrivalled in South African fiction. She builds up her tale carefully by setting out the scene or making a statement, and then progressing to the particular incident. She does this especially successfully in ‘Jacob: The Story of a Faith-Healing Priest.’ The setting is a quiet prosperous village. Once the reader is thoroughly acquainted with the scene he learns why the village is so important:

Nor did the ordinary people of the country visit Makaleng because the people there were eating fresh green mealies in a drought year. Oh no, Makaleng village was famous in the hearts of ordinary people because it had two prophets.27

The author is always in control as she manipulates plot, incident, fact and character—and the smooth unlaboured prose in which she depicts them—to form a unified piece of art.


  1. Head, Bessie. The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales (Cape Town, David Philip, 1977).

  2. Head, ‘Life’ (The Collector of Treasures, p. 37–46).

  3. ibid, p. 43.

  4. ibid, p. 97–103.

  5. ibid, p. 91.

  6. ibid, inside front cover.

  7. ibid, p. 91.

  8. ibid, p. 101.

  9. ibid, p. 103.

  10. ibid, p. 19–36.

  11. ibid, p. 19.

  12. ibid, p. 1–6.

  13. ibid, acknowledgement page.

  14. ibid, p. 7–12.

  15. ibid, p. 10–11.

  16. ibid, p. 10.

  17. ibid, p. 25.

  18. ibid, p. 47–56.

  19. ibid, p. 47.

  20. ibid, p. 57–60.

  21. ibid, p. 9.

  22. Head, A Question of Power (London, Heinemann, 1974, p. 138).

  23. Head, When Rain Clouds Gather (London, Victor Gollancz, 1969, p. 16).

  24. Head, Collector, p. 89–90.

  25. ibid, p. 81.

  26. ibid, p. 84.

  27. ibid, p. 20.

Sara Chetin (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11217

SOURCE: Chetin, Sara. “Myth, Exile, and the Female Condition: Bessie Head's The Collector of Treasures.Journal of Commonwealth Literature 24, no. 1 (1989): 114–37.

[In the following essay, Chetin considers Head's concept of exile, feminist perspective, and use of myth in The Collector of Treasures.]

Although a little attention has been paid to Bessie Head's novels and the autobiographical elements that have shaped them, almost nothing has been written about how her concept of exile has influenced the way she perceives the art of oral storytelling. Interested in exploring the neglected realm of female experience, Head has recognized the importance myth plays in shaping human consciousness and has used the mythic apparatus in her anthology of short stories, The Collector of Treasures, to interpret women's exiled status and to create a prospective vision of a society where women would no longer suffer “from all the calamities that befall an inferior form of human life.” (Heinemann edition, London, 1977, p. 92).

Bessie Head's background has obviously influenced the way she perceives the narrative tradition of oral storytelling and the myths that have informed it. Born of mixed parentage in South Africa, raised primarily by white missionaries and self-exiled to Botswana, Head had no particular sense of belonging to a particular tribe or ethnic group. As a result, she is not only aware of her “outsider” status but self-consciously exploits this position in her art by deliberately distancing herself from the community whose tales she narrates so that her stories reveal a distinctly ambiguous, unresolved tone. Her intention is to reinforce not only her own outsider status but also her literate audience's “unknowingness,” an audience who is forced to search for a way to enlarge their vision of a world from which they are exiled. Head uses for her point of departure the framework of the traditional dilemma tale in which the audience is expected to debate the moral questions raised by the storyteller, but she not only involves the real audience but also a fictive or “knowing” audience who are part of the communal structure of her stories. Unlike other storytellers who do not openly acknowledge the fictive audience but allude to it by subtly pretending to remind their listeners of half-forgotten historical events, Head frequently fills in the gaps by giving some kind of historical comment so that the “unknowing” reader may situate the stories within a specific cultural context, thereby acknowledging their realistic viability. Yet this structural tension becomes even more complex when in some of Head's stories her own voice completely disappears or when she disconcertingly shifts her tone and narrative persona within the same story so that the “outsider” voice can no longer be heard. At times Head appears to purposely dissolve her own structural function and become part of the excluded audience, all the more aware of its limited vision. In the process, Head subtly leads her audience into the realm of myth where her characters become so stylized that no reader is allowed to identify with them—or even accept them as plausible—but must use his/her own imagination, as Head has done, to translate historical experiences into a larger symbolic context that questions the universal nature of existence. We must not only read her stories to learn about the experiences of her Botswana villagers and how their history has shaped their consciousness, but must also learn to use the mythic imagination to shape our own moral vision of a future where we will no longer remain “outsiders,” exiled from ourselves and each other.

The stories in The Collector of Treasures should be read in sequence, viewed not as separate tales of a fragmented universe but as tales with a definite ordered purpose encompassing a unified vision of a society undergoing social change. The opening story is the thematic model on which all the other stories are based. “The Deep River: A Story of Ancient Tribal Migration” basically recounts a conflict that developed within a tight-knit community that led to some of its people breaking away and migrating to an area which is now in Botswana. The tensions between “the face” of the whole group and the “individual faces” of its members are explored, as are Head's well known themes of corruptibility of power and the need for a more “tender and compassionate” world based on love. The fact that women are blamed for causing the conflict when in reality they have no power, “they are not allowed to know their own minds,” is another issue Head later explores in some of her other tales, varying the situation and historical settings so the dilemmas can be debated from all angles. In many ways, Head has constructed the first tale as an archetypal variation of man's Biblical expulsion from Paradise where women are held responsible for the exiled state of the human race. But she explores this concept from many angles in her subsequent stories which raise more questions than they resolve and thus call for a reappraisal of everything that has been taken for granted. Although Head's stories each intend to entertain and educate in the true tradition of oral storytelling, they also form a unified collection of treasures that question the very basis of myth around which all our lives are constructed.

The opening story also serves as a structural model from which the other stories flow. The “deep river” metaphor evokes a mythical world everyone can imagine but no one can journey to. A conflict has “ruffled the deep river” and all that remains is a “memory of [the] history” one aspires to recapture but time and distance make the journey a purely imaginary endeavour. In an unprecedented footnote to the story, Head has clarified that “some historical data was given to me by the old men of the tribe, but it was unreliable as their memories had tended to fail them” and therefore she has reconstructed “an entirely romanticized and fictionalized version of the Batolaote tribe.” (p. 6) Head, the outsider, cannot speak for a people but combining a few strands of their history with her one imaginative desire to explore that deep river, she speaks through them. She constructs her own myth in order to fill in the gaps of an innocent past. Thus, the purpose of her mythical construction has a wider symbolic significance than to merely reinforce the ethics of a particular community. Her ability to romanticize and free herself from the constraints of the original myth indicate that she sees myth as a vehicle for imaginatively exploring what is possible in the future. Head is attracted to the universality and timelessness myths in general have to offer and her tales seemed designed to consider the problematic aspects of human experience and why we have arrived at where we are today, excluded from a paradise we constantly search for but can never reach. Head's stories illuminate the paradoxes of good vs. evil, male/female relationships, power vs. love, and in setting herself up as mediator of these timeless conflicts, she is inviting her audience to participate in the ritual enactments of her myth. But she never lets herself or her audience get too involved to the point of forgetting they are outsiders, excluded from this world while at the same time are part of its reconstruction. Head's mythical context and shifting narrative persona evoke both a collective responsibility and an awareness of the impossibility of ever resolving the dilemma which can only be found in that lost history which the myth has come to symbolize. The myth is like the deep river whose only existence is in the power of our imaginations, but it is the only direction we can travel in if we don't want to remain in exile, condemned to wander aimlessly in search of this lost history.

Head begins “The Deep River …” with the storyteller's ritual words “long ago” and continues to speak of the deep river, thus situating both her audience and herself in a mythical space where “people lived without faces.” But conflict “ruffled the deep river” and what has emerged is not the memory of the “origins and original language” of the Talaote tribe but a memory of the movement from one face to individual faces, from the silence of the river to the language that gave it movement. The people of Monemapee, named after the chief “whose face was the face of all people” lived a life based on rituals and on an order no one appeared to question or ruffle, an order where no individual face emerged. This paradise remained intact, and the people, aware of the dangers of the hostile tribes that threatened them from the outside, only closed in on themselves, “like one face,” accepting the “regimental levelling down of their individual souls.” (p. 2) The language Head uses to describe the ritual of the corn harvest reinforces the ritual nature of myth, although an underlying tension seems to emerge which questions the very premise of this myth, this paradise that appears to lack soul. Head observes the ritual from a distance, respectfully but ambivalently, and it is only when she is able to question that myth of paradise that she takes the audience with her into an alive, real world where “the people awoke and showed their individual faces.”

After the opening sequence, the pace of the storyteller speeds up for the deep river paradise—slow, even and silent—now becomes full of “ripples.” Dialogue replaces the rituals and individual voices replace the silent face of the tribe. Head begins the section of this story with “Now,” a word that can be heard capturing the anticipation and enthusiasm of a storyteller who has much to share with her audience. The reader enters “a world where women were of no account” (p. 3) but where one man's love for a woman is splitting the tribe in two. The tensions between maintaining that one face or following the dictates of one's individual heart is characterized by Sebembele whose dilemma becomes the dilemma of the whole community. Beneath the even tempo of the distant paradise, secrets—hidden fears—have emerged that call into question the very nature of that paradise. Is a society justified—or even capable—of repressing individual needs and desires? Is the whole concept of paradise a myth that people cling to out of fear of taking responsibility for their own actions? Sebembele, trapped in his anguish, realizes he must leave the community for the security and goodness it once offered cannot outweigh his individual desire to follow his own soul. Sebembele's brothers' power struggle acts as a kind of catalyst that forces him to realize this paradise has nothing more to offer him: “Sebembele looked at them for a long moment. It was not hatred he felt but peace at last … His brothers were forcing him to leave the tribe.” (p. 5)

The people in the community recognized “they had a ruler who talked with deeds rather than words” (p. 6) and found that they were divided into two camps when they had “to offer up their individual faces to the face of this ruler.” One camp resisted the new face: “… it was too out-of-the-way and shocking … Theirs was not a tender, compassionate and romantic world. And yet in a way it was.” The other camp offered their love and support to Sebembele “even though he has shown himself to be a man with a weakness.” (p. 7) The irony is that Sebembele's “weakness” for love, for a woman is in fact his strength and the community's weakness. This “paradise,” unable to resolve the contradictions between its divine “laws” and human face falls apart—and all because of a woman. One is left with the feeling that what Sebembele and his followers leave behind will turn into a garden of evil ruled by his two corrupt brothers. Unlike the Christian myth, here the good choose to leave this “paradise,” hoping to find a real paradise that can accommodate their love and human desires.

As Head shifts her narrative in the last page of the story to the voice of an objective outsider, she captures the feelings of the old men who “keep on giving confused and contradictory accounts of their origins, but they say they lost their place of birth over a woman.” (p. 6) Yet she challenges their interpretation by her own imaginative reconstruction. Just as Eve was blamed for Adam's downfall and their expulsion from paradise, the old men are reinforcing the myth that “women have always caused a lot of trouble in this world.” Head questions this; she questions the lack of humanity men have for women and the myths that have shaped our identity. All that remains of the identity of the Talaote tribe is their name, meaning “all right, you can go.” The name has an ambiguous, open-ended tone—go where? how?—and can be heard echoing throughout Head's other stories. There seems to be a strong parallel between the way Head conceptualizes both language and myth: although necessary, they both define and restrict; yet, used imaginatively, they are capable of freeing and guiding individuals on their stormy journey beneath the deep river in search of particular truths. The old men, immobile and resentful, bemoan their fate and “shake their heads” in despair when they could be rejoicing that they have been given the freedom “to go”: by reinterpreting their past, they could find the impetus to redefine their future.

The rest of the stories in the collection are all variations on the archetypal myth described in the first tale, and the reader follows the ancient patterns of migration in an attempt to uncover a real paradise that can accommodate an exiled wanderer's vision. Although Head doesn't concentrate on only the female condition, most of her stories involve some kind of comment on the issue raised in the first story—that women are not allowed to know their own minds but (or because of this) are responsible for causing “a lot of trouble in this world.” The stories function in different groups, working around similar themes, and in the title story of the anthology, “The Collector of Treasures,” Head ties up many of the individual strands, only to pose more dilemmas about the human condition. Yet out of the tensions that the dilemmas create, Head is constantly able to envision a type of moral utopia, the new paradise, based on love and complementary sexual roles as the destination the migrators seek, as destination that resembles an oasis amidst the barren wasteland her characters are travelling through.

Whereas the first story witnesses the expulsion from paradise, the second story recounts one woman's attempts to re-enter it. “Heaven Is Not Closed” is like an extension of the first model where individuals, denied that mythical home, search for ways of repossessing it. Although the historical setting differs from the first tale—in this story people are placed in the colonial era where Christianity is slowly eroding the indigenous religion—Head still relies heavily on the myth where exiled individuals never stop trying to open “the doors of heaven” that have been closed on them. Head's choice of a woman to illustrate the myth is an appropriate extension of the first story. Although women have been said not “to know their own minds,” Galethebege in this story is a beautiful example of one woman who does know her own mind but ironically is denied that responsibility until her death. The “simple and good heart” of the woman is not enough to combat the dual patriarchal institutions of religions and marriage, and Galethebege dies carrying the burden of all human suffering while symbolizing the hope for redeeming the human race. Head does not cast her in the Eve stereotype, as “one who has caused a lot of trouble in this world” but as a victim of a society where women were not allowed to question their “station in life” nor “to be involved in controversy and protest.” (p. 11) Although Galethebege accepts both the dictates of her husband and the church, she dies “a magnificent death” following the dictates of her heart that had been suppressed for so long. Head explores how an individual's inner sense of integrity and beliefs are often at odds with the society's rules which impose a conformity on the community and stifle individual self-fulfilment.

The questions that arise from the tension between “what is” and “what could be”—between the real and the ideal—form the basis of this dilemma tale that sees the old man rekindling “the dying fire” of the continuity between generations and sparking the minds of the young to debate their historical condition. Head uses fragments of reality to reconstruct myth on both the thematic and structural levels. “Heaven Is Not Closed” is like “a tale within a tale” where Head, the outsider uses the old man, Modise, to reconstruct the myth of Galethebege's search for redemption as a means of redeeming the art of oral storytelling. She starts the story from the omniscient narrator's point of view, recounting the “magnificent death” of the saintly Galethebege who everyone in the village loved and respected. Then Head goes back to explain how Galethebege achieved this holy position, but she does this through Modise as he is the only one of the villagers who holds the insider's key that would unlock the truth behind the significance of Galethebege's death. Through his gestures and tone of voice, he becomes the storyteller with something exciting to offer, like the narrator in the first tale. Modise was the only one who “observed, with great practicality that Galethebege was not in the correct position for death.” As the wise old man, he gives both comfort and satisfaction to his specific audience but also wants to unsettle them by making them aware of the gaps in their history which can only be filled with imaginary speculation. As the insiders of the community “found themselves debating the matter in their minds,” their “gusts of astonished laughter” (p. 12) establish an atmosphere of knowing and sharing from which Head and her audience are excluded. Their joy perhaps reflects what is inherently familiar to them and is an affirmation of what lies in their collective unconscious memory. They have discovered the ability to believe in themselves again and this only reinforces the inadequacy of the outsider's own perceptions.

Modise speaks of the historical conflict between the two religions and exposes the vulnerability of the community that started falling apart not because of a woman but because of a belief that would not accept “a tender compromise.” Galethebege “had been born good” and her choice of sharing “the final secret of life” with her Christian God reveals she, like Sebembele, is searching for a paradise based on values that do not exclude and exile. But Head is also showing that whereas Sebembele had the option to leave the tribe, Galethebege as a woman has no such choice to leave. Yet, the story suggests, through Modise's praise and the children's laughter, that this forced compromise was beneficial to the tribe whose dying fires have been rekindled and to Galethebege herself who dies a saintly death, guiding her people to that mythical paradise.

Although “Heaven Is Not Closed” actually celebrates custom and community whereas “The Deep River …” does not, Head is not interested in the apparent discrepancy but rather wants to develop her dialectic between the individual faces and the supportive collective structure. They need not be mutually exclusive as the theme of the inevitability of romantic love which runs through both stories symbolizes. The need for compassion, love and tolerance represent the continuity that unifies the two stories in which both a man and a woman are seen to know their own minds. Head not only illustrates a complementary view of male and female experience but searches for a reconciliation of opposing forces that should not separate people but bring them closer together.

The third story in the anthology, “The Village Saint,” resembles a cautionary tale that illuminates the dangers involved when both language and myth remain unchallenged and static. Unlike the two previous tales whose saints, inherently inward looking and motivated by love, attempted to transcend the limitations of their communities, the ironic village saint in this story is in search of nothing except her material comfort. To achieve that, she fools her community with her glib language and exploits her own family with a power that is as corrupt as it is false. But what is interesting about this story is the way it is told and the questions it raises about the way myths not only define but can also, as with the old men of the first story, imprison people in their own illusions.

The narrative persona in “The Village Saint” is entirely that of an insider of the community. The confidence and communal assurance in the opening paragraph betrays a voice that does not resemble the outsider's honesty and ambiguity in the two previous stories. The narrator speaks with pride of the fact that “people were never fooled by facades” and goes on to explain how the village lost its patron saint, Mma-Mompati. Yet the voice never questions why the villagers were deceived for so long and Head has joined the audience's ironic reading of the villagers and counterbalances the insider's subjective acceptance of the myth that “was so long and so austere and holy that it was written into the very stones and earth of village life.” (p. 13) with an objective outsider's distrust. In many ways this story involves the problems involved in reading Head's complex tales: only by determining where the author is can the audience begin to make sense of what she is trying to say. The villagers in this tale, like the old men in the first tale who saw their past as a closed universe, become victims of their own illusions precisely because they are not inward looking, self-critical or objective. This does not mean that Head does not empathise with them, but she is critical of their limitations and the duplicitous role they play in Mma-Mompati's exile.

Both the language the narrator uses and the symbolic way language is defined in the story illustrates Head's intention to question the whole “one face” of the storyteller. When describing the birth of Mompati the narrator claims “as most people know” and continues to assume throughout the story that the audience shares the villagers insights, perceptions and values. But this makes the literate audience all the more aware of its distance from the oral tradition. And this distance, ironically, is what is needed to supercede the static, ritualized framework of myth. To the village narrator, there is no dilemma that needs debating—Mma-Mompati was lost “despite (their) acute insight into human nature”; to the outsider there is a dilemma that encompasses the fundamental debate of how we judge ourselves and others and form our moral vision of the world.

The narrator in this tale is as unreliable as a village gossip. The pretence of knowing and understanding everything is suspicious enough, but the ease, suddenness and viciousness with which the villagers turn against Mma-Mompati reveals an imbalanced, exaggerated judgement of her. The saintliness of Mma-Mompati was constructed around her ability to use language: “She had a professional smile and a professional frown of concern for everything, just like the priests. But topping it all was the fluidity and ease with which she could pray” (p. 14–15). They continue to rally around this “wronged woman” when her husband walks out on her, preferring love to a false divinity, and they resemble the villagers in the first story who choose not to join Sebembele on his journey. But there is no debate in this story about love: only one voice which presumes, quite confidently, that there are no other sides to the story.

The villagers' respect for Mma-Mompati soars when she impresses the court during her divorce proceedings with her convincing language: “The whole village memorized her great court oration because she repeated it so often thereafter.” Language resembles a repetitive ritual that draws its strength from its form which impresses and not its content which here seems irrelevant. The villagers turn quite suddenly against Mma-Mompati when Mary Pule, her younger counterpart, beats her at her own power-hungry game involving deception and deceit. The villagers, desecrating the myth of Mma-Mompati's saintliness, end up facilely erecting another myth of her unsaintliness, unaware that this myth is equally unreliable given that the language which shaped it has not changed its essence. Mma-Mompati still continues, now as a woman and not as a saint, to bury the dead and pray for the sick as Mary Pule's facade, “that concealed a tenacious will,” remains intact. She has replaced Mma-Mompati as the dominating and manipulative force in Mompati's life.

Perhaps the character of Mompati can illuminate the villagers' own inability to find a language that is not empty or deceptive and can explain why the villagers remain loyal and supportive of him throughout his life. In an unconscious way, the villagers appear to identity with Mompati: he represents the face of the community—on the surface, the possessor of a commanding voice yet under this facade, the blind victim of his own vulnerability. Is this not the way the reader comes to see the storyteller and the villagers in general? The over-confident narrator is untrustworthy and cannot be accepted at face value just as Mompati himself appears suspect: a storekeeper with no goods, a defender of causes but really a victim of others' strategies, a man whose “poor blood” implied he could discard his mother as easily as she had used him against his father, a speaker of “wisdom” whose words were no more than empty proverbs and ridiculous wishes. A weak, helpless man who preferred words to deeds—to Head, a fatal flaw—Mompati symbolizes the face of the community, impressed with the sound of language and oblivious to its limitations. The “deep booming bass” of Mompati contrasts to Mary Pule's “plaintive, tremulous voice” and both extremes mask the reality of what lies behind the image of the voice. Unable to see behind these facades and arrive at a balanced, objective appraisal of their shortcomings, the villagers will remain in the stagnant water, unable to reach the deep river of their imaginations that would end the cycle of deceit and corruption.

In the final analysis, however, the audience is left with compassion—unintended by the storyteller—for both Mma-Mompati whose final deeds and not words cannot be harshly condemned and for her husband whose different kind of exiled state reveals his strength and the villagers' narrowness. The storyteller, unconsciously and ironically, is cautioning outsiders about the insiders' own vulnerability if their world remains insular and self-complacent. “The Village Saint” is obviously not a tale about women and their “vampire-like” ability to manipulate and control language but is intended as an allegory about the tension between subjective responses and objective reflections and their interrelationship with the powerful weapon of language which can both blind and enlighten.

Head continues to use the allegorical structure in her parable “Jacob: The Story of a Faith-Healing Priest.” The character of Mma-Mompati is replaced by the evil prophet Legojang who exploits people's good faith to make money for himself, but when his deeds are discovered, he is killed and returns in his death to warn others of his suffering and guilt. Perhaps like Mma-Mompati who continues to pray for the sick, Head also gives Lebojang a chance to redeem himself, indicating that evil can overcome through good deeds. In many ways, Lebojang ends up a symbol to proselytize what saintliness is not: “Once his other deeds became known people were to ponder deeply on the nature of evil.” (p. 28) This idea is further enacted through the character of Jacob who, “born to suffer, experience suffering to its abysmal depths” (p. 24) in his daily life, was able to transcend all the evil that plagued him by supplanting, as his name indicates in Christian mythology, good deeds initiated by the god with whom he communicates. Like the Christian Jacob, Head's Jacob has an invisible ladder in which the “Voice of his God” descends to give him the faith to heal the suffering of the world. His goodness is complemented by Johannah, the woman who opens up “a whole new world of learning and living” for him by balancing his spiritual saintliness with an earthly holiness, thus enabling the mother and father symbol to lead the exiled children to the Promised Land.

This satisfying story raises the moral dilemmas outlined in the previous tales and gives another version of the individual's attempts to regain that lost paradise. In fact, the way Head opens the story with a description of “the sleepy village of Makaleng” seems to indicate that perhaps the paradise already exists but people are incapable—or unwilling—to recognize what lies at their doorstep: “Makaleng was one of those far-away wonders of the world which people sometimes visited but never thought of inhabiting …” (p. 19) It is like an oasis amidst the drought-stricken landscape that exists in the “far-away” terrain of the imagination. Makaleng resembles a mythic paradise complete with a river that both “flowed in torrents” and “shimmered like mercury.” Unlike the “one face” of the river in the first story, this river is composed of many “individual faces” that gives the village a soul composed of both good and bad elements, like the river that cuts the village in half and the seasons that influence life's tempo. Head appears to be taking the myth of paradise apart again and questioning how it functions in our imaginations. In this story, it is not necessarily the journey that is so important but what we do with the “far-away wonder” when we come within its reach. We approach it cautiously, aware of its miraculous “summer grass” but like the children unable to enter the foreboding garden with the “ferocious vampire-fly,” we know the pain that lies in store if we inhabit the realm of our imaginative powers. So we visit it, exiled to a knowledge that we are outsiders although we are still drawn to the prophetic truths our imaginations are capable of creating. Perhaps to Head, the tragedy—and beauty—of the human imagination is that it does not seek nourishment but suffers and thus “unconsciously creat(es) legends about … saintliness.” (p. 22) Makaleng did not intrigue its neighbours because of its rich soil but “was famous in the hearts of ordinary people because it had two prophets.” (p. 20)

The two prophets obviously represent the opposing forces of good and evil present in our own minds which are in turn projected onto the society we have created. Head describes the prophets as inhabiting the “sunrise” and “sunset” parts of the village, aware of the others' existence but as incompatible—and symbiotic—as despair and hope, selfishness and generosity, truth and falsehood. In Head's moral utopia, the sheer faith of believing in one's inner strengths to heal is enough to destroy the evil that eats away at one's sanity. Through Jacob's nights of “persecution and torture” and with the “sacrifice” of his brother, Isaac, his God appears “to take care” of him. But Head notes: “it was never quite clear to those who loved Prophet Jacob just who his God was … in moments of inspiration, appeared to be the width and depth of his own experience and suffering …” (p. 21)

After establishing Jacob's past life and telling how he got to his present state, Head shifts her narrative voice to the old man himself. The audience is suddenly forced to remember that it is Jacob's story, not Head's:

Jacob is old now. He related these experiences of his childhood without bitterness. He will tell you that his uncle, as though prompted by a subconscious guilt, sent him and his brother to the night school of Makaleng village together with all the small cattle-herding boys … he even remembers the way they were taught to sing the alphabet and clap their hands.

(p. 24)

At this point Head seems to be questioning her own imaginative reconstruction of the parable while at the same time questioning Jacob's perceptions:

There is a point in his story when you begin to doubt Jacob's sanity and that of his God. Somehow you don't doubt his adult experiences and his conversations with God, but you doubt cruelty and stress placed on a young and helpless child …

(p. 25)

As the old man recounts how the voice of God spoke to him, Head and her audience “lean forward” and question what God has actually given him. The questions are left purposely unresolved for “to an outsider there never seemed much coherence in what was going on between Jacob and his God. But the way in which he expressed this relationship in deeds arrested the attention. Everything about him was very beautiful and simple and deeply sincere. He had too, one of the oddest churches in the whole wide world.” (p. 25) By reinforcing both her own and her audience's outsider status, Head is pushing the audience to examine their own values in relation to the old man's. It is not the failure of our own imaginations that “what was going on between Jacob and his God” seems incoherent? Is his beauty, sincerity and simplicity so much divorced from our own reality that we can only doubt Jacob's sanity? To Head, we have lost that ability to heal ourselves and thus are exiled from Makaleng, able to visit it in legend but like the neighbouring villagers suffering from drought and hunger, it has never occurred to us to inhabit it permanently, perhaps more afraid of Lebojang's sores than Jacob's faith-healing powers.

The innocent children are the first ones able to enter Jacob's paradise. At the beginning of the story Head pits them against the forces of evil by recounting how they, unlike their stupid cattle, were aware of that evil enclosure that held terror and suffering. The knowledge but not the experience of evil made them the perfect inhabitants of Jacob's world where joy and sharing were “the only goodness there.” Unlike the adults who associated money with Lebojang's “stunning powers” but were unable to see how their blood was being sucked, the children's untarnished minds led them easily into Jacob's yard where the “vampire-fly” held no threat. The outside narrator at this stage finds it all quite unlikely although “no one seemed to question the uniqueness of this” as the children showed up promptly for his sermons, “not that they comprehend anything.” (p. 29) Gradually the poor and those who suffered the most saw their only hope lay with Jacob's own stunning powers—a healing power that demanded nothing except “an exchange of gifts” and a love for good deeds. The “family” only become complete when the “real woman” Johannah comes to provide the practical and traditional awareness needed to balance and complement Jacob's spiritual consciousness: “I am a real woman and as the saying goes the children of a real woman do no get lean or die.” (p. 39) But this perfect relationship is even too much for the villagers to bear and they “rub their eyes in disbelief and doubt their sanity.” Again, Head uses her audience to represent both the “knowing” insiders who witness the events and the “unknowing” audience who can only be sceptical. As outsiders, we are excluded from participating in the idyllic world that Jacob and Johannah have created, this paradise that appears open only to those who have the imaginative strength of the children who are not tempted to enter the vampire-fly's “dark jungle of stalks and leaves.”

But the story doesn't end like a romantic fairy tale. Lebojang's spirit comes back to haunt the villagers and remind them of their sins. In order to appreciate the depth of Jacob's saintliness and what he had to offer, the villagers are confronted with Lebojang's memory—a memory that is meant to both warn and appease. Head remains the outsider but gives some clues as to why Makaleng continues to remain a “far-away wonder”:

People say the soul of Lebojang returned from the grave. At night it kept on knocking on the doors of all the people to whom he had sold potions. Some of these … fled. Some went insane. Some people also say that Lebojang's soul is like Lazarus. Lebojang only wanted to tell the people whom he awoke at night—his fellow ritual murderers—to desist from taking the lives of people because of the agony he was suffering now.

(p. 36)

The “conscience” that controls the evil that exists in our imaginations is enough to make us flee from ourselves or go insane in defeat. But like Lazarus that Jesus raised from the dead with his faith-healing powers. Lebojang becomes a symbol of redemption and hope: mirroring the sores Lazarus had to sustain, Lebojang renounces his sins for the guilt and suffering are too much for his conscience to bear. The faith-healing priest inhabits the distant Makaleng, a mythical paradise that Head has visited in order to reconstruct the memory that lies within reach of the imagination, a memory plagued with both good and evil as with a conscience that is unable to find peace. Head is unable to stay: she continues her journey for there are still other sides to this paradise that must be explored before the exiled can find a home.

The rest of the stories in the anthology are still variations on the mythical journey metaphor outlined in the opening tale except they occupy the much more historically visible terrain of the late colonial and political Independence era and illustrate the devastating effects on an already uprooted people. The underlying tone of pessimism which pervades most of these stories is counterbalanced by Head's utopian vision, although at times no mythical paradise seems powerful enough to combat the spiritual poverty of a reality where individuals are suffering “from a kind of death-in-life.” The following brief analysis will continue to show how Head's themes and forms are intertwined as we witness the gradual move from the male narrators in the opening stories to female voices which attempt to communicate women's responses to their historical condition, a communication made rich because of the female “gift to sift and sort out all the calamities of everyday life with the unerring heart of a good story-teller.” (p. 108)

The story “Life” marks an interesting departure from the way Head has used the allegorical structure in her previous tales. The audience becomes unsettled to discover that the visible Head landmarks of good vs. evil, Life vs. Death are obscured as the tension between the realistic and allegorical modes never resolves itself. Head is not only resisting the readers attempts to ritualize and categorize her art, but aims to convey that peoples' attempts to create a simple and single-minded view of experience and language are inadequate and only obscure the complexity of life in general.

Head begins the story with an objective historical appraisal of Botswana on the verge of independence and describes how people attempted to “absorb” and “reject” from the outside what was useful and harmful to them. She sets up the allegory of a simple life and then undermines it by showing how “the murder of Life had this complicated undertone of rejection.” (p. 37) By using the women of the community to narrate the story, women who “continued to stand by her” until they could no longer follow Life “to those dizzy heights,” Head is commenting on peoples' desire to resolve and understand life's problems which they never seem capable of doing. Everyone had their own simple language which exposed the narrowness of their vision: Life had her motto “live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse”; the men had their “king” Lesego who passed judgement “on all aspects of life in his straightforward and uncomplicated way” and was supported by the white judge with his ready-made formula, “a crime of passion”; and the beer-drinking women, with “a language all their own,” had only the words of an imported Jim Reeves song to express the loss of their faith-healing powers.

Yet the inside female narrators become aware of their own vulnerability in the face of the tyrannical male power structure which distinguishes them from the insider narrators of “The Village Saint.” Although the women acknowledge the strength of the community with its enormous “tugs and pulls” and try to help Life cope, they realize that what they can do as women is limited as their sorrowful song “When Two Worlds Collide” ominously alludes to continuing injustices against people in which women seem to be the primary victims.

The two incompatible worlds do not merely suggest the Life/life and Lesego/death dichotomy for like the tension between the individual faces and the face of the whole community, both worlds contain desirable and undesirable elements and are not mutually exclusive. Life possessed the desire to live fully but lacked the “mental equipment” to look into her own world and foresee the implications of her attraction to “the power and maleness of gangsters” that Lesego embodied. Life is like an aimless wanderer who lost sight of her destination before Death snatched her soul. Exiled from the “one face” when young when her parents went in search of the false paradise in Johannesburg, having no memory of a past and nothing but a desolate house and a weed entangled garden to return to, Life can articulate her colonized mentality throughout the only language she knows: the language of money. An inevitably ruined paradise, a reified language and an inability to look inside her own soul leave Life occupying the barren reality of an existence with no deep river to guide her. The colonized victim, ordered to return home pending “Independence,” has lost sight of her own history and symbolizes the mentality of a people robbed of all hope. And when Life meets Lesego, “one evening death walked quietly into the bar” (p. 41), the narrator prepares the audience for the “fatal conclusions.” Lesego found himself drawn to life because of “that undertone of hysteria in her.” He wanted to subdue, control and triumph over an essentially threatening force in his own life which would destroy his power, male ego and reputation. Although his friend, Sianana, tells him “You could have walked away …” (p. 46) Lesego only contributes to “this mess and foolishness” because his “clarity and quiet indifference of thinking” lacks compassion and a vision where violence would not be seen as a solution to resolving life's complex tensions.

The outside narrator's voice returns at the end of the story to pose: “Maybe (the beer-drinking women) had the last word on the whole affair.” Although the women appear fatalistic and are only able to mourn their powerlessness in the face of the world's turmoil, their story of “Life” implicitly suggests their desire to find their own language to describe what could go right when “two worlds collide.”

The next two stories are concerned with the most evil, destructive parts of a mythical heritage, that of witchcraft and child sacrifice. Both stories are set in the time right around independence but they depict the most desperate, confused aspects of communities who are anything but free from the political and physical reality of the time as well as from the self-destructive power that exists in a corner of the collective psyche. Despite the strength people have drawn from their mythical pasts, Head continues to show how past memories can distort the present and hinder the journey to the mythical paradise where that corner of evil, like Lebojang's spirit, can only warn but cannot control.

“Witchcraft” depicts one woman's lone battle against “one of the most potent evils in society” and her fierce determination to resist an unconscious self-destructiveness that resulted from her exiled status within the community. Like most of Head's stories, “Witchcraft,” weaves the personal with the political, realism with allegory and illustrates the relationship between an individual's perception of good and evil and the actual reality of these two forces. If the dream, the will to imagine “goodness” is absent, then the spiritual poverty of people's daily lives seems eventually to catch up with them. But if an individual is able to construct an imaginary ideal and keep that as a constant moral guide, then the individual will develop a stronger inner strength that makes the nagging evil easier to control. Jacob, Galethebege and now Mma-Mabele in “Witchcraft” all possess that complex vision that contrasts to the simplicity of their daily lives. It seems when Head is describing the most extreme and fantastical elements of good and evil, her stories are demanding to be read as parables where her “outsider” voice does not disappear but aims to ensure her audience doesn't become lost or mistrusting as it did with “The Village Saint” or feel despairing as it did with “Life.”

After establishing the “lingering and malignant ailment” of witchcraft which has come to have no identifiable power source since the breakdown of the traditional kinship network, Head introduces “the face” of the community which is insensitive to individual pain and values women only by “their ability to have sex.” Mma-Mabele, named after the benevolent corn mother, is not immune to the ostracism she suffers having been labelled “the he-man” despite her insight “to observe that life was all wrong …” (p. 49)

The reader enters Mma-Mabele's nightmarish journey “of gloomy pain and brooding” reminiscent of Elizabeth's breakdown in A Question of Power. Mma-Mabele suffers like Jacob except in this story, Head shows us the depth of her suffering by actually describing the physical experience. In “Jacob …” she outrightly acknowledges her audience's disbelief that anyone could be “so good” yet suffer so much, alluding to the limitations of the audience's own imagination. But in “Witchcraft” we don't have to question Mma-Mabele's sanity. Her distorted inner reality is only a reflection of the distorted and grotesque values in the outside world against which she is reacting. We cannot doubt her vision for there is no measure which gauges the limits of the imagination's power. Without understanding the full extent of the nightmarish vision, we will not be able to believe in the necessity of the other vision, just as extreme but the only alternative for survival. Mma-Mabele was either going to wither away and succumb to her own fearful powers, or use that power against the tyranny of centuries to affirm that she has the right—and the ability—to believe in her own faith-healing strengths. At the end of the story, Mma-Mabele realises that one must only have faith in oneself for not even her benevolent God, an abstract concept, can help abolish the fear of life and create that will and determination needed to feed her children, the concrete source of a mother's commitment to survival, as her name-sake testifies.

Whereas “Witchcraft” illustrates the power to resist the evil found in the collective unconscious, “Looking for a Rain God” tragically shows what happens when the “deep river” dries up and individuals lose their way “on their journey to their own lands.” Of course the story painfully describes how drought threatens physical survival and provokes individuals into acts of desperation, but the intensity of the nightmarish descent into depravity and the language which shapes this experience evoke Mma-Mabele's “unreal” world where her perceptions of good and evil take precedent over the reality.

The family in the story leave the village in search of nourishment, like Sebembele's journey, but this family's hope is short-lived because the silence of the cruel sun has killed off the movement of the imagination that is sustained by the deep river. The evil from “an ancient memory” surfaces in the old man Mokgobja's fragile psyche to destroy humanity, embodied in the children, “happy in their little girl world,” innocent and ever so vulnerable.

The storyteller who narrates the incident is obviously an insider who poignantly empathises with the family's fate for “all the people who lived off crops knew in their hearts that only a hair's breadth had saved them from sharing a fate similar to that of the Mokgobja family. They could have killed someone to make the rain fall.” (p. 60) The voice also takes for granted that “it was really the two women who caused the death of the little girls.” (p. 59) Head is provoking the reader's ambivalence: although sharing the narrator's compassion and sense of tragedy, one can only condemn how the people failed themselves. Perhaps at the end of the story, Head is subtly implying that “strain and starvation and breakdown” will remain unacknowledged and “inadmissible” until people are able to counterbalance these kinds of evil with an undistorted vision that does not accept “killing” as the only means of rescuing their parched souls.

In contrast to the sordid, hellish world described in “Looking for a Rain God,” the next tale, “Kgotla,” embodies “a holy world,” a kind of paradise where people go “to discuss around them, to pontificate, to generalize, to display wit, wisdom, wealth of experience or depth of thought.” (p. 62) The helpless old Makgobja with his evil “ancient memories” is replaced by two saint-like old men who reveal the goodness of “time immemorial.” And the blame directed at women for all the world's problems is now magically transformed into praise for how they have helped to solve them. The story captures the beauty of the oral dilemma tale's function, both through its content and by its structure in which the kgotla represents the terrain where all of Head's stories must be assessed. The kgotla also resembles Jacob's Makaleng, one of those “far-away wonders” but a place that is now not merely visited but inhabited by people who realize that “the finest things often come from far-off places …” The distant ideal has been incorporated into the men's way of acting where “it was not so important to resolve human problems” (p. 62) than to recognize “There is no peace anywhere, either for those who have eyes and for those who have not.” (p. 67) This insight does not provoke despair but rather faith that one's responsibility in life is to help others and by embarking on this journey, one will ironically be brought back to one's own doorstep.

But there is a subtle hint of destructive elements that constantly threaten the balanced peace, elements both eternal and internal to the village. Perhaps the encroaching indifferent bureaucracy is not as threatening as the insiders' own blindness which is potentially more disruptive to the kgotla's human face. But the old men's philosophical approach seems to counterbalance the age-old jealousy, greed, mistrust, and venomous tongues: “it was all of the same pattern, repeating itself from generation unto generation.” (p. 62) The old men listen to all sides, consider things carefully and speak with wisdom, confident of both the sounds of their own voices as well as of the language they use. They make an outsider's objective assessment of insiders' subjective responses, aware of the need to create peace among people is a form of commitment of peace to themselves. By emphasizing the audience's outsider status throughout her tales, Head has put the reader in a role similar to the one the old men play in “Kgotla.” And they have understood that instead of exiling women, they should be brought home—rather than causing “a lot of trouble in this world” women can appear, given the chance, as part of the world's solution.

The enchanting, magical world of children who bring joy and laughter to communities is the subject of “The Wind and The Boy” where Friedman “had a long wind blowing for him” and “an odd musical lilt to his speech. But the villagers' laughter of recognition turns to tears of incomprehension when the boy's long wind is tamed by “progress.” This “odd musical” story alludes to Defoe's Robinson Crusoe but instead of the “Freed-man” being a master of technology, the African Robinson Crusoe (man Friday?) is destroyed by it, perhaps signalling the mortality of the “timeless, sleepy village” and the futility of trying to outwit it, although “it was discussed thoroughly from all sides until it was understood.” (p. 75)

What is striking about this story is the relationship the boy had to his grandmother, Sejosenye, who fed him with stories inspired by the western Robinson Crusoe but seasoned with her own individual imaginative flavour. As she makes up “a story on the spot,” the voice of the female storyteller replaces the male storytellers Modise and Jacob, and she succeeds in sparking off her audience's—Friedman's—imagination by awakening the tough little boy's tenderness and sensitivity. She invents the inner hunting ground of Robinson Crusoe's paradise where brave loners accomplished heroic deeds, but when Friedman enters this jungle, he is killed off by the ferocious vampire fly … Is Head warning of the dangers involved when western models are transplanted on African soil, models that celebrate a kind of individualism that undermines the community's identity? Yet both Sejosenye's stories and the villagers' treatment of Friedman were responsible for feeding his sense of specialness, thus exposing their own ambiguity to the “one face.” The storyteller's tales end as the old woman dies talking and laughing to herself, her audience having become a victim of its own susceptibility.

Although the female storyteller seems well established in the remaining tales which describe the effects of the breakdown of family life on women, the inside narrators can still be as blind and as unreliable as they were in “The Village Saint.” In “Snapshots at a Wedding,” the village narrator asserts “no one is fooled by human nature” and implies, indirectly, that despite their ability “to keep up with” changing times, educating females does more harm than good. The narrator accepts, through the gentle and respected bridegroom, Kegoletile, that one should marry “women who were big money-earners” and that “it didn't pay to look to closely into his heart.” (p. 78) Kegoletile is about to marry Neo, “a new kind of girl with false postures and acquired grand-madame ways,” although he loved the traditional, humble Mathata. The villagers never question their own contradictory attitudes to money and status, a by-product of colonial education, but channel their malaise into an over zealous attachment to traditional ways, their defensiveness exposing their own vulnerability to change. As outsiders we can't trust the villagers' hostility to Neo, just as we couldn't trust the viciousness directed at Mma-Mompati in “The Village Saint,” and perhaps end up feeling a little sorry for the young bride, exiled as much by traditional insecurities as by her education, an education that could not reconcile itself to a society's disregard of women.

These attitudes are exposed in a series of “snapshots starting with the opening frame that captures the gentle, unreal-like quality of the ritual wedding preparation that has remained unchanged for centuries.” The picture is “distorted,” having a “fluid, watery form” almost like it is not fully developed. Slowly “a modern wedding” comes into focus that reveals, beneath the orderly ritual facade, a village in a state of anomie. After a series of individual “fixed” poses, out of the deceptively even tempo of the ritual ceremony comes a spark of life, a spontaneous gesture that gives both an ironic significance to the wedding and underlies the very ambiguity of what being a “wife” in changing times actually entails. The “majestic, regal” aunt who clenches her fist and pounds the ground gives her seal of approval by acknowledging the bride and attempting to reinstate her into the traditional folds of the community. But the very violence of her order: “Be a good wife! Be a good wife!” reveals the inherent precariousness of the concept. This precariousness is rooted in the realization that the old ways are not longer inevitable and as the story ends, the audience is left with the final snapshot, a blurred, over-exposed picture, distorted by its own vulnerability.

Head's intention in shifting her narrative persona between “knowing” insiders and the “unknowing” outside audience becomes very transparent in “The Special One” where Head elects to use a first person narrative voice—something she has never done before—to represent the unknowing outsider who gradually becomes exposed to the divergent and varied voices of the villagers who give the author “confused and contradictory accounts” of how they perceive the happenings in their society. A comparison with the opening story is unavoidable here as both stories, drawn from historical data but reconstructed by Head, address the problem of affixing blame on women. But whereas the old men in “The Deep River …” just shake their heads and accuse, the women in “The Special One” at least appear to want to reconcile their difference with the opposite sex as the end of the story illustrates. Head's moral utopia does not exclude women or place them in an inferior position where “they don't know their own minds” nor does it separate men from women. The “moral” which ends this story, although intended primarily to be interpreted literally, also appears to have a figurative connotation that Head addresses in the next tale, the idea that monogamy implies not just “one marriage partner” but consists of love, sharing and equality as was found in Jacob and Johannah's ideal partnership. Gaenametse and her priest appear to be part of the Jacob/Johannah archetype except in “The Special One,” Head examines the female “Johanna's” side of the experience.

“I was a newcomer to the village” Head states as she begins to explore the many individual faces of a community. She remains a detached observer, sceptical when told by her colleague, Mrs. Maleboge that “women were just dogs in this society.” But when she witnesses the pathetic Gaenametse, “there is not water,” transformed by Mrs. Maleboge's nourishment and compassion at the baptismal party, she became deeply moved and did not have to be told again about the way females were treated. The rest of the tale centres around Gaenametse's strange behaviour, her stories of Mrs. Maleboge and the erratic women's attempts to dress like her friend. Head becomes totally confused when a gossipy neighbour warns her of Gaenametse's bad reputation. The observing “I” in this story replaces the “unknowing” audience in the previous stories who ends up doubting the insiders' perceptions because they seem too “unreal” and extreme to be reliable. In this story, what is important is not whether Mrs. Maleboge has a good facade that deceives the villagers or whether there is any truth in the village gossip, but that Mrs. Maleboge cared enough to help someone who was obviously “off her beam” due to some kind of intense inner suffering. Head cannot help feeling concerned with the implications of all the contradictory stories and ends up affirming, in her own words, that “women are just dogs in this society.”

The imagery of men acting like dogs appears in the title story from the anthology, “The Collector of Treasures,” which ties together many of the themes from the previous stories to create a very disturbing and painful portrait of a society since its political independence. The previous tales in many ways all lead to this one where the violence of reality comes into conflict with the tenderness that is trying to contain it, and the result is a frightening critique of the fragility of the human imagination. Of course, Head never loses sight of her moral utopia—there is always found “gold amidst the ash”—but the stormy journey has become extremely difficult for women are confronted with even fewer choices since the breakdown of the traditional family. Galethebege in “Heaven Is Not Closed” is able to reach a compromise and still retain her saintliness whereas Dikeledi in “The Collector of Treasures” has no such options. She couldn't “walk away” from her husband for she had children to care for, and the forced compromise she ends up with—a life in prison for murdering him—hardly suggests a solution to the problems plaguing an “independent society.” Dikeledi, named after her mother's tears, symbolizes the struggles of a people who have a long way to go before the cycle of violence can be replaced by a spiral of peace in order that the children can enter the Promised Land and be named after their mother's hopes.

Yet the women draw strength from their own voices as they share their stories in prison of this “terrible world.” Dikeledi has managed to salvage some of the remnants of the “deep loves that had joined her heart to the hearts of others” (p. 91) she had collected on her journey. She uses her “hands of strange power” to grow beautiful designs she invents “in her own head” and begins to weave her life with the lives of the other prison women to create a kind of idyllic world based on mutual love and care. In many ways this world is an extension of her life with Kenalepe where “the two women had going one of those deep, affectionate, sharing-everything kind of friendships that only women know how to have.” (p. 94) But it is no alternative to what should be: no world is complete that exiles either women or men. The ideal that Head sets up in this story is the relationship between Paul and Kenalepe: another version of the Jacob/Johannah archetype. Paul, perhaps named after the Christian St. Paul who was a symbol of charity and visionary hope, reminds the audience of Jacob who also had the “power to recreate himself anew.” Head introduces a kind of sexual idealism that complements the “love” idealism she portrayed in “Jacob” which serves the same function: without the desire to heal our past wounds, we cannot possibly transcend the limitations of our miserable reality. Yet Dikeledi, as a single mother, can not participate in this male/female “monogamist” terrain that Jacob and Johannah, Gaenametse and her priest and now Paul and Kenalepe inhabit.

But perhaps the Thebolos were “too good to be true” and only the imagined antithesis to Dikeledi's naked reality, like an oasis on the barren horizon. The real world seems full of “the other kind of man in society … the one (which) created such misery and chaos that he would broadly be damned as evil.” (p. 91) Head clarifies her anger by stating that these kinds of men are the victims of their historical heritage and shows how during the historical process they ended up fleeing “their own inner emptiness” and using women as the scapegoats of their destructiveness. She uses the grotesque image of the dogs chasing the bitch in heat to represent the thoughtlessness and insensitivity that has motivated men's instinct to survive. This kind of man is a stark contrast to the “poem of tenderness” that Paul embodied and a continual threat to humanity's will to live.

“The Collector of Treasures” is a complex story that doesn't condone Dikeledi's own “crime of passion” but tries to understand why someone who is so good is denied the power to use the treasures she has collected on her journey beneath the deep river of the imagination.

Counterbalancing the harsh reality in “The Collector of Treasures” with an utopian vision, Head obviously wanted to end her “symphonic” anthology with the familiar gentle and gay melody that has weaved its way in and out of her other tales. In “Hunting” the melody singularly dominates the finale as the deeper and more ominous bass tones fade out quietly, leaving nothing but the pure, crystal-clear tune ringing in our memories as it guides us on our departure.

In contrast to the opening story where people were participating in the ritual of the corn harvest, “Hunting” is set in the “favoured” season where life is rich and survival is guaranteed. And whereas the women in “The Deep River …” “followed each other in single file” to “pay” their chief, the men in “Hunting” had the freedom to group as they choose and to share their food equally with each other. The symbolic hunt also evokes a search for a better life that requires resilience, co-operation and imagination. Head is no longer “reconstructing” a world based on men's memories but is creating “what could be” through the lively voice of the female storyteller. Her final tale seems to have superceded the restrictions of past myths for Head has created new symbols, a new mythology where Sebembele and his love have found their paradise based on an ideal compromise between “individual faces” and “the one face.” This paradise doesn't exclude, but accepts; it does not blame but understands. The “chiefs” do not seek power by exploiting but share and live “like everyone else.” The deep river is no longer stormy or even visible but gently nourishes the land to produce enough for everyone to feast. And the complementary relationship of the Tholo/Thato imitation of the Jacob/Johannah archetype symbolizes the emerging male/female dichotomy and the synthesis of opposites which at last have found the balance needed to “recreate anew.”

The female principle embodied in the character of Thato contains all the elements of hardship, mistrust and despair found in Dikeledi's reality but haunted by her dreams, like Jacob, she ends up accepting a “God-like man who was morally rich and “incapable of hurting life.” Head's male principle always seems to evoke the “spiritual saint” whereas the female principle signifies the more “earthly” holiness. Jacob, Paul, Tholo are the removed, idealized “god-like” figures whereas Johanna, Kenalepe and Thato remain the earthly anchors with a much more concrete and believable past history. The women are more recognizable and less stylized than the men who, as she shows in “The Collector of Treasures,” represent two extreme types: the saintly Pauls are needed to counterbalance the “dog-like” Garesegos so prevalent in society. One is born out of an ideal conception; the other is picked from the pages of history.

In “Hunting,” Tholo “seemed to run away from all the conflicts of life” whereas Thato “had the capacity to live with the conflicts of life in a way he had not.” They merge together to create one vision of how people could live. Even their names imply a separate identity but a shared “face.” Tholo ironically says “nothing can sort out the world” as his good deeds reveal he is trying, in his own way, to make things better. Thato complements his silences and detachment with the involved, gifted voice of the storyteller that not only “sifts and sorts out all the calamities” involved in male/female relationships but also asserts “people will have to help …” (p. 109) The spirit of hope implies what true independence should signify: a tractor/technology that benefits everyone and does not destroy or isolate; projects that involve, produce and create new opportunities so that the community can grow together and not fall apart “in a dizzy kind of wild death dance of wild destruction and dissipation.” (p. 92)

As we leave the bitter old men to mourn how they lost their place of birth over a woman, we hear the female storyteller's voice hunting for a means to help her own people, sustained by the knowledge of the imagination's potential. Perhaps “the richness of her communication” also reflects Head's faith in her own storytelling abilities.

Maya Jaggi (review date 1990)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 698

SOURCE: Jaggi, Maya. “In the Shadow of Apartheid.” Times Literary Supplement (1 December 1990): 1326.

[In the following excerpt, Jaggi provides a favorable assessment of Tales of Tenderness and Power.]

The monthly magazine Drum (which began life in Cape Town in 1951 as The African Drum) was one of the first major outlets for black South African writing. Selected from 1950s editions of the magazine, the stories in The Drum Decade range from short fiction by Ezekiel Mphahlele, Alex La Guma, Richard Rive, Bloke Modisane and James Matthews to reportage and testimony (borrowing from story-telling conventions) by Can Themba, Nat Nakasa, Henry Nxumalo and Casey Motsisi. Set in the townships of the 1950s, they evoke in particular the vanished ethos of Sophiatown, Johannesburg's vibrant, cosmopolitan free-hold community which the regime bulldozed in 1962 to make way for the white suburb of Triomf.

In the often tough, cynical prose that became a hallmark of Drum's style, its writers both mirrored and mythologized shebeen life, the violent criminal underworld of the tsotsi or gangster, and the pervasively Americanized culture of B-movies at the “bioscope,” jazz and street patois or tsotsi-taal. Some of these stories seem unable to penetrate beyond the putative glamour of the street-wise tsotsi, relying on improbable melodramatic intrigue and cardboard characterization. (The latter is most dismally evident in the deadly temptresses, exploitative shebeen queens and other female stereotypes who haunt these pages.)

But the prevailing note is one of protest. Drum affirmed a black urban identity at a time when the Nationalist government (in power since 1948) was attempting to “retribalize” Africans, relegating them to a pool of cheap, menial labour without a permanent presence in the supposedly white cities. Striving to articulate the “black experience” at the onset of apartheid, Drum writers documented and dramatized the violence and tension exacerbated by racial reclassifications, forced removals and segregated resettlement. They protested against the police raids and constant harassment that accompanied the pass laws and prohibition. (It was until 1962 illegal to sell European alcohol to “non-whites.”) …

Bessie Head was among writers of the Drum generation (she wrote for a sister publication, Golden City Post) who fled into exile in the 1960s. She died in 1986, at the age of forty-nine, in her adopted homeland of Botswana, the acclaimed author of four novels, a collection of short stories and a social history of Serowe, the village she made her home and refuge for twenty years. According to the autobiographical writings published posthumously as A Woman Alone, Head consciously eschewed explicit political allegiances in her fiction, preferring to probe what she saw as the deeper truths concerning human good and evil, and the misuse of power. These truths found their most powerful expression in the novels, Maru (1971), which explores the enigma of racial prejudice through the treatment of a virtual slave-caste of “Bushmen” in Botswana, and A Question of Power (1974), a fictional account of her own protracted mental breakdown.

Brief, fragmentary and sometimes repetitive, A Woman Alone builds a surprisingly coherent portrait of a sensitive, compassionate and talented writer transcending an onerous legacy. (The illegitimate child of a white woman who died incarcerated in a mental asylum and a black stable-hand, Head learnt of her origins at thirteen, through the almost casual cruelty of a mission teacher.) These notes and sketches yield valuable insights into Head's views on politics, literature and feminism. They also confirm the solace she eventually found in rural Botswana: suffering from a lack of family or roots, and, like most South Africans, from “a very broken sense of history,” she describes the healing sense of continuity and belonging she derived from “the old tribal way of life and its slow courtesies.”

Head's passage from the bruising realities of South Africa's townships to the humble idyll of Serowe is reflected in Tales of Tenderness and Power, posthumously collected stories which date from the early 1960s to the 1980s and testify to Head's subtlety, versatility and prowess as a story-teller. While some resemble the “tough tales” of the Drum school, others celebrate village life, history and mythology in Botswana. All are enriched by Head's distinctive vision, whether in their scornful exposure of corruption and abuses of power, or their epiphanic moments of generosity and tenderness.

H. Nigel Thomas (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Thomas, H. Nigel. “Narrative Strategies in Bessie Head's Stories.” In The Tragic Life: Bessie Head and Literature in Southern Africa, edited by Cecil Abrahams, pp. 93–104. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press Inc., 1990.

[In the following essay, Thomas discusses Head's narrative technique in her short fiction.]

Today one almost feels the need to apologize for analyzing the works of writers like Bessie Head, Chinua Achebe, Buchi Emecheta, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, and most other African writers. For if one is to follow recent trends in criticism, one should not be looking at how fiction conveys truths lost in the diffuseness of reality, rather one should be hypothesizing about metafiction and postmodernism, that is to say, preoccupying one's self with finding critical theories to account for the literature created by those whom we are told are at the “cutting edge” of literary creation because they manage to unsay everything they have said, manage to deconstruct the fictive universe which more often than not they have not yet constructed. Thus, those who have been crowned deans of contemporary literary criticism would have us believe that our time should be spent deriving meaning from a process that cannot mean; for—and in this they are mostly correct—“postmodernist literature” is about the meaning of non-meaning. This approach is certainly well-suited to a civilization that can no longer believe anything, to cultures where language has lost its bonding quality principally because language has become a mask concealing the feared unknown in the other.

When we turn to African societies, we witness ferment everywhere, much of it very disconcerting. But instead of reproducing chaos and deforming reality and syntax to reproduce this ferment, the vast majority of African writers use language to construct verbal laboratories with which to probe chaos and discover its implications. If one compares the non-fiction and fiction of Bessie Head, one discovers very quickly that Head's fiction is an intensification, a distillation, if you will, of Botswana history and actuality in order to suggest its impact of those who live it. Indeed, her collection of testimonials from Serowe residents on subjects ranging from history to contemporary medical practice economics, in Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind, is a handy source of the raw materials that Head reworked—and never distorted—in order to create her four novels and collection of short stories. It is evident from Head's handling of her themes that her concern in writing fiction was to praise what she deemed praiseworthy, condemn what she saw as oppressive, and highlight what she saw as social folly. In a Voice of America interview, she told Lee Nichols:

“… I would never fall in the category of a writer who produces light entertainment. … My whole force and direction comes from having something to say. What we are mainly very bothered about has been the dehumanizing of black people. And if we can resolve these situations—and I work both within the present and future—if we can resolve our difficulties it is because we want a future which is defined for our children. So then we can't sort of say that you have ended any specific thing or that you have changed the world. You have merely offered your view of a grander world, of a world that's much grander than the one we've had already.”

(1981, 55–56)

This is essentially the vision of a bard. It follows, therefore, that Head's fictions is didactic but only, for the most part, implicitly so. Her approach is not to obscure the subjects she writes about, or to leave interpretation strictly up to the reader, but rather to clarify without being reductive or simplistic. In fact, all her short stories reflect a complex awareness of human nature and human motives. Some of them, like “The Collector of Treasures,” “Looking for a Rain God,” and “Life,” achieve the status of tragedy in the Aristotelian sense of the twin emotion they evoke—fear and pathos.

The narrative strategies authors of fiction choose are determined primarily by their themes and intentions and secondarily by writers' knowledge of fictive technique. We already know, from the citation from The Voice of America interview, why Head wrote fiction. But what determined her technique? I think that the oral origins of much of the material she reworked into fiction affected her technique profoundly. The material simply imposed itself. The tales have as their central concern Serowe village life, and in this they resemble the folktale cycles, embodying several stories about a single protagonist. In creating fiction from the oral accounts of the tribe, Head transforms herself into something of a literary griot; we have already seen that the task she sets herself gives her a bardic role. Both of these roles imply a particular treatment in the interpretation of the material. The griot recounts in a historical fashion and it is important that s/he enter the minds of his/her characters to reveal their thoughts and motivations. The bard is interested in the lessons s/he can draw from the past so that s/he can interpret the present and predict the future. Implicit in the bardic approach, therefore, is copious commentary, interpretation, if you will, of the forces impinging on the characters' actions.

To the foregoing one needs to add the fact that Head received her formal education in South Africa, and therefore in the Western tradition. Certainly, we see from her first forays into writing fiction that she had already mastered fictive technique—her arrangement of the episodes in When Rain Clouds Gather for their dramatic effect and her transformation of the awaited rain and the setting into symbols are masterly done. Hence, what we are to understand is that Head combined Western literary and African storytelling methods in writing the stories—she calls them tales very advisedly—that comprise The Collector of Treasures. One very evident Western technique in these stories is her conflation of history and several oral accounts into single stories.

As I have mentioned already, the arrangement of the stories contributes to their meanings. A quick summary of the themes the stories cover will be in order. In general the stories are about the failure of colonial civilisation and the perennial oppression of women in Botswana society (for a profound analysis of the latter in Head's novels, see Ola, 1986). More specific themes are: the defiance of tribal custom in asserting individuality where only communally-sanctioned behaviour is permitted; psychological turmoil resulting from the conflict between Christian and indigenous practices and beliefs; the motives behind the creation of indigenous Christianity; the inevitable erosion of communal values when they come into contact with urban vice; the debilitating impact of deep-rooted beliefs in witchcraft; the triumphing of the irrational (regression) in times of deep duress; the wisdom inherent in the communal courts (kgotla); the lethal elements of consumer values; the advantages of traditional over European marriage rituals; the limits of mask-wearing; the social disintegration that follows the dissolution of the mores of a society; the victimization of women and children in a society where no firmly enforced codes exist for their protection. All the foregoing themes are touched upon explicitly or implicitly in the first two stories of the collection. The first story reveals tribal fracturing resulting from individual initiative, showing what Head felt was a weakness of tribal organization; it also shows the insufficiency of tribal law to regulate human emotions; it equally reveals the ritualization of prejudice against the female sex, since it is women who are blamed for the fragmenting of the tribe. Head chooses and arranges the events of this story to show how, under tribal governments, people are prohibited from cultivating individuality; she thus prepares us, as it were, to understand the void males experience when, following independence, they are required to display initiative but find that they possess none. The second story introduces us to the Christian Church in action, the contempt its missionaries hold for those members of the community who are not members of the Botswana aristocracy, and thus indirectly shows us one reason why several people do not take the teachings of Christianity seriously, why indigenous churches spring up, why beliefs in witchcraft remain unassailable, and why in times of crises people look to the ancestors for answers rather than to reason for solutions.

Turning to the oral sources of these stories, we find Head signalling to us from the beginning of the collection that much of the material in her stories is derived from oral sources. The first story is an etiological tale, derived from oral history. All the marks of the folktale are present: an omniscient narrator, copious summary, reduction of motives to a few primary ones, as well as a moral. The tale itself, however, is intended to condemn women for the suffering of the tribe; Head narrates it so that tribal hegemony at the expense of individual expression (creating a child-like obedience in the populace) is the real culprit. It is an excellent example of the material itself being rearranged so that the traditional view is presented and at the same time undermined, a combination of oral an literary techniques.

The oral sources of the stories or the influence of the oral forms of storytelling are evident in the beginning of Head's stories. One gets a formula that suggests the following decision: Now this story happened in a place called X. Let me describe that place for you before I tell you the story. This is the case with the story “Jacob: The Story of a Faith Healing Priest.” In “Heaven Is Not Closed,” there are two narrators: one is Head, providing the setting for the story; the other is an oral storyteller that tells the story of Galathebege's life-long struggle to choose between Christian and Botswana customs and beliefs to the audience of mourners. The second narrator reports the audience's responses to the story. Another example of the oral influence is Head's need to give a resumé of the story in the first paragraph. For example, in “Heaven Is Not Closed,” Head begins the story as follows, “all her life Gathethebege earnestly believed that her whole heart ought to be devoted to God, although one catastrophe after another occurred to deflect her from this path. It was only in the last five years of her life, after her husband, Ralokae, and died, that she was able to devote her whole mind to her calling. …” The paragraph goes on to complete the summary of the story. When this is not the case, the stories begin, like the oral historian describing the life and times of a particular personage before recounting his deeds, by informing us of the forces to which the particular protagonist is reacting. This is not to say the Head does not make this presentation of setting—social, historical, or physical—interesting. Often, as in the present example, this filling in of background or the presentation of summary is graphically executed. Whey they contribute to the organic or the intellectual unity of the story, as I shall show later, the authorial intrusions are successful, even indispensable. The oral influences in Head's fiction are also evident in the closure of the stories, which more often than not, express the moral of the story. This is especially noticeable in “The Wind and a Boy,” which ends as follows, “And thus progress, development, and a pre-occupation with status and living standards first announced themselves to the village. It looked like being an ugly story with many decapitated bodies on the main road” (p. 75).

Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind is an excellent tool for the examination of Head's technique of conflating several incidents into a single story. The first story of the collection is a brilliant example of this process. It is an evocation of ancient migrations as well as nineteenth and twentieth century political crises: the crises over Khama the Great's conversion to Christianity and his consequent abandonment of certain ethnic practices, resulting in battles between him and his father and uncle and a fragmenting of the tribe; Tshekedi Khama's own migration to avoid a full-fledged war with his nephew Seretse on account of latter's marriage outside the tribe (See Serowe, pp. 3–18, 77, 95). Although Head discusses the Mfecane—a series of interethnic wars that raged on for close to twenty years in the region (See Serowe, 180–182)—she excludes war from this story. The reason is that Head felt that the migrations had been “established over the centuries to avert bloodshed in a crisis”; this tendency she saw as “underlying the basic non-violent nature of African society as it was then. This gives the lie to white historians, who for their own ends, damned African people as savages” (Serowe, 95). Thus, in “The Deep River River: A Story of Ancient Tribal Migration,”: Head conflates an excludes in accordance with her vision of the true nature of African people.

The second story in the collection, “Heaven Is Not Closed,” also illustrates quite well Head's technique of conflation. The story explores the psychic dislocation resulting from Khama the Great's policies in imposing Christianity on the entire society. This problem, which created warfare and much tribal fracturing, is examined in “Heaven Is Not Closed” for the divided loyalties and religious incertitude Khama's policies created. The arrogance of the early missionaries and their a priori contempt for everything that was non-European are juxtaposed with the indigenous pride some Botswana felt for their customs. Head's reason for distilling various stories to arrive at this core and for structuring the elements in this particular way is to show the extent to which the early Christian missionaries alienated the population, notwithstanding Khama's imposition of Christianity on the Botswana people (the core of the story exists in one of the reminiscences included in Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (see pp. 30–31)). While Head felt a deep admiration for Khama, she nonetheless had strong views about the consequences of his Christianization policy:

When I think of Khama's conversion to Christianity and his imposition of it on the tribe as a whole—it more or less forced him to modify or abolish all the ancient customs of his people, thus stripping them of certain securities which tradition offered. … People might have not realized this, and this might account for the almost complete breakdown of family life in Bamangwato country, which under traditional custom was essential for the survival of the tribe.

(Serowe, xiv-xv)

Head's compression technique sometimes assumes the form of symbol. This is the case in “The Wind and the Boy,” where Robinson the protagonist exemplifies potential strength created from intelligence, resourcefulness, and a blending of the eclectic from all traditions, while his killer, the driver of the brakeless automobile, exemplifies the reckless, who give themselves value by acquiring Western modes of existence the deadly power of which they do not understand.

It is in the contrasting structure of some of Head's stories (as well as in their arrangement in the collection) that her perception of herself as a writer in the bardic tradition is best revealed. “The Collector of Treasures” and “Jacob: The Story of a Faith Healing Priest,” are particularly useful for this discussion. “The Collector of Treasures” is the story in which Head probes at her deepest the breakdown of family structure in Botswana. Head's intention is to show how promiscuity on the part of the men deprives the nation of a vast part of its human resources. Basic to the story's structure are two families: one that should be headed by Mokopi, except that he drinks and whores away his civil service salary; the other, that of Paul Kebolo, a responsible man, whose wife is happy, well-adjusted woman, with an overwhelming generosity to others. Mokopi's wife is a talented woman: “she could knit, sew, and weave baskets” (Collector, 90) but she must raise three children all by herself.

This story is one of the best-realized in the collection. Its artistic success is due partly to its theme but more so to Head's use of contrast (a technique that accounted in large measure for the brilliant artistry of her earlier work: When Rain Clouds Gather). Paul Kebolo's responsibility in providing for his family and still having enough to help along Mokopi's wife is contrasted with Mokopi's spending his money on sex and alcohol. Paul's compassion for Dikeledi is contrasted with Mokopi's conviction that you only feed a woman's children if that woman is your mistress. Such compassion also stands out against Mokopi's understanding of money as a weapon to be used in humiliating those dependent on him for it, in this case his wife. Mokopi's hopping from bar to bar and bed to bed is contrasted with Paul's transformation of his home into a centre where thinking people can discuss political and social issues. Finally Kenapele's happiness, because Paul does not evade any of his marital responsibilities, is contrasted with Dikeledi's initial stoicism and unhappiness and eventual imprisonment.

At the end of the story Paul Kebolo adopts Dikeledi's three children and promises to provide them with a secondary education; for upon realizing that Mokopi had come to her home merely to humiliate her, Dikeledi castrates and simultaneously murders him. Thus the trauma created by male irresponsibility has to be palliated by others already shouldering their own responsibility. The tone of Head's commentary in the story is an angry one. She likens men like Mokopi to bulldogs and jackasses, who, their sexual pleasure ended, have no responsibility toward their off-spring (more will be said about the authorial commentary in this story in that section of the essay reserved for it). The ramifications of male parental irresponsibility is Head's principal concern in writing this story. A secondary theme, embodied in the other half of the story's dialectic, is the somewhat Herculean task of the responsible parents, who in addition to raising their own children, must raise the abandoned children too. Elsewhere Head tells us that ninety-seven percent of the children born in Serowe are out of wedlock and that most of them “will never know who their real father is” (Serowe, 58). In this same article Head blames the blanket imposition of Christianity on the population and the indifference of colonial government to the tribal mores it destroyed for the moral void created among Botswana males (pp. 58–61). In one of the four testimonials regarding the breakdown of Botswana family life included in Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind, Lebang Moreni, age 18, states that men deny that they are fathers of the children to avoid paying child support. When they are made to pay, they sometimes leave the village. If they remain they sporadically provide a fraction of the amount required, and the law courts lack the will to enforce its sanctions. Such support, however, is limited only to the first child. A woman who already has a child cannot expect the law to force the father(s) to subsequent children to support them.

Many, many women are now rearing children on their own and it is not a good life. Children see one man after another calling on their mother and they lose all respect for her. Our children run wild, are very cheeky and have become thieves. Most of the thefts which now take place in Serowe are done by small boys. They raid houses for money, cigarettes or food. Theft was never a part of our life. I had a father and I know what a beating meant for bad behaviour.

(pp. 64–65)

“The Collector of Treasures” is a dramatized compression of such testimony as well as Head's ideas on the consequences of child abandonment by Botswana fathers. Head continues the same theme, though not with the same degree of contrast—for the emphasis is on responsible men choosing their spouses—in the story “Hunting.”

Whereas Head's use of contrast in “The Collector of Treasures” heightens the story's artistry, an attempt at a similar structuring in “Jacob: The Story of a Faith-Healing Priest” produces a colossal failure. In the latter there are two separate stories, each a version of, and a judgment on, the extreme motivations that give rise to the faith-healing churches. Because Head fails to integrate the actions of both of the main characters the story is truncated. By spending some two pages on a setting that is of no relevance to the theme of the story (this is a case where oral story telling conditioning is an impediment) and by grafting a romance of very limited value on to it, the focus of the story is diffuse. In “The Collector of Treasures” it is rare that the narrative departs from Dikeledi. She provides the narrative pivot. In “Jacob: The Story of a Faith Healing Priest” Jacob does not provide enough of that focus.

The aspect of Head's narrative approach likely to be most controversial is her constant intrusion in her own voice in the stories. I support that Head felt that in order for her readers to appreciate the behaviour of characters like Mokopi, Life, and Mma Mabele, she needed to provide the social background of these characters. Because this information is not implicit in the dramatized action of the stories, they sometimes evince an essayistic (expository) quality. My feeling regarding these interventions is that Head wanted them there and chose to hold on to the oral story telling model of sketching in background whenever it is deemed necessary for a better understanding of the story being told. In Head's case, such intrusions can be a vital dimension of the story. In these stories, one simply has to see the author's presence in the story in the manner one accepts some playwrights' creation of a stage narrator whose purpose is to put events in their proper perspective. Wayne Booth tells us that it is usual for critics to condemn commentary in fiction. But Booth goes on to invite literary critics to “at the very least … decide with some precision whether any of the particular achievements of the author's voice have been worth the sacrifice of whatever principles we hold dear” (1961, 169). We need only look at Melville's Billy Budd, where commentary is vital to peripetia, operates in lieu of direct characterization of Billy Budd, and presents the novella's historic setting—for confirmation of the validity of Booth's advice. For we have accorded Billy Budd classic status.

We could appreciate the value of the intrusions by removing them and examining the difference such alterations makes to the meaning of the stories. Most of them would diminish in significance. It is also easy to see that entire novels or novellas would have been required to dramatize much of the information that Head provides in summary form in her own voice. If one function of art is to compress for effect, then, here the use of authorial commentary is justified.

The main reason for the authorial commentaries of Head's short fiction is to provide social setting, which, in these stories, is as vital as the background colours a painter chooses for his paintings. It is because of these settings that we understand the mores that inhibit or incite the characters. As I have already mentioned, in the West, a basic feature of the short story is the assumption that the writer and reader belong to a similar cultural mosaic and hence bring a similar value scheme to creation and creative interpretation. Head could make no similar assumption, for her characters are fundamentally non-Western.

A close look at the story “Life” will show the foregoing in operation. The first paragraph of the story tells us in Head's own voice that village people rejected whatever they considered harmful and absorbed whatever they considered beneficial. “The murder of Life had this complicated undertone of rejection” (Collector, 37). When we later discover that Life is a prostitute, an unknown occupation in the village, our emotions intensify, but only because Head has already told us in her own voice that Life's return to the village was necessitated by the recall of all Botswana citizens from South Africa in 1963, the year when formal boundaries were established between South Africa and Botswana in preparation for the latter's independence. During the seventeen years Life had lived in Johannesburg she developed into a prostitute. On her own, we know that she would never have returned to the village.

Irony is achieved in the story partly through Head's ironic naming of the character, but moreso because Head tells us of the community's expectations of Life. “‘She is going to bring us a little light,’ the women said among themselves as they went off to fetch their work tools.” Head's commentary reads as follows: “They were always looking ‘for the light’ and by that they meant that they were ever alert to receive new ideas that would freshen up the ordinariness and everydayness of village life” (p. 38). Life brings a Luciferan light to the community. Her companions eventually are not the light seekers: they abandon her; rather they are the pariahs: the beer brewers, who vicariously admire her for turning the tables, for making men pay for sex. In this respect she teaches the community something for hitherto women were the ones exploited in sex; for the first time women see that they could make men pay for sex and could in this fashion wield power over them. The attempt to force the community's mores on her, to cure her of the urban sickness of prostitution, through marriage, fails. It results in her murder and her husband's imprisonment. There is light in that too: that once the values of the city enter, communal mores are unable to neutralize them. Without Head's commentary we could not appreciate the significance of the drama and irony inherent in this story.

To conclude, it is evident from Head's short stories that one of her principal concerns was an understanding on the reader's part of the social forces determining the actions of her characters. Where the events of the story do not fully imply what those social forces are, she provides them in her own voice. This practice, along with the retention of some of the traits of the oral sources of the stories, makes the stories appear different from typical twentieth century short stories in the Western tradition. I suspect that, faced with the question of her departure from standard short story practice, Head would have been interested in whether the reader understood the stories, was moved by them, and was instructed by them. In my own case the answer is yes. Her reply would be, “Well it is because of all those rules that you accuse me of breaking.”

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Morning Yet on Creation Day. London: Heinemann, 1975.

Booth, Wayne. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Head, Bessie. The Collector of Treasure and Other Botswana Village Tales. London: Heinemann, 1977.

———. Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind. London: Heinemann, 1981.

———. Interview with Lee Nichols. In Conversations with African Writers: Interviews with Twenty-Six African Authors. Edited by Lee Nichols. Washington, D.C.: Voice of America, 1981.

Ola, Virginia U. “Women's Role in Bessie Head's Ideal World.”ARIEL 17: 4 (October 1986), 39–47.

wa Thiong'o, Ngugi. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. London: James Currey, 1986.

Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction. London: Methuen, 1984.

Charles Larson (review date 1991)

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SOURCE: Larson, Charles. “Bessie Head, Storyteller in Exile.” Washington Post Book World 21, no. 7 (17 February 1991): 4.

[In the following review, Larson provides a mixed assessment of Tales of Tenderness and Power.]

Bessie Head's achievement at the time of her death in 1986 was honorific: black Africa's preeminent female writer of fiction, a title that can only be taken ironically. Classified as Coloured in the country of her birth (South Africa), she fled to Botswana in 1964. The safe haven she had expected to find there became the terrain for her subsequent mental breakdown. Stateless and suicidal as an exile in an unfamiliar environment, she nevertheless came to be regarded by the people of her adopted country as their most famous writer. Yet if the inner peace Bessie Head had sought all her life was largely illusory, she wrote stories (at least in the final years of her life) that were not only humane but genuinely hopeful about the human condition.

However, that humanity is nowhere reflected in the autobiographical overview she gives of her life at the beginning of A Woman Alone. Instead, this brief transcript reads like a horror tale, filled not only with the most appalling acts of inhumanity but also with one of the most agonizing accounts of loneliness one is likely to encounter. Statements at the beginning of the three-page document read as follows:

The circumstances of my birth seemed to make it necessary to obliterate all traces of a family history.

I have not a single known relative on earth, no long and ancient family tree to refer to, no links with heredity or a sense of having inherited a temperament, a certain emotional instability or the shape of a fingernail from a grandmother or great-grandmother.

I have always been just me, with no frame of reference to anything beyond myself.

I was born on July 6, 1937, in the Pietermaritzburg mental hospital. The reason for my birthplace was that my mother was white and my father black.

Oddly, except for her masterpiece, A Question of Power, 1973, the realities of Head's early life did not spill over into her writing. The loneliness of Botswana (where she had gone to teach) quickly found expression in her two early novels: When Rain Clouds Gather (1967) and Maru (1971). In part, she was successful because she happened to be at the right place at the right time. Her earlier journalism in South Africa led to the contract on the first of these novels. Quickly thereafter, she gained the following of a number of sympathetic editors in the United States and England. With modest royalties and an even more meagre income from her vegetable garden in Serowe, she managed a precarious survival—in spite of the periods of mental instability and the pressures of raising her son.

The contents of these two posthumously published volumes reveal Bessie Head both at her best and at her weakest. As a group, the stories in Tales of Tenderness and Power are not as finished as those in an earlier collection called The Collector of Treasures (1977). Still, three stories are particularly distinguished. In the first of these, called “The Lovers,” Head addresses the African concept of community as the traditional force which inhibits individual action. An adolescent girl who questions arranged marriages is warned by her mother, “If you question life you will upset it.” The power of the feminist perspective is elevated to a new dimension at the end of the tale when the reader discovers that the story is not contemporary but set more than a hundred years ago.

As if to demonstrate that much of Head's writing was not autobiographical, two stories in the volume take us far away from the author's immediate world. “The General” satirizes political abuse by African leaders: “A man's enemies have a way of snowballing: especially when there are heaps of bodies in detention camps.” However, no other story that Head wrote equals the vision of unity depicted in “The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses.” In six terse pages, she brilliantly describes the subtle and shifting relationship between a political prisoner and a warden in a South African jail. The subtext is quite clear: Apartheid is tantamount to incarceration, yet a system of survival may in time be worked out because of the superior patience of the detainee over the detainer. The story is also one of Bessie Head's few overt presentations of conditions in South Africa under the apartheid she had experienced until her flight into exile.

In many ways, the material in A Woman Alone reflects poor judgment on the part of Craig MacKenzie, the editor of the volume. First, about a third of the material collected here also appears in Tales of Tenderness and Power, where it more appropriately belongs. Second, there are too many selections in this volume that in no way belong under the rubric of the volume's subtitle: “Autobiographical Writings.” Curiously, the introduction to Tales of Tenderness and Power, by Gillian Stead Eilersen, informs us that at the time of her death, Bessie Head was working on her autobiography. Shouldn't portions of that work have been included in A Woman Alone? Couldn't MacKenzie have included the texts of interviews with the author while she was still alive? (One thinks immediately of Lee Nichols's provocative interview for the Voice of America.)

The most revealing selection is the essay that concludes both volumes, and in which Bessie Head indirectly describes herself as a “dreamer and storyteller,” as someone “drunk with the magical enchantment of human relationships.” In this essay Head articulates her final sense of acceptance, of connectedness to her adopted home in Botswana:

Every oppressed man has this suppressed violence, as though silently awaiting the time to set right the wrongs that afflict him. I have never forgotten it, even though, for the purposes of my trade, I borrowed the clothes of a country like Botswana …

Possibly too, Southern Africa might one day become the home of the storyteller and dreamer, who did not hurt others but only introduced new dreams that filled the heart with wonder.

Maxine Sample (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: Sample, Maxine. “Landscape and Spatial Metaphor in Bessie Head's The Collector of Treasures.Studies in Short Fiction 28, no. 3 (summer 1991): 311–19.

[In the following essay, Sample discusses Head's fictional representation of space in The Collector of Treasures.]

In exploring how people experience the world, social scientists studying the environment generally acknowledge that people tend to respond psychologically to certain features in the environment, often establishing deep psychological and emotional ties to places where they live. The identification of individuals with their environment is a process that occurs on both a conscious and subconscious level and manifests itself in various aspects of daily life. This personal, individual viewpoint is what geographer Yi-Fu Tuan refers to as the “experiential perspective,” generally how the individual feels about space and place and how either reflects those feelings; the concern here is how one conceptualizes that experience, “the various modes through which a person knows and constructs a reality” (Tuan 8).

This discussion of the fictional representation of space in selected short stories in Bessie Head's The Collector of Treasures explores the relationship between the experience of space and the female imagination by examining Bessie Head's response to the physical, social, and political environment in which she lived. From the dismal certainties of the racially segmented and dehumanizing social structure known as South African apartheid, to a more promising existence as an exile in a rural Botswana community, Bessie Head creates in her works a place in which women and creative artists alike can subvert the efforts to restrict women or to render them powerless in socially designated places where they have no voice. Additionally, through her representation of the Botswana landscape, Head creates metaphoric spaces that suggest possibilities for change that will enable women to exercise control over their own lives.

When this black South African writer-in-exile sought refuge in neighboring Botswana, she was in search of more than freedom from racial oppression. Her self-imposed exile from what she labeled the “unholiest place on earth” (“Witchcraft” 72) was an attempt to forge a positive sense of self that would emerge from being in an environment that offered unconditional freedom and would assuage the feelings of rootlessness that characterized living on the margins of full citizenship in the country of her birth. Such feelings of rootlessness and dispossession, which she associated with South Africa, would propel her in a search for the antithesis of that place. Years after having settled in Botswana and having embraced it as her new home, Head would write, “One of my preoccupations was a search as an African for a sense of historical continuity, a sense of roots …” (“A Search” 278). Head reveals the affective bond to Botswana that she consciously cultivated:

I forcefully created for myself, under extremely hostile conditions, my ideal life. I took an obscure and almost unknown village in the South African bush and made it my hallowed ground. Here, in the steadiness and peace of my own world, I could dream dreams a little ahead of the somewhat vicious clamor of revolution and the horrible stench of evil social systems.

(“Witchcraft” 72)

In Botswana, Head sought to absorb the essence of place and connect with ancient Africa.

The image of a place where life was stifled and perverted was replaced with the image of a place where the African experience was “continuous and unbroken” (Beard 45). In walks through Botswana villages, Bessie Head sought to absorb the essence of place and connect with ancient Africa, slowly “[becoming] alive with the background scenery” (“An African Story” 735). The appeal of the land and the need to feel close to it became Head's way of explaining those changes that were taking place in her life. The impact of this place on the author is illustrated in a passage from her historical chronicle of the village in which she lived, Serowe, Village of the Rain Wind:

I have lived most of my life in shattered little bits. Somehow, here, the shattered bits began to grow together. There is a sense of wovenness, a wholeness in life here; a feeling of how strange and beautiful people can be—just living.


Botswana thus offered Head the kind of psychic healing that she apparently needed.

The appeal of the land and the need to feel close to it became Head's way of explaining those changes that were taking place in her life. Bessie Head's response as a creative artist to the Botswana landscape has a metaphoric dimension when one considers parallels between her experience of place as a black woman living under apartheid and a woman torn between two worlds because of her ethnic mix.1 When Head creates fiction set in rural Botswana, the beauty of the village is frequently understood in juxtaposition with the land before and after the infrequent rainfall. The drought and barrenness of the land are countered by an occasional downpour, which brings a complete metamorphosis of the landscape that is not only healing but also magical/mystical. This healing power of the rain, its magic, is constantly referred to in Head's fiction and in her historical chronicle of Serowe. The drought-stricken landscape seems to reflect the starkness and barrenness of a spiritual self whose humanity was robbed by racial oppression. The rains that come to heal the cracked, parched lands of Botswana are for Head the healing forces of experiencing life in Botswana, enjoying subsistence living in a rural village and working in a farming cooperative with people of all kinds.

Like the sudden, unpredictable rains, an unpredictable turn of events—an opportunity to teach, an offer of citizenship (coming much later), and an opportunity to belong—brought cohesiveness to a fragmented life. Her fascination with the change in the landscape after the rains is understandable when viewed in this context. However, as the rejuvenating effects of the rain on the landscape later yield to the other hostile features of this semi-arid region, Head increasingly found that idyllic existence in Botswana would not be a permanent reality for her. Such permanence would exist only in her fictional worlds.

In The Collector of Treasures, Head attempts to capture as much of the authentic culture and the history of the people/place as possible. Her representation of the Botswana landscape in this collection of “village tales” incorporates a number of motifs employed in her novels as well. Aspects of the landscape are generally associated with the people and the ritual pattern of subsistence on the land. For example, in the first story in the collection, “The Deep River: A Story of Ancient Tribal Migration,” the image of the people as a deep river during ancient times serves as a contrast to the barren, drought-stricken condition of the land during more recent times when conflict and internal strife seem to be the trend. The early pastoral state of the landscape (“cattle tracks and footpaths”) becomes synonymous with the simplicity of the way of life. Head writes:

Long ago when the land was only cattle tracks and footpaths, the people lived together like a deep river. In this deep river which was unruffled by conflict or movement forward, the people lived without faces, except for their chief, whose face was the face of all the people.

(CT [The Collector of Treasures, and Other Botswana Village Tales] 1)

The river, probably noticeably absent from the contemporary landscape, seems to embody those aspects of group unity that were lacking at a later time. Conflicts within the tribe are said to have “ruffled their deep river.” The phrase “without faces” conveys the collective identity and the sense of communalism that existed at an early period of the village's history. The business of living flowed smoothly like the cyclical rise and fall of the river from one planting season to the next.

Head acknowledges that “The Deep River” is “an entirely romanticized and fictionalized version of the history of the Botalaote tribe” (CT 6). However, the story contains a pattern that is characteristic of Head's researched histories and her fictionalized accounts of the Botswana people. That is the recurring schism between apparent heirs, often involving a leader's choice of woman, and the resulting split of the person with his supporters to another place. This type of nomadic movement when tradition has been challenged appears in other works by Head. Historically, communities in that part of southern Africa would relocate when new sources of water were needed for themselves and their cattle. In the context of the story, the movement of the splinter group away from the village becomes synonymous with the disruption of the smooth flow of the river, the loss of unity.

Other contrasts that Head employs in her response to the landscape include the rain/drought dichotomy. In “Looking for a Rain God,” the drought conditions become an invidious force that brings out evil in the villagers—suicide in some and ritual murder in others. “With a strange cruelty” (CT 58) the sun sucks up moisture as it does hope from the people. The oppressiveness of the landscape on the people and the level of desperation that drives them to inhumane deeds are recounted in this story. We see this message at the end of this tale:

The subtle story of strain and starvation and breakdown was inadmissible evidence at court; but all the people who lived off crops knew in their hearts that only a hair's breadth had saved them from sharing a fate similar to that of the Mokgobja family. They could have killed something to make the rain fall.

(CT 60)

The moralistic ending seems to send the message that those not of the region, those unfamiliar with the extent to which the people of the village were made to suffer or were challenged to survive the cruelties of climate, could not appreciate the depths of desperation to which the family who killed their children to make rain were driven. To understand the desperation of the family would have meant to understand the motivation for murder.

In “Jacob: The Story of a Faith-Healing Priest,” Head uses landscape polarities to construct a fable about faith and greed, good and evil. In this tale, which reads like a Christian parable of the suffering Job, she develops a contrast between two prophets, one greedy and materialistic, the other selfless and caring. Jacob, the good prophet, lives on the sunrise side of town while Lebojang, the evil, corrupt prophet, lives on the sunset side of town. Jacob lives simply in a mud hut and freely provides spiritual counsel to his visitors without expecting or demanding expensive gifts in return. He subsists on the meager donations that come from his grateful followers. With him are associated the ideals of faith, austerity/asceticism and simplicity. His followers are children; here the association with innocence and lack of corruption are qualities lacking in his rival. Through this depiction of Jacob are revealed the true principles of Christianity and the teachings of Jesus, of a healing spiritualism without worldly trappings. Head adds that “everything about [Jacob] was very beautiful and simple and deeply sincere” (CT 25).

In contrast, on the sunset side of the village where Lebojang lives, followers gather unaccustomed to generosity and sharing but well versed in exploitation and selfishness. Some of Lebojang's followers include relatives of the uncles who dispossessed Jacob and his twin brother of their inheritance and virtually enslaved the two boys while living comfortably off their father's wealth. These relatives also live on the sunset side of the village. Lebojang lives in a mansion, as opposed to Jacob's simple hut, and mercilessly exploits his followers, treating the wealthy lavishly in order to extract even more wealth from them. He has a power that is reportedly associated with black magic. As strong as his powers are, however, he cannot harm Jacob. It is only at the end of the story that the reader sees the true evil of prophet Lebojang. After sunset he is caught participating in a ritual murder of a child and is subsequently accused of responsibility in the similar deaths of numerous adults and other children.

The sun/sunset and light/darkness motif increases in significance as one examines the story more closely. The symbolic dimension of the association of person with place reveals itself in the manner in which Head prefaces comments about Jacob with “on the sunrise side of the village.” Instead of Jacob canvassing for membership and proselytizing throughout the village, people come to him, drawn to him like plant life in search of the nurturing sun's rays. When busloads of people come into the village, there is an exodus of people, half in the direction of Jacob's and half in the direction of Lebojang's estate (cosmic balance?). The sunset side of the village represents the evils of exploitation and cruelty that apparently exist in every society along with the good.

Critic Joyce Johnson has detected in Head's novels the use of sunlight and darkness as “antagonistic but complementary forces. Each combines both menacing and comforting aspects. … The extremes of traditionalism and modernity are represented in the images of areas dominated either by darkness or sunlight” (59). Although Johnson's references are to When Rain Clouds Gather, they are helpful in our understanding of the light/dark motif Head uses in this story. The fact that Jacob's evil practices take place under the cover of darkness suggests the danger involved in continuing such a tradition as ritual murder. His exposure also hints at the chicanery that is sometimes associated with this kind of spiritual leadership. The story suggests that the demise of Lebojang's ministry will make room for the kind of spiritualism that is free of materialistic greed and selfishness.

The rain/water motif appears in “Jacob” first as a feature of the landscape and later as a symbolic dimension of Jacob. Head spends a page and a half of the story on the landscape of the village—its abundant rainfall and lush plant life—but adds that the spiritual healers, not the fecundity of the earth, attracted people to the village. The geography of the village takes on a greater significance in that Jacob receives a spiritual calling to go to that very village where he lost his parents when their car skidded on a bridge and plunged into the swollen river during a downpour. The duality of the water as both productive and destructive reflects the duality of the spiritual healing offered by prophets in the village.

Water as a healing element is also associated with Jacob. He dispenses what appears to be “holy” water to the afflicted with the assurances that it will relieve them of their troubles, and it does! The presence of water as a benign force2 adds a measure of legitimacy to Jacob's ministry. Despite the fact that water takes Jacob's parents from him (the drowning accident), Jacob is endowed with healing powers through the use of the blessed water.

Head's representation of the Botswana landscape in this collection of short stories also reveals her observation of the spatial structure of traditional villages in that country. She notes about the village of Serowe, “Everything goes in circles; the circular mud huts are enclosed by circular yards and circular pathways weave in and out between each yard” (Serowe xii). This circular patterns, she observes, was later disrupted by construction crews who replaced it with tarred roads and highways—somewhat of a symbolic imposition of a foreign worldview—that more than likely ran in perpendicular lines. Mention of the circle also appears in her discussion of the chief's kgotla, a village court where civil matters are settled. In introducing a narrative about the kgotla in Serowe, she writes:

The older people say the kgotla was the central part of their moral life, the sort of moral centre that was only paralleled by the instruction of the Christian church. In Serowe, the chief's Kgotla is in the central part of the village, beneath Serowe hill and marked out by a wide, semi-circular arrangement of stout poles.


Since only men could serve on the kgotla, the center here is associated with male space. Additionally, as is the case in the spatial organization of many communities, the center is a locus of power as perceived community wide. Head's observation about the traditional layout of villages is incorporated into one of the village tales she recreated in The Collector of Treasures.

In the short story “Kgotla,” Head employs the spatial juxtaposition of the kgotla and the administrative buildings to dramatize the clash between the two centers of power. The village court offered a place where the community could be heard, a place where the villagers themselves mattered. The presence of the colonial administrative buildings, however, is a threatening one, for though the kgotla and the buildings existed side by side, “the bureaucratic world was fast devouring up the activities of the ancient, rambling kgotla world” (CT 62). Thus the traditional way of life as symbolized by the kgotla was being encroached upon from without. Despite the usurpation of power by the colonial administration, it

hadn't yet taken over people's affairs—the kgotla was still the people's place. It was the last stronghold where people could make their anguish and disputes heard, where nothing new could be said about human nature—it had all been said since time immemorial and it was all of the same pattern, repeating itself from generation unto generation.

(CT 62)

The repetition, the cyclical pattern of the traditional means of disseminating knowledge, of passing on the culture and its values from generation to generation suggests a continuity, both historical and cultural, that Head apparently found attractive in the routine of life in such Botswana villages.

The short story “Life,” a tale of a prostitute who returns to the village and continues to practice her “profession,” is another work in the collection that reflects the use of the center as a spatial metaphor. The protagonist, a young woman ironically named Life, is murdered by a husband frustrated in his attempt to reform her. Once Life is settled in the central part of the village, her presence attracts other women: first housewives and farmers, the “intensely conservative hard-core centre of village life” who later shun her when they discover her occupation; then the beer-brewing women “who had emancipated themselves some time ago,” women who rejected taking a husband in favor of ruling themselves (CT 39). With the loud-playing music, the beer drinking, and the endless parade of men in and out of Life's yard, the “din and riot of a Johannesburg township was duplicated, on a minor scale, in the central part of the village” (40). However, in this case, the center takes on the characteristics of a place of sinful, perverse activities, a place of inevitable destruction because of the moral decay associated with it and its source, Life.

The hotel and pub that open several months after Life's arrival were shunned by all the village women, including the beer-brewers who felt “they had not fallen that low yet …” (40). The intrusion of destruction into Life's sphere is represented by the movement of Lesego into her life and their subsequent marriage. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Life moved out of her sphere, for when “death [Lesego] walked quietly into the bar” (41), Life was drawn to Lesego and approached him.

The inclusion of Lesego into her sphere, of course, changes Life and ultimately brings about her destruction, for her space must accommodate male conditions for her survival: male control of all the money, male control of her socializing (no more playing the transistor radio), and male control of her sexuality (no more prostitution). Lesego promises Life death if she violates the third condition. The anguish of living under those terms, living as a subservient, obedient wife drives Life to her former liaisons with men, and results in her death at the hands of Lesego. Life is her own center, the source of her own vitality and happiness. The presence of a man in her sphere changes the quality of existence within that sphere. This story dramatizes the irreconciliation of a male-dominated realm of existence represented by Life's marriage to Lesego and that of a female sphere where women exercised total control of their lives. Like an abnormal growth, Life is cut out of the center of the village—killed with one of Lesego's knives used to slaughter cattle—and she becomes only a memory of a livelier time in the village's history.

Throughout this volume of short stories, the Botswana landscape itself and the structuring of space in the village assume added significance. Head's perception of space/place as revealed here is translated into the pulse of the lives of the villagers and the impact of values in conflict. She is in her own way celebrating life in the communities that she depicts while assessing the socio-historical changes and the sexual politics that inform these stories of Botswana village women and men.


  1. Bessie Head was reportedly born in 1937 to Bessie Emery, a white South African who at the time had been committed to the Pretoria Mental Hospital, and a black man whose identity is not known. Head was not embraced by the wealthy Emery family, but was raised as an orphan instead. She grew up having to live within the boundaries established for “Coloureds,” her assigned racial category. Head's expressed feeling that she lacked a sense of history may well have emerged from the circumstances surrounding her birth and childhood in addition to living under apartheid. Also see Susan Gardner's “‘Don't Ask for the True Story’: A Memoir of Bessie Head.” The author raises questions about Head's shared account of her own past and inconsistencies Gardner discovered by researching hospital records and other sources before Head's untimely death.

  2. One of the most helpful sources on Head's treatment of the Botswana landscape is Joyce Johnson's “Structures of Meaning in the Novels of Bessie Head.” According to Johnson, “The paradigm of the conflict between characters in Head's novels is the behavior of the natural elements in the semi-desert area of Botswana” (56). Images derived from the physical and social environment reflect broader existential concerns (56–57).

Works Cited

Beard, Linda Susan. “Bessie Head in Gabarone, Botswana: An Interview.” Sage 3.2 (Fall 1986): 44–47.

Gardner, Susan. “‘Don't Ask for the True Story’: A Memoir of Bessie Head.” Hecate 12 (1986): 110–29.

Head, Bessie. “An African Story.” The Listener 30 Nov. 1972: 735–37.

———. The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales. London: Heinemann, 1977.

———. “A Search for Historical Continuity and Roots.” Momentum: On Recent South African Writing. Ed. M. J. Daymond, J. V. Jacobs, and Margaret Lester. Pietermaritzburg: U of Natal P, 1984. 278–80.

———. Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind. London: Heinemann, 1981.

———. “Witchcraft: Fiction by Bessie Head.” Ms. Nov. 1975: 72–73.

Johnson, Joyce. “Structures of Meaning in the Novels of Bessie Head.” Kunapipi 8.1 (1986): 56–60.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1977.

Kenneth W. Harrow (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6076

SOURCE: Harrow, Kenneth W. “Bessie Head's The Collector of Treasures: Change on the Margins.” Callaloo 16, no. 1 (winter 1993): 169–79.

[In the following essay, Harrow views boundaries—maintaining and overcoming them—as the major thematic concern in Head's short fiction.]

The subject of Bessie Head's stories is change itself, and specifically the threshold where change takes place. Change has become the issue of women's writing since independence—change and not simply rights or equality. Though there has been continuous concern with abuse of women, a concern voiced in the miserabilist school of Sembène's Voltaïque or Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood, or presented in more chauvinistic terms in Jagua Nana, it is in the stories of Bessie Head, Mariama Ba, Buchi Emecheta, and Ama Ata Aidoo that the very boundaries between men and women, between past and present roles, those that are set in place in the constitution of women's identities, are called into question. With Bessie Head, in fact, boundaries, the forces that maintain and perpetuate them, and those forces that dissolve them, could be said to be the focus of and key to her work.1

Especially in the short stories of Bessie Head we find qualities that support this approach. One frequently finds there characters who are sketched, and whose one or two dominant traits assume such proportions as to give the stories an allegorical aspect. They appear for an episode or two in which the point of their appearance is established and the question of their fate determined. The lines of their lives are reduced, brought into focus, and purified. The crossing of lines forms the quintessential action.

With Bessie Head an ironic fatalism governs these women's lives, seen in the gap between the narrative point of view and those of the characters. Galethebege's Christian faith, in “Heaven Is Not Closed,” is described as sincere and heartfelt by a narrator whose sympathies are closer to Galethebege's non-Christian, skeptical husband. More often the irony stems from the internal gap inherent in the position of the women themselves: caught in a network of social custom and constraint, the women in Head's stories experience moments of transition, blasphemy, violence and death, either because of the strength of their desire, as with Galethebege, Life, or Rankwana in “The Deep River,” or because of their insistence upon preserving integrity and independence, as with Life, Dikeledi, and Mma-Mabele. The conflicts often occur within the characters themselves, even when external constraint is brought to bear. What emerges is a pattern of struggle between powerful, repressive forces and equally adamant drives grounded in desire and refusal.

The passage across this landscape of combat does not lead to a new vision of history, does not pave a path through history, but rather traces magical lines and horizons that set off one time and place from another. Dawn, nightfall, cusps of existence where existential decisions are made—these are boundaries given meaning by personal choice and not historical movement. Even death takes on significance in this way, as though ultimate forces were contained in each individual fate.

However, along this larger allegorical vista, one finds the particular features of the present time in which the conflict over social roles has become exacerbated by historical change. The strategy of representing this conflict as one involving boundaries, with the transgression of accepted frontiers of action and the protection of conventional space, permits the joining of allegorical and historical time. It also suggests the broader meaning inscribed in larger divisions of power, as Mernissi (1987) has postulated in the more obvious case of Morocco: “The institutionalized boundaries dividing the parts of society express the recognition of power in one part at the expense of the other. Any transgression of the boundaries is a danger to the social order because it is an attack on the acknowledged allocation of power. The link between boundaries and power is particularly salient in a society's sexual patterns” (137). We can see this in the story, “Heaven Is Not Closed,” and especially in the blank spaces surrounding Ralokae's first wife.

“Ralokae had been married for nearly a year when his young wife died in childbirth. She died when the crops of the season were being harvested, and for a year Ralokae imposed on himself the traditional restraints and disciplines of boswagadi or mourning for the deceased” (The Collector of Treasures, 8). What is the name of Ralokae's first wife? Why is she called only “Ralokae's first wife,” whereas Ralokae's brother, Modise, is identified by name? Twice at the outset of the narration there are references to “the old man, Modise” (7, 8). He is also the narrator, and when the narrative setting is placed within the context of Modise's story, Modise passes back into the conventional anonymity of the third person omniscient narrator. He is empowered by his special relationship with the reader, has access to the hidden truth, and shares it with us, as with his grandchildren who constitute his immediate audience. He is the focus of their attention—they look at him as he addresses them. He creates the mood, and the children's reactions are orchestrated into a single response: “A gust of astonished laughter shook his family out of the solemn mood of mourning that had fallen upon them and they all turned eagerly toward their grandfather, sensing that he had a story to tell.” We wait with them in anticipation for the beginning of the telling: “‘As you know,’ the old man said wisely, ‘Ralokae was my brother …’” (98).

If one can speak of the power to represent things, as well as the compulsion of inherited literary paradigms, with their structures that always already engender a set of reader expectations and responses, then one should also be able to speak of the resistance of these forces. Within “Heaven Is Not Closed,” the point of departure for that resistance is provided by the unnamed first wife of Ralokae whose untold story is centered on a single clue, her death which came “when the crops of the season were being harvested.”

To enter the text through the opening in the story that occurs with this young woman is to write her/story on a series of blank slates. We are not told a number of things about her which are essential to our understanding of the relationship she had with Ralokae. Who was she? Who was her family? What kind of marriage was it? Ralokae, we are told, was a man who scorned the new European/Christian way, and who adhered to the traditional customs. This did not mean he was conservative. To the contrary, he was something of a rebel in this regard. Her position is unknown. If he chose her because she, too, ignored the new Christian way, then all we can say is that her image is gained through the reflection cast by her husband, by Ralokae, whose name is clearly of significance to the storyteller.

We don't know if they had children—merely that she dies in childbirth. If there were children, then the tie to their mother's family should continue to weigh in Ralokae's life, and, more important, they would now be raised by Galethebege. Although it is her grandchildren who listen to Modise, we are not told whether those grandchildren include any offspring of the first wife. Indeed, the listeners are also described as Modise's children and his grandchildren, although he himself never took Galethebege as his wife. If the description is intended to be generic—the old man is generally called “grandfather” out of respect—the narrative does not present it in this fashion. This might appear insignificant were it not for the unique detail which we are provided about Ralokae's first wife, the time of her death. When she passed away, at a time that corresponded to her coming to full fruition (a year of her marriage had passed, she was about to give birth), the crops were being harvested. The child was to be the harvest. She died in childbirth, and left no other visible trace than her absence, her death, the time of her dying. Without children and name she faced the worst of fates customarily reserved for the childless and dispossessed, oblivion. In Modise's telling of her story she is completely unobtrusive, except for the key opening her absence provides for Galethebege.

“He was young and impatient to be married again and no one could bring back the dead” (9). Death brings irreversible change. A one-way passage across the threshold that is visible to us from only one side, it culminates the movement towards quietude, like thermodynamic flow, a linear movement in contrast to the seasonal cycle of renewal. Like her life, Ralokae's wife's death is recorded in the dossier of Ralokae's life.

Following her death, Ralokae observed the traditional custom of mourning, a “discipline” which Head identifies as boswagadi. There seems to be no reason to identify this custom by its Setswana name, but for the fact that Ralokae is a traditionalist and strictly observes the “traditional restraints” which one must assume include sexual continence—a detail that ironically outweighs the importance to the narrator of naming or discussing the woman whose death was the cause of the boswagadi. Upon the end of the period of mourning, Ralokae “take[s] note of the life of Galethebege” (9) and begins to court her. Despite their differences in belief—she is a devout Christian and he an averred traditionalist—he overcomes her reservations and convinces her to marry him. They marry, after he tells her “firmly”: “I took my first wife according to the old customs. I am going to take my second wife according to the old customs too” (9).

Ralokae's firmness is set in contrast with Galethebege's “uncertainty” which marks her declaration to Ralokae about her Christian faith. She must inform the “missionary” of her decision to marry a man who is set in “Setswana custom,” thus engendering the story's principal conflict, the antagonism between Christianity and traditional “custom.”

Ironically, it is the discipline imposed by boswagadi which causes Ralokae to take note of Galethebege: “It was the unexpectedness of the tragic event and the discipline it imposed on him, that made Ralokae take note of the life of Galethebege” (9). Her quietly ordered life, one which had been too insignificant for him before, is now what attracts him. As her faith in the “will of God” is what gives her existence its special quality for him, one has to assume Ralokae's first wife was a different sort of woman, had a different set of qualities. And it is, perhaps, the contrast, the appeal of difference, which the absence and the discipline awakened.

The direction taken by the narration moves away from these ironies. Even Ralokae fades into the background as Galethebege finds herself caught between Christian and Setswana custom, between the missionary and Ralokae. Although her husband does not insist that she give up her faith, he refuses to convert; and the missionary refuses to marry her to an “unbeliever,” going so far as to announce that heaven is closed to Ralokae. Although this situation might not have been unique to the community, it is presented by Modise as though it were special, as though the conflict it engendered, always potentially there in the presence of the two antagonistic communities, were realized in the story of Galethebege, causing a considerable commotion. There is no indication that Ralokae faced this with his first wife, and every indication that an important decision was being made by Galethebege. She is thus placed between two forces for the first time.

However, the nature of the conflict is not as evident as it might appear. At first, we learn that the matter of her Christian faith and his insistence upon tradition stood between them “like a fearful sword.” The conventional phrasing of this phallic image serves to trivialize her uncertainties and would more naturally seem to suggest the firmness of Ralokae, the unswerving male. This conventionality is immediately deconstructed by Galethebege's passion. Blood pounds in this quiet Christian woman's fingers, and when she commits herself to Ralokae, “the sword quivered like a fearful thing between them” (9). Clearly desire takes priority in this struggle, a struggle begun with the discipline of abstinence, the control of desire. The sword which lies between lovers, like Tristan's fidelity to his monarch, soon becomes identified with the instrument of desire itself.

Between Ralokae and Galethebege desire and passion replace the discipline of boswagadi and the quietude of Christianity. For Galethebege the conflict remains, but the tension it produces is displaced onto her desire. Thus when she tells the missionary of her fiance's Setswana custom, sexuality and traditional beliefs are conflated and condemned when viewed from the distance of foreign eyes: “sexual malpractices were associated with the traditional marriage ceremony (and shudder!), they draped the stinking intestinal bag of the ox around their necks” (10).

Galethebege's interviews with the missionary were intended to bridge the gap between the two men, the two customs. Instead, she finds herself trapped between the missionary's interdictions and her husband's adamancy. She had hoped to permit the passage of love through her to overcome the conflict between the two men—to mend the rift between the institutions with their two sets of customs. She sought to achieve a “compromise of tenderness,” but instead of permitting the flow of love, thus resolving the people's “cry for love” engendered by the foreign intrusion of colonialism, she becomes herself the occasion for hatred. Seeking to unite, she is excluded. The missionary's “rage and hatred were directed at Ralokae, and the only way in which he could inflict punishment was to banish Galethebege from the Church. If it hurt anyone at all, it was Galethebege” (11).

The missionary's reaction to the Setswana custom of uniting the couple under the yoke of the cow's intestines conforms directly to Mernissi's assertion that the setting of boundaries, and their transgression, reflect the distribution of power within society, and that it is especially in respect to sexual relations that this relationship between boundaries and power emerges. The act of allegiance is represented here as a joining—the intestines yoke the couple under the aegis of Setswana custom, just as the choice of Christianity was to “embrace the Gospel” (8). The missionary's exclusion of Galethebege from the church, and his hatred for a man he did not know, erected impermeable barriers; the struggle for control over the power to join becomes visible in his discourse about the closing of heaven to the unbeliever.

As a result, Galethebege failed as mediator, as a semi-permeable membrane or as hymen, and instead became the trembling sword of desire. Before the missionary's anger her reaction was to “tremble,” and her trembling gave alarm to the missionary. Despite his fulminations and banishment, in the end it is he who is excluded from the story while our attention is turned to the effects of the struggle for power upon the would-be mediator, the woman.

The ultimate irony is that Galethebege suffers the missionary's wrath because of her faith, her quietness grounded in the certainty of God's will which she conveyed to Ralokae. What wins her Ralokae also earns her the missionary's harsh judgment. Her trembling, both passion and conflict, signals not only the impossibility of mediation as they are viewed from one intransigent side, but the emplacement of the woman between two competing, intransigent males. She becomes the boundary. Instead of permitting the flow of understanding, instead of fructifying the community, she serves as the occasion for positions to harden, forming an absolute barrier between them. If death will not restore Ralokae's first wife, neither will Galethebege restore wholeness to the community. The irony condemns the mediator to the role of divider.

The unnamed woman Galethebege replaces died at harvest time, and a year later, again at harvest time, Galethebege takes this woman's place in Ralokae's attentions. Woman, whose first role was simply to bear the fruit at harvest, becomes, in the person of her successor, an instrument of desire as well as of division. Condemned to a trembling quietude, Galethebege assumes the very tension implicit in her role, transforming the failure of mediation and the need to please two incompatible orders into the form of desire. Although the vocabulary of Galethebege's acts is co-opted by another's testimony, it ironically turns on its original speaker. Modise never sees beyond the dimensions of the male conflict, and the community is set to laugh at Galethebege's continued acts of prayer and faith. But the laughter acknowledges the triumph of desire, as the prayers become, in their minds, appeals to open the doors of heaven to Ralokae—that the desire might empower Galethebege's words to achieve the act of ultimate penetration.

In “Life,” “Snapshots of a Wedding,” and “The Collector of Treasures,” Head moves to the question of exclusion and resistance, with the triumphant position emerging with the ambivalent return of the excluded term. Even with Galethebege we have a foreshadowing of this theme: “It was the first time love had come her way and it made the blood pound fiercely through her whole body till she could feel its very throbbing at the tips of her fingers. It turned her thoughts from God a bit, to this new magic life was offering her” (“Heaven Is Not Closed” [9]). With love, Bessie head suggests an alternative to the restrictions associated with institutions and their power. She suggests an alternative life to that confined and hedged by the force of social convention and phallocratic rule, and debased by its association with human cruelty. Her universe is that manichean, that absolute in its judgments about people, that rigorous in the demands placed upon life to fulfill the need for happiness. Love frees its guest to experience life, frees its guest from the oppressive side of existence and all its petty beliefs. Love takes its guest to the limits allowed by life, where magic begins.

In “Life,” the protagonist, herself named Life, is a victim of the harsh and implacable enforcement of limits upon her conduct. The time and setting for this story are the most precise of those in all Bessie Head's stories. She tells us in 1963 the borders were first set up between South Africa and Botswana, and pending the independence of Botswana in 1966 all Botswana nationals were obliged to return home. Ironically it is the end of colonialism in the British territory that accounts for the expulsion of the migrants and the rigorous enforcement of borders; during the prior period the movement of migrant laborers was unimpeded.

The return of Life, a smart “city girl,” to her parents' home village was greeted by her women neighbors with the expectation of a new brightness: “She is going to bring us a little light” (38). Again there is irony here since it was Life's free and easy way of living in South Africa that sets her at odds with the solid, respectable members of the Botswana community. The only ones who follow in her path are the beer-brewing women, “a gay and lovable crowd who had emancipated themselves some time ago” (39). Free to drink and have babies on their own, they elevated Life to the status of their Queen, and enjoyed carousing in her compound where “food and drink flowed like milk and honey” (40).

At the end of the story, “Life” has been killed by “Death.” Life is attracted to her opposite, Lesego, death—a straight and determined man who refuses to compromise. She must adhere to the lines he draws around her, or else be killed. Ironically, she sees in him the hi-life excitement of the Jo-burg gangster and he sees in her the freshness of the new spirit. But whereas both Life and Death share a higher agenda than that defined by social convention, their subtextual opposition is what prevails—she is killed by him, and he is imprisoned because of her.

In a sense, they clash and destroy each other because of a misreading. Instead of complementing each other, they attacked the other's weakness: he attempted to end her freedom, and thus her “Life”; she refused him his right to possessiveness, he, a wealthy and generous cattle man. Each saw the beauty in the other and was blinded to the ugliness, the potential menace in the commitment.

Life is represented as a figure of freedom who refuses to accept the constraints of boundaries. She is trapped in an ironic fate: her return to the village is forced upon her by the state's imposition of national borders, and on her return the village installs Life in her dilapidated family compound, following the conventional social patterns. Thus her living space is defined for her, and not in a malicious fashion. Her women neighbors help restore the compound to a livable state, and the community effort takes on the air of a community celebration. However, the village is as much governed by its own authorities, with their normative set of limits and confines, as by the state. Power flows through the ruling males in public and social institutions, conveyed through public actions, attitudes and gestures, all of which are condensed into the laconic command Lesego issues to Life when he first meets her in a bar: “Come here” (41).

Life's motto was to live fast and die young: “All this was said with the bold, free joy of a woman who had broken all the social taboos” (40). The brief account of her story traces the tragic consequence of repression, the demise of the unconventional spirit. It details the acts of men who conspire to stifle “Life” through their desires, possessiveness, and judgments. Concupiscence is set against warmth, possessiveness against freedom, and judgment, the ultimate expression of power, against the magic whose “dizzying heights” offer the only escape from society's confinement and condemnation.

However, even within the men's circles, questions about freedom and magic persist. Lesego's friend, Sianana, attributes the tragedy of Lesego's incarceration to the crossing of boundaries: “Lesego, … why did you kill that fuck-about? You had the legs to walk away. Are you trying to show us that rivers never cross here?” (46). The story ends with the question unanswered.

If magic has its positive side in Life's frenzied pace and in love, it has its dark side as well, a demonic counterpart to the impossible joy of “dizzying heights.” Like magic, Witchcraft is set against the confines of Christianity and its fixed values of good and evil. In “Witchcraft,” Mma-Mabele regards herself as a faithful Christian, and so was provided, as were all other believers, with “some mental leverage to sort out the true from a mysterious invasion of some magical, destructive force.” Although she closes herself in, shutting the door and barring the window, the “hideous unknown presence … invade[s] her life during the night” (51). Obviously the actions of this presence know no limits or barriers. Like Life's joy, it springs from sources that lie beyond the coldly rational universe over which men have their dominion. Its powers to do harm are more than physical or psychological; they suggest the root of Head's deepest apprehensions.

In all of Bessie Head's short fiction, there is one overarching concern that returns to haunt us, and that is the fear of exclusion. In general, the conventions of Setswana society are viewed with misgivings because they oppress the free or kind spirit, opposing any resistance to their narrow bounds. But this borderline rebellion merely masks the deeper struggle where the darker, hideous features of total exclusion act to destroy the spirit of plenitude given the evocative name of Mother of Corn—Mma Mabele. Exclusion is the flip side of extinction for the woman victimized by the greed and power of male relatives or chiefs. In “The Special One,” a woman is cheated out of her inheritance by her brothers. “I lost it,” laments Ms. Maleboge, “because women are just dogs in this society” (81).

However, the same women can destroy men through their own dark and “dirty” powers. “Many women have killed men by sleeping with them during that time,” says Ms. Maleboge's friend, in reference to the period of menstruation. The great illuminating powers of awakening are more than matched by the profound, impenetrable night of despair. Bessie Head is a manichean Romantic when she gets done with the business of social criticism. The earth, the sun, the night, demonic and angelic forces haunt the ordinary lives that people lead in the village. Always there is a margin at which exile, exclusion, and the threat of death is felt.

Correspondingly, the margin is also the key feature in the awakening consciousness, expressed more poetically than in the image of dawn in “Snapshots of a Wedding.” Here the line that separates two temporal zones expands to cosmic dimensions: “Wedding days always started at the haunting, magical hour of early dawn when there was only a pale crack of light on the horizon. For those who were awake, it took the earth hours to adjust to daylight” (76). The wedding guests emerge from the haze like disembodied spirits, and slowly we enter a world in which the ascendance of the new, coarsely materialistic bride, named appropriately Neo, is set off, as expected, by her open-handed rival, Mathata. Their one-sided struggle for the hand of the well-to-do bridegroom, Kegoletile, pales before the movement of the larger forces of light and darkness, of water and earth, of life and death, all of which meet at the pale crack of dawn when the force of magic works best on the human players. “The cool and damp of the night slowly rose in the shimmering waves like water and even the forms of the people who bestirred themselves at this unearthly hour were disturbed in the haze; they appeared to be dancers in slow motion, with fluid, watery forms” (76).

At the end, Neo's strong-willed aunt pounds the earth at the wedding in her demand that this ill-bred scion of the younger generation turn to more solid ways: “Be a good wife! Be a good wife!” (80). This is the point at which the self-assertive will and the pressures exerted by society have the potential to clash. From the aunts' point of view, “Be a good wife” means remember the respect due us. To Life, this would entail submission and self-rejection, and to Dikeledi it ultimately signifies prison and isolation. “Be a good wife” thus leads us from the victory of a disrespectful and insensitive “modern” woman to the depths of exclusion for those who are vibrantly alive and sensitive.

To understand how Bessie Head treats woman as the excluded term, we turn to Birago Diop's short story, “Les Mamelles,” where conventional marriage practice led to exclusion and resistance. There, too, the cry of the narrative voice might well have been, “Be a good wife!” Khary is Momor's first wife, and she is a curmudgeon, not unlike the classical shrew, Dame Van Winkle. The story of Khary, as undoubtedly she herself would not have told it, is of an ill-tempered person who, as a child, failed to accept a disfiguring hump on her back. Often she fought with other children who taunted her about her “baby.” As an adult, married to Momor, Khary's self-consciousness prevents her from successfully fulfilling her marital obligations. Fear of ridicule keeps her from going out to help him in the fields or to bring him a hot meal. At night her bad temper alienates him, and so as to relieve her burdens he takes a second wife, Koumba, who has still a larger hump. Koumba is good tempered, eager to help her husband, and even willing to assist Khary in her chores, but Khary's spitefulness is only exacerbated. When Koumba finally succeeds in ridding herself of her hump, thus becoming as beautiful in form as in spirit, Khary faints in envy.

If Khary is not a good wife, if she is the classical “bad wife,” it is because of her failure to give of herself, to overcome vulnerability and pain which are venomously turned against others. Her flaws separate her from others; defensiveness turns to aggression against the very ones with whom she would be close. Excluded because of her failure to please, because of the pleasure she takes in inflicting pain on her tormentors, on her rivals, she becomes a victim of the pleasure enjoyed by Momor and Koumba. At the outset of the tale, we are told that in the matter of wives, two is not a good number. The proper number is one or three, and as spite and Khary become third wheels, it is the monogamous couple who appear suited and suitable, while Khary, wedded to her disposition, acquires the further burden of Koumba's large hump as well as her own.

In the final scene of “Les Mamelles,” Khary assumes fully the role of excluded term. She flees the happy twosome and seeks to drown herself in the ocean. However, the humps refuse to be submerged and are transformed into “Les Mamelles,” the marginal outposts of Africa formed into two hills lying off the west coast of Cape Verde—signposts of the extreme western limit of Africa, and, as they appear in the story, boundary markers designating the borders of black Africa.

Amadou Koumba's conventional wisdom is that the humps are signs of warning against the unsocial comportment of a “Bad wife.” However, they are also signs of refusal: the two “mamelles” of Khary “refused” submersion, refusing exclusion. They return after the conventional reading condemns the bad wife, after the pleasure we share with Momor and Koumba in excluding her is turned by the recognition that this is no different from the taunts of her playmates, from the very spite that justifies our own spiteful rejection of Khary. In short, we are trapped by our self-righteous appeal to a moral or ethical value when it is that value that denies our right to take pleasure in the pain of others.

When Khary's “malveillance” is described, it is likened to the bitterness of tamarind juice. Ironically, it is the magic of the spirit found in the tamarind tree that helps Koumba to disburden herself of her hump, and that causes Khary's final frustration. Just as Khary's spirit of refusal cannot be submerged, emerging transvaluated from the water in the end, so, too, is the very symbol of her bitter rejection ambiguously linked to the one whose power and knowledge cure Koumba of her hump. In the end the disobliging wife is discarded, but her more forceful demands are recast into the indomitable boundaries of her world, signposts of the irrepressible spirit of rebellion, of the far limits to which women may be forced to go. As “mamelles” the islets conserve something of the womanist essence writ large on the landscape; but as transformations of babies into breasts, they proclaim the refusal of submission to fixed roles of wife and motherhood, and further, of submission to fate, to essentialized womanhood altogether. The boundary is a warning of the dangers of refusal, but also a refusal of that warning.

Bessie Head takes us to those same limits in the story of the excluded wife, Dikeledi, in “The Collector of Treasures.” She, too, refuses to accept her husband's insistence that she be a “good wife,” that she prepare him his meals and bath, and serve him in bed, regardless of his own conduct and relationships with other women. Like Khary, Dikeledi pushes her refusal to the limits, and in the process attacks phallocracy at its root, sexual domination, again reminding us of Mernissi's statement that the sexual patterns of a society reflect the link between boundaries and power. Until her death, Khary fails to separate herself from her two humps, her “children” who stay on her back. Symbolically, she fails to make the transition achieved by Koumba from wife as mother to wife as lover, to complete the act of parturition with the severance that comes at the end of the term of nursing. Thus she fails to place Momor's needs before hers or her children's. Although presented as the aggrieved party, Dikeledi does the same; and when Garesego attempts to assert his prior claims, he is killed.

Dikeledi's passage is delineated by the same boundary points as are found at the outset of “Snapshots of a Wedding”—the magical margins to existence at which love, resistance, or painful exclusion are located. On her way to prison in the police van, she discovers, like all those driven to the edge, the need to awaken. Her interior landscape is projected onto the land in this powerfully evocative scene: “At first, faintly on the horizon, the orange glow of the city lights of the new independence town of Gaberone, appeared like an astonishing phantom in the overwhelming darkness of the bush, until the truck struck tarred roads, neon lights, shops and cinemas, and made the bush a phantom amidst a blare of light.” Here, at the liminal stage where bush and city exchange a ghostly reality, the harsh journey moves to its conclusion; a rude arrival and ruder awakening await Dikeledi, prior to her own final transformation: “All this passed untimed, unwatched by the crumpled prisoner; she did not stir as the truck finally droned to a halt outside the prison gates. The torchlight struck the side of her face like an agonizing blow. Thinking she was asleep, the policeman called out briskly: ‘You must awaken now. We have arrived’” (87).

Though she is crumpled in despair, she is not asleep, and has indeed arrived at the destination, the ultimate outpost of male authority and power, the proper site for her ultimate refusal. In contrast to the two isolated warning signs that are erected on Khary's watery tomb, Dikeledi's last stop is to be marked by the community of like-minded woman who also found the courage to fight back, and who were excluded and confined under the hegemony of the male judge and warden. There Dikeledi, a “collector of treasures,” finds the place for love, caring, and giving denied her by a patriarchal society.

Exclusion is transvaluated into fulfillment. The margin turns against the center again and again, matching love and defilement and love, until the mist swirls over the lines that would separate them. Without the ugliness or brutality of Garesego, without his rejection of Dikeledi's legitimate demands, her own struggle would not have begun, and her own quest for the treasures of life would not have been fulfilled in prison.

At the end, transformed by the telling, she is no longer a Dikeledi, but a Mma-Banabatha—both mother of her children and killer of their father. Her story ends with pointers that indicate where that terrible combination must lead her—exclusion and, simultaneously, self-fulfillment. As with Mariama Ba's Ramatoulaye, whose husband's death was both tragedy and liberation, Dikeledi and the other struggling women of Bessie Head's fiction move between two worlds in which the line of change defines/defies the ultimate borders, a predicament echoed in Ramatoulaye's drama of death, abandonment, and new life: “I listen to the words that create around me a new atmosphere in which I move, a stranger and tormented. Death, the tenuous passage between two opposite worlds, one tumultuous the other still” (So Long a Letter, 2).


  1. Boundaries are the subject of Derrida's speculation, especially in “Living On: Border Lines,” in “The Parergon,” and in Glas. He extends the concept of semi-permeable membranes and margins in his discussion by using the figure of the hymen in Dissemination. Culler gives a full treatment of this issue in his chapter on Derrida in On Deconstruction. The subject of boundaries also relates to fictional modes, and especially to irony and allegory, and has been discussed by de Man in Blindness and Insight (see “The Rhetoric of Temporality”). The link between marginality, boundaries, power and the space occupied by women is developed by Mernissi in Beyond the Veil.

Works Cited

Ba, Mariama. Une si longue lettre. Dakar: Les nouvelles editions africaines, 1980.

Derrida, Jacques. La dissemination. Paris: Seuil, 1972.

———. Glas. Paris: Editions Galilee, 1974.

———. “Living On: Border Lines.” Deconstruction and Criticism. New York: Continuum Publishing, 1979.

———. “The Parergon.” October 9 (1979): 3–40.

de Man, Paul. Blindness and Insight. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Diop, Birago. Les contes d'Amadou Koumba. Paris: Fasquelle, 1947.

Ekwensi, Cyprian. Jagua Nana. London: Heinemann, 1961.

Emecheta, Buchi. The Joys of Motherhood. New York: Braziller, 1979.

Head, Bessie. The Collector of Treasures. London: Heinemann, 1977.

Mernissi, Fatima. Beyond the Veil. Rev. Ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Ousmane, Sembène. Voltaïque. Paris: Presence africaine, 1962.

Adele S. Newson (review date 1994)

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SOURCE: Newson, Adele S. Review of The Cardinals, with Meditations and Short Stories, by Bessie Head. World Literature Today 68, no. 4 (autumn 1994): 869–70.

[In the following positive review of The Cardinals, with Meditations and Short Stories, Newson asserts that “Head provides something of a poetic rendering of what it means to be a woman and a writer in the male-dominated, racist, and sexist South Africa of her formative years as a writer.”]

Bessie Head's novella The Cardinals, assumed to be her first long piece of writing, represents an important literary instance of a woman writer's experience which is both controlled by and represented in the language of the dominant discourse. When viewed as companion pieces, The Cardinals and the meditations and short stories that follow it reveal Head's astounding ability to overcome the limitations of language and masculine experiences of language. The Cardinals is Head's most important work in that it prefigures later themes, characters, and stylistic choices.

The novella, written just prior to her exile in 1960–62, narrates the day-to-day encounters of the character Miriam (Charlotte Smith, later Mouse). Mouse is abandoned by her mother to a Coloured slum, educates herself, and ultimately lands a job as a reporter on a newspaper because she is “a writer of no mean ability.” She meets and falls in love with another reporter, Johnny, who, unbeknownst to either of them, happens to be her biological father.

Head's rerendering of the Oedipal myth grows out of the personal circumstances of her own life, a need to shock the reader into an uncomfortable awareness of the consequences of the Immorality Act, and perhaps a desire to reconstruct a canonical text. Where Oedipus accepts his guilt, puts out his eyes, then exiles himself from human society, there are no repentant characters in The Cardinals. Moreover, instances of incest abound in the novella, from the first foster father's foiled attempt at molestation, to Johnny's illicit love for his older sister, to Johnny's courtship of his daughter. The extent of his scorn of South African society and its laws is revealed early in the novella, when, after taking Mouse into his home, he invites her to pretend to be his sister. Mouse remains uncertain and confused about the physical aspect of her relationship with Johnny, while Johnny, the father-over, maintains his control over their relationship. The Cardinals features a significantly male-gendered landscape. Mouse is the intruder, the observer of masculine authority in practice.

The short piece “Where Is the Hour of the Beautiful Dancing of Birds in the Sun-wind?” might be read as an epilogue to The Cardinals—offering insights into the character of Mouse which are not forthcoming in the novella itself. In this piece the first-person narrator likens her existence to the continuous flow of water in a stream: “And I am only some of the water in the stream, never able to gauge my depth.” Here Head appears to be addressing the existence/fate of African women. The narrator goes on to explain that her world “is small, limited, a minute tragic circle of darkness in which [she] grope[s] and guess[es].”

“Where Is the Hour” is allegorical, describing the narrator's relationship to the land of Africa, “my loved country.” It provides powerful imagery of carnal love and love of country, merging and separating, then merging again. Africa is the selfish lover, indifferent to the speaker, “Because I am the woman I am—a terrible, threatening mixture of conflict and strangeness that is unacceptable all around me.” Still, the narrator is the daughter of Africa, just as Mouse is the daughter of Johnny, who is also a selfish lover, desiring to bring out the genius of her writing while simultaneously punishing her for her “femaleness.”

Margaret Daymond maintains, “That Bessie Head had always felt herself to be a writer is clear from The Cardinals, which is a passionate exploration of the craft and the calling.” Drawing from the experiences of her South African existence, Head provides something of a poetic rendering of what it means to be a woman and a writer in the male-dominated, racist, and sexist South Africa of her formative years as a writer.

Gillian Stead Eilersen (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Eilersen, Gillian Stead. “A Sense of Community, 1973–1974.” In Bessie Head, Thunder Behind Her Ears: Her Life and Writing, pp. 154–70. Cape Town & Johannesburg: David Philip Publishers Ltd, 1995.

[In the following essay, Eilersen provides a biographical account of Head's life at the time of The Collector of Treasures.]

Bessie could have relaxed and celebrated her success, with her controversial novel finally accepted for publishing. The euphoric upsurge seemed sadly lacking, however. The novel's stormy passage had cost her some friends, and this began to worry her as the year drew to its close: ‘The personal and the impersonal causes a terrible pain in my heart. I lost so many good friends during the time a thunderstorm raged in my life. They actually got nervous breakdowns from my letters,’1 she wrote to Giles Gordon in early December 1972. Three weeks later she put it even more plainly:

I can't carry on with any friendships just now and I am grateful to the people who no longer write to me. Human beings need a lot of love you know but those who journey into hell need love in abnormal proportions. Due to this, one gets to a stage where one rejects for a while any kind of sympathy or affection to get one's balance back. There is a sort of underlying hysteria in me that could just burst out and weep like hell on the nearest shoulder. I cannot afford it. I cannot afford to write any more of those tear-drenched letters until I see how I make out as a normal human being.2

Bessie had asked both Tom Carvlin and Paddy Kitchen to destroy her earlier letters. Tom Carvlin did so. So when she spoke about not writing ‘tear-drenched letters’ she would be intending to become more restrained in her correspondence, especially with these two friends. She and Tom Carvlin did keep in touch, but the correspondence became sporadic; and the tone of Bessie's letters to Paddy Kitchen became more factual, restrained and almost formal after her writing critically of A Question of Power. About the time that Bessie completed A Question of Power, she wrote asking Paddy Kitchen if she could dedicate the book to her, to which Paddy replied that she would be delighted and proud to have this happen. In fact Bessie gave up this idea, eventually dedicating the novel to Randolph Vigne, Christine Hawes, Ken and Myrna Mackenzie, and Bosele Sianana. In March 1973 she told Paddy Kitchen that she preferred not to write for the present because she was in the middle of one of her usual last-ditch battles with the devil.3 Paddy was travelling to Edinburgh frequently at the time and the correspondence lapsed.

Jean Highland had also stopped corresponding after Bessie's distraught letter in May. Finally, Bessie felt that Naomi did not love her any more or rather had never loved her. She, too, had been ‘rather cooled’4 off by the letter Bessie sent her when she had her breakdown. Bessie had not taken kindly to her comments to the publishers and Hilary Rubinstein about A Question of Power, as she felt that this was part of the reason for Hilary's aversion to it. But Randolph Vigne continued to hear from Bessie regularly.

Tom Holzinger left Serowe abruptly. It came as a shock to everyone at Swaneng when he received an official letter informing him that his residence permit, due to expire on 1 July 1973, would not be renewed. He was a man dedicated to working in the country for a long time, speaking Setswana fluently and even applying for citizenship, though this was refused. He completely supported the alternative educational opportunities offered by the Swaneng Complex, especially the brigades, and was thus against the country's established, often elitist, educational system, a typical example being an expensive private boarding school in Gaborone. This school was within the special sphere of interest of a permanent secretary in the President's Office. So it was probably an ideological clash that resulted in the administrative manoeuvre which led to Tom Holzinger's having to pack up in haste and leave for England. This was a great loss for Bessie. Tom Holzinger knew that he, along with Bosele Sianana and Howard, belonged to the exclusive little group of people whom Bessie had accepted as part of her daily life, responding to their loyalty with like feelings.5 Furthermore, he was one of the very few friends to whom she remained truly loyal, for the sudden shifts of mood, the sudden derogatory remarks passed about many of her other friends in the course of her extensive correspondence, were not to be Tom Holzinger's fate. She kept in touch with him as he developed his ‘socialist revolutionary’ ideas, his desire for blue-collar work so that he would not feel a social parasite and his plans to start a Boiteko project in the U.S.A. ‘Friends come and go for strange reasons,’6 Bessie could remark bitterly to Randolph Vigne.

In early 1973 Bessie wrote a short piece for Dulan Barber. He was editing a collection of articles and stories on single-parent families and in early 1973 he asked Bessie for a contribution. She promptly wrote an excellent piece entitled ‘Dear Tim, Will You Come to My Birthday Party?’ In it she gave particulars of her childhood for the first time in a purely autobiographical form. The forthright tone cannot disguise the underlying hurt.7

She began making dramatic statements again, statements revealing her deep preoccupation with death. To someone in Gaborone she said that she wished to get her son out of the country and she needed travel documents for him, but not for herself: ‘Dead bodies don't need travel documents.’8 She still felt threatened by evil. In fact she began to suggest that A Question of Power had only recorded half the story. Since then she had embarked on the second phase of the struggle. Recognising evil as evil had brought temporary relief and the energy necessary to write the book. But she had not exorcised the devil yet. For this reason thoughts of leaving the country occupied a great deal of her attention. In July she wrote asking Tony Hall, now living in Sussex, whether he would consider selling her a small portion of the family property where she could build a house. She had a great urge to settle in England. She asked him to talk to the other family members on this matter, but no more was heard of the scheme.9 Meanwhile she was consulting a bank manager about how one should write a will and he gave her detailed information on this matter.10

In September 1973 a new friend walked into her life. As she was tending her garden, she received a telegram from the American State Department in Gaborone asking her to come to the capital. The American poet Nikki Giovanni was on a lecture tour of some African countries and as soon as she reached Botswana she asked to meet their famous writer, Bessie Head. After some embarrassed enquiries, Bessie Head was traced, contacted and fetched, with all the complications of communication and transport which this involved.

Nikki Giovanni had probably first heard about Bessie Head, the famous writer, from Harold Head. By 1966, with his status as a freedom fighter, he had been admitted to the United States and had registered on a course at the John Oliver Killen's Writers' Workshop at Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee. Here he met the promising young poet, Nikki Giovanni.11 She actually wrote to Bessie shortly after Maru appeared in 1971. She it was who had said: ‘Bessie Head always reminds me of a classmate I should have had but didn't. A girl I should have shared secrets with but didn't. A girl I would have skipped Double-Dutch with.’12 Bessie had treasured this letter and read it many times but she had never replied. So when she held the telegram in her dirty gardening hands she was dumb-founded.

Then suddenly she was in Gaborone and coming towards her was a very ordinary looking girl, no make-up even, someone she too felt she might have gone to school with. And someone with whom she immediately felt comfortable. In no time they were chatting like old friends. For the four days that Nikki Giovanni was in Botswana, she insisted on keeping Bessie by her side. Nikki Giovanni was designated the title of ‘eternal sister’ and Bessie was sure she would gradually remember how they had been related in their previous incarnations. Her visit gave a wonderful lift to Bessie's life. She was totally unused to being fêted and enveloped with warmth and friendship. Bessie returned to Serowe to write some of her most inspired descriptions of her daily life and surroundings. These she sent to Nikki in an eight-page closely typed letter, which even for Bessie was impressive.

A Question of Power was published in October as planned. Shortly before its publication in England, it was sold to the American publishers Pantheon Books, and appeared there in May 1974. There was an added element of excitement attached to its appearance. Davis-Poynter had nominated it as his only entry for the prestigious Booker Prize, though by November Bessie knew that she was not short-listed. Friends in London launched the novel with a party at the Mackenzies but the guest of honour was not present. They played a taped message from Bessie.

The reviews appeared. They were often carefully worded and hesitant, rather than enthusiastic, sensing something important, yet grasping it incompletely. Paddy Kitchen, writing in the New Statesman, was perceptive and generous in her praise, though she did admit that it was not altogether easy ‘to share the journey’ Bessie Head was describing. She commented on ‘the clarity of the terror’ that had been rescued from the ‘private muddled nightmares’ of what in crude terms could be called a ‘nervous breakdown’; she called the writing ‘well-paced, with humour and stark information lacing the horror.’ In her concluding sentence she reiterated a point Bessie herself had made, referring to people of mixed blood ‘shading themselves down to browns and yellows and creams.’ Paddy Kitchen said that ‘a great deal has been written about black writers, but Bessie Head is surely one of the pioneers of brown literature—a literature that includes everybody.’13 Bessie liked the review, mentioning especially how pleased she was that Paddy had called Elizabeth ‘Everywoman,’ when she wrote to thank her. ‘I wondered who would see that humility that never rose above life itself,’14 she said. A review appearing the following April in the American journal, the New Republic, said that A Question of Power enlarged ‘the geographical as well as the symbolic regions of madness’ and praised the skill with which Bessie involved the reader in ‘the immediacy and terror of Elizabeth's confrontations with her demons.’ Bessie began a correspondence with this reviewer, Roberta Rubinstein, and her husband, Charles Larson, both American academics, during the course of which she revealed more of her own experiences of evil, the background to A Question of Power, as she called it.15

No other novel of hers had been given as much critical attention, but later she became somewhat gloomy about A Question of Power's reception. She felt that the critics were against her. Any mention of ‘insanity’ or a ‘nervous breakdown’ made her dislike a review. Though she valued Roberta Rubinstein's review, for example, the fact that she had referred to Elizabeth's ‘frigidity’ upset her. She was hypersensitive and vulnerable and maintained solidly that the novel had been about a confrontation with God and the Devil, a soul journey to hell. Her reaction showed that she had not been able to extricate herself from the experience she had described or distance herself from her material.

Getting her novel published had been only one trial Bessie faced. The modest income from her writing had gradually dried up and by August 1972 she was broke. She went to Patrick van Rensburg with her problem. During the time she had been working at the garden she had not taken any share of the earnings because she had her royalties. Now she needed money and he agreed to pay her R20 a month to tide her over. He contacted Randolph, who once more contacted Canon Collins. Some funds were collected for her in England.

Before A Question of Power had even found a hardback publisher, plans were being made for Bessie's future writing. Giles Gordon encouraged her to produce articles or short pieces that could be published in English newspapers and journals, thus keeping her name before the reading public until her next novel appeared.

Very rapidly she wrote ‘Borrowed Clothes,’ an article in which she gave free rein to her thoughts on creativity. She considered the deathly effect of being confronted with a society of extreme cruelty, such as the South African one, if you happen to be born a ‘dreamer and storyteller’ and wish to enrich people's lives with ‘thoughts and generosities wider and freer’ than anything they have. She sent it off in August and it was published in the Listener in November, under the title ‘An African Story.’

Ken Mackenzie, who as Cape Town editor of Drum had given Bessie advice with her early writing, had asked her to help him do some research into the life of his great-grandfather. This was John Mackenzie, the London Missionary Society minister who worked with the Bamangwato under their great chief, Khama III. It was to be a request with far-reaching consequences. Bessie found plenty about the remarkable missionary whose book Ten Years North of the Orange River had an excellent chapter on Bamangwato history, but what enthralled her most was the information she found out about the Bamangwato's famous chief. ‘Khama, the Great’ entered Bessie's life.

She wrote an article about him too and sent it off, hoping that the New Statesman would take it, but admitting later that it was short on fact and free on comment. When it was rejected she gave it to the Mackenzies with the information she had found about their relative, and started anew on a Khama article.

Noting the direction of her enthusiasm, Giles came up with a new idea. Why not write a ‘village’ book about Serowe along the same lines as Jan Myrdal's Report from a Chinese Village and Akenfield, Portrait of an English Village, by Ronald Blythe. Bessie started to read Akenfield and liked the idea of writing something about Serowe. Giles Gordon impressed on her that she should feel a very strong reason for writing the book and impose her own approach on her material, otherwise the venture would never be successful.

Meanwhile she had found a couple of other stories for Giles Gordon. In September 1969 there had been discussions about combining Maru with two or three other short stories because it was more a novella than a novel. At that stage Bessie mentioned that she had three available: ‘Jacob, The Story of a Faith Healing Priest,’ ‘Property’ and ‘The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses.’ However, Maru was published alone and the short stories went back into the drawer of Bessie's desk. She had originally written ‘Jacob’ because David Machin wanted something from her for a short-story collection dealing with children around the world. Both ‘Jacob’ and ‘The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses’ were longer than most magazines wanted but in November she sent them off to Giles Gordon in an optimistic frame of mind.

By this time Bessie had begun to give serious attention to her ‘Serowe book.’ She had decided to build it up around the lives and times of three important personalities—Khama the Great, Tshekedi Khama and Patrick van Rensburg. They reflected the three stages of the development of education in village history: the missionaries' education of a few children sitting out under a tree; the establishment of village schools making primary education available to all; the introduction of secondary and vocational education.

Much of her information she obtained by interviewing people who could tell her about the activities which had characterised village life at the various stages of its development. This she could not do on her own and she was fortunate to find help. Her friend Bosele Sianana had gradually learnt to speak English, taught by Bessie.16 She was a valuable interpreter and guide to the village wards. Bessie would hear about an old man who could tell about the role of the kgotla or was one of the original pot-makers in the village and she would ask Bosele where he lived. Bosele always knew things like that and she would take Bessie there, go through the long series of introductory greetings and patiently extract the account that Bessie wanted from him. Bessie would write, listen and absorb, then hurry back to her typewriter. Afterwards, she and Bosele would return to the informant and let him or her hear (or read) what she had written as a form of verification.

She had many rich experiences, as for example when she was interviewing the very first teacher in Serowe, aged about eighty. He spoke English and was proud of it. ‘But,’ he added with an engaging smile, ‘my English may not sound quite proper to you … The words don't come out so well, as I have no teeth.’17

Sometimes she could hardly make sense of the stories she was told and felt that she was not meant to. One old man had a wealth of ancient knowledge because he was almost a hundred years old. He was frail and semi-senile and for three months Bessie and Bosele would visit him periodically in the hopes of catching him in the right frame of mind to tell them about his past. After talking for ten minutes, he would begin to wheeze and cough and could not manage any more. The next time they came, Bessie always began by recapitulating what he had said last time. This would provoke splutters of indignation and he and his equally senile cronies would deny everything: ‘I never told this woman anything like that. Now is that our history, brothers?’ In this way she got six different—and totally useless—versions of the way their clan, the Talaote, originated. The only way she could get her own back on ‘those terrible old men having fun’ at her expense was to weave the versions into a fictional story and refer to the ‘confused and contradictory accounts of their origins.’ She called the short story ‘The Deep River.’18

Bessie almost met her match when she interviewed Grant Kgosi, tribal kgotla voluntary assessor and special observer. He was a man who belonged to the old order of things, when there was time to sit under the shady trees of the village kgotla and discuss at great length intricate points concerning human justice. Grant Kgosi was what Bessie called a ‘supreme example of the grandeur and charm of this old world on which the sun is setting.’19 An added touch of originality was his passion for writing official letters. Whenever he found an example of injustice or need, he wrote an official letter about it; two are included with the interview to illustrate this. He formulated each in his special way and flavoured it with flourishes such as ‘I … have the honour to voice my views’ and ‘Your affectionate servant.’ This gentleman saw such an advantage in knowing an extremely articulate lady who bashed away at the keys of a typewriter with ease that he often visited Bessie, and in his booming, majestic voice asked her to type out letters for him, sometimes falling asleep on her mat while she did so. He even carried the interest so far as to propose to her.20 Little did he realise that concealed within that homely female form was a writer of official letters beside which his own would fade into insignificance.

Bessie found another unexpected ally in her search for local history. Mary Kibel, Patrick van Rensburg's sister-in-law, was spending some time in Serowe while collecting folktales for a series of sixteen story-books she was writing, for use in schools in Botswana. A traditional historian called Mokgojwa Mathware was a veritable treasure trove of tales and Mary Kibel visited him many times in Pilikwe, where he lived, to hear his stories. Bessie and Bosele went with her sometimes and Bessie used an interview and two stories connected with the Bamangwato tribe in her book.21 Bessie later recalled their happy times together and especially their last trip to Pilikwe, ‘the picnic lunch in the bush, the puddles of water and the huge din of the insects and birds in the bush, out of their minds with all the rain we had had.’22

The most exhilarating part was doing research into Khama's life. She would need some for the ‘Serowe book,’ but she was also working towards a biography of Khama at a later date. She admitted to Giles Gordon that she only kept going on the book through the accidental discovery of Khama the Great. ‘No matter where I turn the stuff on him I've read during my research for the book had the effect of pulling my life together.’23

In November 1973 Reg Davis-Poynter paid an option of £100 to have first offer of the Serowe book. This gave Bessie some badly needed cash and the spur to get it finished.

There were also disadvantages connected with the work. At the beginning of 1974 Bessie said the book was weighing heavily on her and she was exhausted. She had to chase after, or rather wait for, people who had left Serowe to go out and plough their lands and would not be back for months. Then there was the question of tactfulness. ‘I always have to be very polite and people rile me a lot. They first say they like girls and then they don't like to see it in print and I began to have a block mentally through being so awfully polite … So I shot out and made side notes in my style, and commentary,’24 she wrote to Nikki Giovanni. She was clearly itching to get on to something more creative. And she had the material.

In late 1973, about the time A Question of Power appeared, London Magazine published what was to prove one of her most popular short stories, ‘The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses.’ The idea had originated years before in Francistown where Bessie had met a short-sighted little fellow, thin with a hollow chest and nobbly knees. He had been a political prisoner in South Africa and he told the story of how he had humanised a brute of a white warder. She never forgot it. After she had completed Rain Clouds, she started to write the tale down. She embroidered it slightly, adding ‘certain tendernesses.’

She demonstrates an unusual blend of traditional story-telling techniques and sharp social commentary. By the end of the first page it is clear that the picturesque setting described in the first lines—calm blue sky, white drifting clouds, long rows of bright green cabbages—provides the background for a prison work gang, Span One. The villainous warder poses a decidedly realistic threat with his blue eyes from which ‘a simple, primitive, brutal soul gazed.’25 When it comes, the happy ending has the same rueful blend of realism and fantasy. Getting Warder Hannetjie on to their side means that the prisoners can ‘manage the long stretch ahead’26 while they show their appreciation by stealing ‘certain commodities like bags of fertilizer’ for his farm.

Early in 1974 Bessie was in Gaborone with the intention of asking the United Nations High Commission Office for Refugees to re-open her file and try to help her to find a country of resettlement somewhere in the world. She was staying with Marit Kromberg, a Norwegian doctor whom she had known in Serowe and had interviewed for her Serowe book.

‘What were you doing there?’ asked Marit Kromberg when Bessie had told her of her morning's activities. Bessie told her the long story of her problems as a refugee. ‘Why not settle in Norway?’ she then said, knowing that the Norwegian government was taking in refugees from Southern Africa. Furthermore, she knew that at the University of Oslo they needed someone whose mother tongue was English to lecture on African literature.

It did not take her long to sort out the exact requirements and Bessie was given a genuine offer to resettle in Norway. The country itself sounded frightening to someone who scuffed the red sand of Serowe against her feet each day, who knew about drought, heat and irrigation but not about ice and snow; someone who listened in bewilderment to the Setswana spoken around her and had to face the fact that she would never learn Norwegian either. But Marit Kromberg pointed out the advantages: a free plane ticket to Norway; a living allowance for eighteen months while she was adjusting to the society; the prospect of citizenship; social security; good, varied educational facilities for Howard and the chance that he could become wholly integrated into Norwegian society; much sympathetic support for her as a writer. Here, after all these years, was the break Bessie had been waiting for. She could lift them both away from the evils that plagued her in Botswana. She accepted the offer.

Bessie's life was turned upside down. She would have to move fast and be ready to leave Botswana by about August so that she could commence her new job after the summer holidays and start Howard off at school at the same time. She would have to get her house sold. She would have to pack their belongings. Then there was the problem of her writing project. The ‘Serowe book’ would have to be got ready to take with her. However, none of these problems could be compared to the almost insurmountable ones connected with any other form of emigration. The official side of it would be arranged by the Norwegian authorities and their transport expenses would be met. Accommodation and sufficient funds to live on would be waiting at the other side.

She had her house valued and set the sales price at P 3,800. The household furniture that would be sold separately consisted of two beds, a wardrobe, a table and chairs, a writing desk, a gas stove, kitchen utensils and gardening tools. But Bessie was like the old couple going on holiday from Cape Town to Durban that she had described in her very first published piece: ‘Just as the first warning bell rang he shouted with real terror in his voice: “Ma, get off. Let's go home.”’27 Three months after accepting the offer, she changed her mind. She found that she could not leave Serowe after all.

Bessie's reasons for making her decision greatly distressed Marit Kromberg. She said she had deliberately chosen death. She felt she could not live much longer, ‘five years would be a miracle’ and she would prefer to die in the little house she had built herself. As for Howard, he would have to make his own way in the world. And should she receive a ‘deportation letter’ (as she called it) such as Tom Holzinger had received, she would simply commit suicide, after sending telegrams to the Botswana government and other people to let them know.28 Some months later, however, when she heard from a common friend how much her references to death and suicide had upset Marit, she wrote to her again: ‘You can always trust me to think up desperate dramas like that! Well here I am still alive.’ Then she showed that she was grateful for Marit's help. Their long talks had enabled her to gain control of the panic that used to flood over her life. She would ‘spend a lot of time writing panic-stricken letters to people who could do nothing about the situation.’ But Marit showed her in every way that she cared about her and Bessie needed this: ‘[D]eep down I just wanted someone to care; once I was sure of that, I calmed down.’ She admitted that she had put her thoughts about death badly, but in fact she had faced it more realistically than ever before. People normally do not do that; it is too ‘unpleasant and frightening. Once I had faced that, I simply carried on with the jobs in front of me … It was that particular expertise that settled my mind so one should say that you are a very good doctor!’29 It is deeply tragic that Bessie so often felt that no one cared about her. Many people had disproved this but she sometimes had difficulty in recognising and accepting offers of help in the same simple spirit that they were given.

In some moods she apparently saw herself now living ‘one of the most gruesome lives it is possible for a human being to live.’30 On the one hand, then, she was making far-reaching plans to leave the village and Africa, while on the other she was working on the most interesting parts of the book. She had reached the stage where she was arranging her material, focusing her social history around her three central personalities, men who ‘wanted to change the world. They had to make great gestures. Great gestures have an oceanic effect on society—they flood a whole town.’31 In the section relating to Khama III, she shows how he had, with his fine sense of timing and diplomacy, led his people into Christianity without entirely disrupting traditional tribal values. After the short biographical account she collects the interviews with villagers describing such things as early education, the function of the kgotla and traditional skills such as hut-building, tanning, pot-making and basket-making. The second section, devoted to Tshekedi Khama, is used to show how he had used the reforms of his father to launch a programme of development activities for the Bamangwato. Schools, a hospital and a college were built by the men of the tribe, working in age regiments. This meant that when Patrick van Rensburg settled in the village, his ideas of self-help were not foreign to the people. The final section gathers together interviews describing and illustrating the development of the cooperative projects such as Swaneng School, the Brigades and Boiteko. Normally Bessie allows the interviews to stand alone, though she does intrude occasionally, as with the section on religion, where she gives a brief account of the London Missionary Society in Serowe; and the first of the two chapters called ‘The End of an Era,’ where she pays tribute to the old men of the tribe and the ‘haunting magic’ that surrounds them.

The parts where she could write some of those lyrical passages ‘with all the stops out on the landscape,’32 as she put it, were what she enjoyed most. The Introduction captures the atmosphere of the village with keen precision. She describes the pulsating ball of fire that suddenly breaks clear of the horizon at sunrise; the ‘peculiar teasing rain’ that comes so seldom; the ring of low blue hills surrounding the village: ‘[A]t least, they look blue, misty, from a distance. But if sunlight and shadow strike them at a certain angle, you can quite clearly see their flat and unmysterious surfaces. They look like the uncombed heads of old Botswana men, dotted here and there with the dark shapes of thorn trees.’33 Of this passage she later said that it ‘takes months of observation to write a passage like that and real love. That's the difference between chores and creation.’34

Her ‘Epilogue—A Poem for Serowe’ she had ready and waiting in a first draft. When she returned from her meeting with Nikki Giovanni the previous October, she sat down and wrote what later became this poem. The birds, pathways and sunsets, the small boys with their home-made wire cars, the winter outdoor fire-sides, the wedding parties, are all there. The description of the solitary bird-call at dawn in the Introduction is also taken directly from what she wrote that inspired day when she felt as fond of her typewriter as an old piano player would feel of his piano, ‘all the keys and my fingers are so acquainted with each other.’35

This build-up of emotional pressure as she completed the typescript of what she had decided to call Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind was what made Bessie take the final decision about remaining in Serowe. She explained it thus to Giles Gordon: ‘I'm going to say something very illogical now. It's a question of love for a place. I'd posted off the Serowe typescript to you then I sat up the whole night and quietly thought out my situation and by the time morning came round I had cancelled all plans about going to Norway.’

She admitted that the offer had been good, but ‘I have put too much of my heart into the country.’ She had been thinking of Howard's future when she decided to emigrate to Norway, but she now realised that ‘one could protect a child just so far and then you have to let him fight the rest out for himself.’36 She thought of all the energy she had put into writing the book; about the way she understood so many things in an entirely different way now. She thought of the doddering old men in the Botalaote ward with their rich heritage of oral history and their roots deep in the sand, stone and bush of the place. She thought of her bicycle rides into the village every day. The way everyone knew ‘Mma-Heady’ and greeted her. She thought of her own little house so carefully built and her many solitary nights at her writing desk, now to be sold. She could not leave it. When she died, she told friends, she wanted to be buried at the Botalaote cemetery.

Bessie had received a welcome letter from Patrick Cullinan in November 1973. He had only recently heard about her nervous breakdown and was concerned about her and anxious to help. In fact, he had heard such unsettling things about her unhappy life in Botswana that he was already busy raising money, with the support of people like Nadine Gordimer, to pay for air tickets for Bessie and Howard should they wish to go to England. When he and another old friend from Cape Town days, the poet James Matthews, realised that the situation was not as critical as they had feared, it was agreed that Patrick and his wife Wendy should visit her as soon as something could be arranged. They came in May, expecting to see her for the last time in Africa, but were pleased to hear that she was staying after all. It was the first time the Cullinans and Bessie had ever had the chance of sitting down and enjoying each other's company. When they had met in Cape Town and in Pretoria, when they helped her get her exit permit, things had been tense and anxious, with urgent decisions constantly looming. Now there was time for ‘almost solving what keeps it all up there spinning round.’ The Cullinans met many of Bessie's friends from Swaneng and were absorbed straight into the ‘family,’ as they saw eye to eye on so many things. Patrick had given up farming and he and Lionel Abrahams, a poet too, had started a small publishing firm, Bateleur Press. He studied Bessie's ‘Serowe book’ with great interest. On the last evening, after too much to eat and to drink, Patrick and Bessie got into an excited argument about the way white Afrikaners had treated the blacks in South Africa. Patrick could not go along with Bessie's sweeping generalisations and damning verdicts. ‘Look here Bessie, you have to keep more to the facts than you are doing now,’ he said, and felt for the first time her displeasure at being opposed. She accused him angrily of supporting evil people.37 But they parted amicably the next day, Patrick lending her a large sum of money and six months later some more: ‘You left a big glow behind you with all the people you met,’ wrote Bessie to Wendy shortly afterwards.38 Later she told Patrick that she had done some reading on the subject of their disagreement and that he was right. She gave him something as rare as a formal apology.

In early June the publisher Reg Davis-Poynter responded to the Serowe manuscript. He told Giles Gordon that he thought very highly of it, but that he was afraid it would not be easy to sell. Though his offer for the book was not very high, Giles advised Bessie to take it. It was important to have a publisher who was as enthusiastic about the book as Davis-Poynter was. However, he felt that Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind would be improved by about a dozen line drawings to illustrate the text. Bessie wrote back immediately, accepting Davis-Poynter's offer and mentioning a friend of Mary Kibel's, Polly Isaacsen, as an artist who did line drawings which were ‘very, very good indeed.’39 She also told Davis-Poynter that she had interviewed 94 people in connection with the project and she had promised them all a free copy each. She hoped that he would be willing to supply her with these free of charge. Davis-Poynter warned her that having to supply so many free copies would inevitably send the price of the book up. At the same time Giles Gordon sent a copy of the typescript to the American publishers Pantheon Books, in the hopes that they would accept it and thus cut the publishing expenses. By the end of July Bessie had signed the publishing contract with Davis-Poynter. She pleased Paddy Kitchen and Giles Gordon greatly by asking them if she could dedicate the book to them.

Bessie knew that she still had great reserves of unworked material, even though Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind was complete. A short article she had written, called ‘Bamangwato Children,’40 appeared that May. But she had much more stuff that could be worked into either articles or stories. If she had left Botswana she would have had to abandon her beloved Khama and these other short stories that were beginning to form in her imagination. With the decision suddenly reversed, ideas had begun to bubble into her head.

She started straight into her Botswana Village Tales, as she originally called the collection. ‘I'm having a real boom of ideas. I think it is because I nearly lost my home, the quiet everyday routine and all the things I love here. I look at them all, appalled by the thought that I had ever planned to give up my birds, my pathways, my sunsets!’41 she wrote to Giles Gordon later in June.

Once more she sat at her desk far into the night, with her two or three candles lighting her papers. Howard, waking suddenly and seeing her face animated and distorted in the candlelight, would hear her chuckling to herself, or cursing, and fall asleep again to the clatter of the typewriter. ‘I depend very much on magic almost. Sometimes when I am sitting at the typewriter I can almost see my hands glowing with light,’ she once confided to a friend.42 But her present task gave her ample opportunity to demonstrate what she considered her particular talent as a writer: the ability to ‘stand back and wait to learn … letting people teach you about themselves can be a wonderful experience.’43 She once described her own creative process like this: ‘I like fiction myself, once I am going strong and in the middle of work. I don't like what happens in between, the terrible doubts and frustrations and uncertainties. In between books I always believe I can't write at all—it's that long build-up period that one goes through before one can take on something new. I think eventually one's battle with fiction is the sheer power one gets in the process of creating or drawing pictures.’44

Her friend Betty Sleath proved a great source of encouragement as she embarked on her new project. She had helped with the mailing of the New African in the old days, and as an active member of the War on Want had helped to collect money for the Boiteko project. About this time she began a regular correspondence with Bessie. Her knowledge of and interest in Botswana was extensive. She made penetrating comments and even sent Bessie some suggestions for plots. One that Bessie adopted was Betty's idea of writing a story entitled ‘Kgotla.’ She imagined that a gathering of the kgotla could not be very different from any British committee, or even parliament, with its share of ‘long-winded fools’ coming up with irrelevant ideas. She also asked what would happen if a Christian girl fell in love with an animist boy. Could that be made into a short story? And what about the situation of an educated Christian who still believed in witchcraft?45 Bessie was delighted with the help, though she said that she had a story on witchcraft already: ‘I can see your interest in the collection is very intense. I dare not send a report on the bad days when I wake up and say: “You know B Head, you aren't any hot shakes as a writer. Why, you haven't a bloody thought in your head.”’46

Bessie had another friend, Gothe Kgamane, in the village, who also enjoyed discussing her work with her. She had met Bessie when she was a young girl and had gone to her house with her parents to buy seedlings. Great was her surprise when she was later given a prize at the Teachers' Training College to discover that it was a book called When Rain Clouds Gather written by her market gardener friend. She would often ask Bessie what she was working on or discuss some aspect of village life with her. Once she saw Bessie at a funeral. She had withdrawn from the crowd and was studying everything very quietly. ‘Are you writing a story, Bessie?’ asked Gothe Kgamane laughingly. ‘No, not really,’ said Bessie. ‘But I was thinking how close birth, marriage and death are to each other in a village.’47 She was referring to the fact that just a day or two earlier all the same people had been assembled at a wedding, where many of the same rituals had been observed. In late 1973, Bessie wrote a short piece she called ‘Serowe Weddings,’ probably later entitled ‘Snapshots of a Wedding,’48 capturing some of this atmosphere. Gothe Kgamane and Betty Sleath, Bessie's ‘devoted fans’ she called them, had her collection of short stories dedicated to them, when it finally appeared.

In September 1974 the writer Alice Walker contacted Bessie's American agent, Lois Wallace. She had just become an editor on the magazine Ms and she asked Lois Wallace if she had any short stories by Bessie Head which Ms could publish. The agent referred her directly to Bessie.

Bessie already knew that Alice Walker admired her writing. She had been generous with her praise of A Question of Power and had been quoted on the jacket of the American edition as saying that she thought that Bessie Head was one of the ‘most important writers … I find her vision trustworthy, her wisdom there to lean on, to borrow from, and to remember.’ Now the famous American writer told her personally that she was a ‘deep admirer’ of her work. It had helped her ‘see things more clearly, to understand, to grow.’49 She asked her for short stories.

The request could hardly have come at a more opportune time. She had seven on hand. She sent off ‘The Deep River: A Story of Ancient Tribal Migration,’ ‘Heaven is Not Closed,’ ‘The Special One,’ ‘Life,’ ‘Witchcraft,’ ‘Looking for a Rain God’ and ‘Hunting.’ Of these six were newly written and ‘Looking for a Rain God’ had appeared in the New African in 1966. Her agent in London also received copies and a concerted effort to sell these (and the others as they arrived) to British and South African magazines was now made. Giles Gordon liked them very much though he did fear that they were too ‘sober’ or ‘unglossy for what the majority of British magazines are publishing at present.’50 However, some were sold individually and brought in some much-needed cash before appearing in the collection. And Alice Walker chose the pick of the bunch for Ms: ‘Witchcraft’ was published there the following November. In a biographical introduction to the short story, Bessie gave detailed particulars about her childhood for the second time. These were of great interest to her growing number of admirers. The article in Dulan Barber's One Parent Families, while more specific and poignant, had not reached a very wide critical audience.

Meanwhile Bessie replied to Alice Walker's letter with her usual disarming frankness: ‘On my own I am just the sort of happy person who lives in leaps and bounds, but that is not the whole of life—it presents you with painful, detailed learning and what has amazed me has been the blunders I've made,’ she wrote, and added: ‘The suffering one endures for having no set programme, plans or ideology. I mean by all this that I don't have a grand image.’51 This was the start of a correspondence which, in its initial stages especially, generated an exchange of ideas that both parties enjoyed.

By the end of 1974 Bessie had collected thirteen stories, including ‘Jacob: The Story of a Faith-Healing Priest’ which had been around for some years. Though the title of the anthology was still the rather artless Botswana Village Tales, it soon became clear that she had organised her material with sophisticated insight. In fact she insisted upon the stories remaining in the order in which she had them because she wanted a sense of continuity, with one story subtly linking with the next.

Together they cover just about all the major themes of village life and explore the whole spectrum of human emotions. She sets the scene with her fictionalised version of tribal history, ‘The Deep River: A Story of Ancient Tribal Migration.’ In a world where women are of no account, she tells of a chief who chooses a woman rather than power. In the next story, ‘Heaven is Not Closed,’ she examines the predicament of a woman who has to choose between Christianity and the traditional views of her husband and who naively hopes that ‘a compromise of tenderness could be made between two traditions opposed to each other’ (p. 10). Christian values and human insincerity form the theme of the next story, where the irony of the title, ‘Village Saint,’ emerges in the first paragraph. And so it continues: cross-references, ambivalence and ironic distance from the muddle and confusion that is life itself. Just as Galethebege in ‘Heaven is Not Closed’ would have been good ‘under any custom, whether Setswana custom or Christian custom’ (p. 8), so the truly saintly Jacob in ‘Jacob: The Story of a Faith-Healing Priest’ is never able to make clear to his followers who his God is. At times he would call him Jesus. At times He would appear to be ‘the width and depth of his own experience and suffering’ (p. 21).

Some years later Bessie, in discussing the way in which the notes and interviews relating to Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind had ‘spilled over into two other books,’ said that her collection of short stories dealt ‘specifically with information given to me about women and their position in society.’52 This somewhat clinical description does no real justice to the richness and diversity of her central theme, the situation of rural women. She examines aspects of wifely devotion in such characters as Johannah in ‘Jacob: The Story of a Faith-Healing Priest,’ Rose in ‘Kgotla,’ Kenalepe in ‘The Collector of Treasures’ and Thato in ‘Hunting.’ But sexual promiscuity, brashness and insensitivity are equally well-covered in her descriptions of Life in the story of that name, Gaenametse in ‘The Special One’ and Neo in ‘Snapshots of a Wedding.’

Bessie shows an impatience with so-called modern women in this anthology. Consider the description of Mma-Mompati presiding over luncheons ‘just like any English lady with polished etiquette and the professional smile of the high-born’ (p. 14). Or Life, a bold, free woman with brittle ways and an ‘undertone of hysteria’ who has ‘broken all the social taboos’ (p. 40), and has ‘nothing inside herself’ (p. 43) to cope with village life. Or Neo, ‘a new kind of girl with false postures and acquired grand madame ways’ (p. 78). Though Bessie did have sympathy for educated women who had moved away from traditional patterns of life, as epitomised for example in her friend Thato Matome, described in Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (p. 83), she does not include any such portraits here.

She is clearly more taken up with describing what are indeed the backbone of their society, the semi-literate women who rear fatherless children in a hand-to-mouth existence, having been deserted by smart men who promised them marriage and then left the village at the first signs of pregnancy. Mma-Mabele, in ‘Witchcraft,’ is such a woman; as is Dikeledi Mokopo in ‘The Collector of Treasures.’ And indeed, these two stories incorporate most effectively the central theme.

Bessie is never more outspoken in her criticism of men than in ‘The Collector of Treasures’ though she does recognise the fact that the three stages through which rural African society has passed during the last hundred years have in part been responsible for the shaping of most male attitudes.

Traditional custom was intended to regulate the life of the whole society and generally it succeeded. But it was the women who paid the greater price for this: they were regarded as inferior, chattles even, while the men took their superior position for granted. Then came the colonial era and with it a period of great change for the men. They were forced out of their villages to work in towns where they were humiliated with degrading treatment, and because of this, the men seemed unable to meet the challenge which the country's independence provided, ‘the first occasion for family life of a new order, above the childlike discipline of custom, the degradation of colonialism.’ They often proved broken wrecks, with ‘no inner resources at all,’ engaged in a ‘dizzy kind of death dance of wild destruction and dissipation’ (p. 92). All too many seemed content to live ‘near the animal level’ and create ‘misery and chaos’ by being responsible for the ‘complete breakdown of family life’ (p. 91). Like Garesego Mokopi, many quickly lost interest in a woman who was a ‘boring semi-literate traditional sort.’

Sensitive traditional women wishing to avoid further humiliation and mistreatment were still no better off than when they had been trapped by the old customs which gave men inherent privileges. Driven to total desperation, they could choose the course taken by Dikeledi in ‘The Collector of Treasures.’ Or they could withdraw within themselves, choosing celibacy instead. In this case they would have to be prepared to suffer the revengeful manipulations of an insulted lover. In ‘Witchcraft’ this is the fate of Mma-Mabele, whose moral courage and common sense are tested against tribal superstition.

It is not entirely clear how Mma-Mabele survives the evil that attacks her so unexpectedly. She uses her rational powers, her shrewd observation, to convince herself that the witchdoctor is no more omnipotent than she is herself. But this cannot cure her. She uses her Christian belief, but this becomes an invented defence to keep Lekena, the witchdoctor, at bay. Finally she concludes that ‘there is no one to help the people, not even God.’ So it seems that like Jacob, it is the ‘width and depth’ of her own suffering that pulls her through. When her friends are expecting her to die, she suddenly recovers because she is too poor to sit down and die ‘and there is no one else to feed my children’ (p. 56). Though the short story ostensibly derives from Bosele Sianana's experience of waking up and finding a large tuft of hair cut off her head,53 it can also be seen as encapsulating the experience Bessie described in such detail in A Question of Power, based on her own life. The short story acquires a new dimension if her references to the possibility of a local evil force, witchcraft, are taken into account.54

In the other main story, ‘The Collector of Treasures,’ the same inner reserves of strength enable Dikeledi Mokopi to find ‘gold amidst the ash,’ despite the ‘ashen … loneliness and unhappiness of her life’ (p. 91). In prison she becomes part of a sisterhood of sufferers who secretly nurture each other. It is their sheer will to survive that proves these women's greatest strength. ‘Our men do not think that we need tenderness and care’ (p. 89), says one of the women prisoners. The vividly sketched prison scene at the start of the story might well be based on Bessie Head's own taste of prison life after her libelling of the President.55

Again and again we are reminded of the tangle of human relationships, the inadequate and haphazard nature of human justice. In the oldest story in the collection, ‘Looking for a Rain God,’ the reader feels intense sympathy for the plight of the family desperately waiting for rain to fall and rescue them from starvation. But in a court of law, ‘the subtle story of strain and starvation and breakdown was inadmissable [sic] evidence’ (p. 60) and the two men are sentenced to death for their rain-making practices. Though everyone in the village is horrified by the death of the two little girls, they also know ‘that only a hair's breadth’ has saved them from committing an equally horrible act in their desperation for rain. In two of the other stories which involve murder, there is no clear condemnation of the murderers either. Dikeledi Moroki pays for her crime with life imprisonment, but there is no doubt in her mind or that of her fellow prisoners, that their crimes were necessary and that their husbands got their just deserts. Similarly when Lesego, the cattle-man, murders his wife Life (and only gets five years' imprisonment for his ‘crime of passion’) society at large justifies his action. His friend explains things by saying that there are ‘good women and good men but they seldom join their lives together. It's always this mess and foolishness’ (p. 46). In the story ‘The Wind and the Boy,’ the newly rich, self-important official who has a car but neither brakes nor a driving licence, decapitates the boy Friedman in a gruesome accident and gets away with it; once more, the machinery of justice seems inadequate.

There is also much wry humour in the tales. People are very conscious of their newly independent status. Thus Garesego Mokobi and his likes have no trouble finding plenty of exciting new women. ‘Independence produced marvels indeed’ (p. 92). And Lekena, the witchdoctor, appalled at the strength of the evil spirits bewitching Mma-Mabele, exclaims: ‘We never can tell what will happen these days, now that we have independence’ (p. 55). There is also the humorous account of how the whole village memorises Mma-Mompati's divorce oration on ‘God, the Church, the Bible, the Sick, … the Honour of an Honourable Woman,’ because she repeats it ‘so often thereafter’ (p. 15). And there is even something starkly amusing in the anti-climax of the concluding lines of ‘The Collector of Treasures.’ As Dikeledi stands passively beside the emasculated, blood-soaked body of her husband, awaiting the arrival of the police, her friend Paul Thebolo finds her there. For a moment he is totally dumbfounded. Then he says: ‘You don't have to worry about the children … I'll take them as my own and give them all a secondary school education’ (p. 103).

Bessie does portray some men of decency and nobility. Paul Thebolo in ‘The Collector of Treasures’ is one who possesses ‘the power to create himself anew’ (p. 93). His relationship with his wife is happy and fulfilled; their yard is always overflowing with visitors seeking out their company; and through them Dikeledi's life is enriched. The final story, ‘Hunting,’ depicts another such man, Tholo; like Paul, he has a marriage relationship ‘where the whole rhythm and happiness of their lives was tied up in their work and their involvements in the needs of people’ (p. 108). Thus Bessie is able to round off her collection on a note of balanced optimism. Paul Thebolo and Tholo are added to her group of noble male figures that also includes Makhaya, Gilbert, Maru, Khama the Great, Tshekedi Khama and Patrick van Rensburg. Tholo expresses Bessie's acceptance of the unfathomable complexity of human relationships in one of the final sentences of the story: ‘Nothing could sort out the world. It would always be a painful muddle’ (p. 109).

1974 had been a productive year for Bessie. In early May she had sent off the typescript of Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind, and before the year was up, she had her Botswana Village Tales packed and posted off to Giles Gordon in London.


  1. KMM 44 BHP 8. 12. 1972

  2. KMM 44 BHP 27. 12. 1972

  3. KMM 74 BHP 17. 3. 1973

  4. Head, 1991, p. 174. In Benton, Naomi Mitchison, 1990, there is no mention of NM's friendship with Bessie Head.

  5. Holzinger, 1994, interview

  6. Head, 1991, p. 174

  7. Head, in Barber, 1975

  8. KMM 331 BHP 25. 2. 1973

  9. KMM 47 BHP 4. 7. 1973

  10. KMM 378 BHP 11. 10. 1973

  11. Harold Head, 1994, interview

  12. KMM 64 BHP 2. 10. 1973

  13. Head, 1973, p. 63; Kitchen, New Statesman, 2. 11. 1973, pp. 657–658

  14. KMM 74 BHP 8. 11. 1973

  15. Rubinstein, New Republic, 27. 4. 1974, pp. 30–31; KMM 96 BHP undated 1974

  16. Sianana, 1991, interview

  17. Head, 1981, p. 20

  18. KMM 76 BHP 28. 1. 1975

  19. Head, 1981, p. 127

  20. KMM 49 BHP 15. 11. 1974

  21. Head, 1981, pp. 10–18

  22. KMM 70 BHP 27. 6. 1974

  23. KMM 44 BHP 5. 1. 1974

  24. KMM 75 BHP 4. 1. 74

  25. Head, 1989, p. 125

  26. Head, 1989, p. 130

  27. Head, 1989, p. 18

  28. KMM 52 BHP 23. 5. 1974

  29. KMM 52 BHP 23. 10. 1974

  30. KMM 25 BHP 21. 7. 1974

  31. Head, 1981, p. xv

  32. KMM 18 BHP 24. 9. 1974

  33. Head, 1981, p. x

  34. KMM 96 BHP 7. 2. 1976

  35. KMM 75 BHP 16. 10. 73

  36. KMM 44 BHP 12. 5. 1974

  37. Cullinan, 1991, interview

  38. KMM 183 BHP 30. 6. 1974

  39. KMM 61 BHP 11. 6. 1974

  40. Head, Child Education, 1974, p. 7

  41. KMM 44 BHP 26. 6. 1974

  42. KMM 15 BHP 28. 5. 1977

  43. KMM 20 BHP 29. 1. 1978

  44. KMM 96 BHP 7. 2. 1976

  45. KMM 19 BHP 17. 9. 1974

  46. KMM 19 BHP 24. 9. 74

  47. Kgamane, 1991, interview

  48. Head, 1977, pp. 76–80

  49. KMM 76 BHP 16. 9. 1974

  50. KMM 44 BHP 6. 11. 1974

  51. KMM 76 BHP 28. 9. 1974

  52. Head, Mmegi wa Dikgang, 23. 3. 1985, p. 6

  53. Sianana, 1991, interview

  54. KMM 48 BHP 12. 11. 1973; see ch. 9

  55. Howard Head, 1991, interview

Annie Gagiano (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6396

SOURCE: Gagiano, Annie. “Finding Foundations for Change in Bessie Head's The Cardinals.Journal of Commonwealth Literature 31, no. 2 (fall 1996): 47–60.

[In the following essay, Gagiano offers a stylistic and thematic analysis of The Cardinals.]

Who is the story-teller? Of whom is the story told? What is there in the darkness to imagine into being? What is there to dream and to relate? What happens when I or anyone exerts the force of language upon the unknown?1

Three factors—that The Cardinals (1993)2 is the only one of Bessie Head's novels set in South Africa (the scene being the Cape Town area during the late 1950s),3 as well as the recognizable autobiographical elements4 of this work (her earliest known novel), added to the accident of its very recent “discovery” and belated publication—endow this work with considerable interest for those engaged in South African cultural studies. It would be a mere curiosity if it were not what it is: the unmistakable demonstration of a major literary talent in the making. Yet it is at the same time a baffingly difficult novel to grasp imaginatively with something of the elusiveness or hiddenness of the chief protagonist's nature colouring the work as a whole. Some of the reasons for this quality are: the scattered, far-flung, erratic writing style and episodic design of the novel, an impression of elusive underground connections and a forward-flowing investigation of matters of profound importance, its off-hand, breezy colloquialism through (or despite) which one senses the lyricism of this writer's craft, and the pulp “romance” frame into which are poured questions and experiences of eroticism, political force, self-validation and personal commitment.5

The chief character in the novel, a young woman known as Mouse, is even near the end of the work described as “a shambles of unfocused atoms” by Johnny, the man who loves her (p. 127). From my descriptions above, it may seem that his expression is equally applicable to the novel as a whole, which could thus only be judged a naïve attempt at novel-writing rather than a finished achievement. What I shall be arguing in this [essay] is that the roughness of this work, its lack of “finish” (in several senses of the word) is a strength worthy of careful reading—this roughness is exactly appropriate to the notion of aspiration (as a lifestyle) that seems to be its hidden theme.

In 1972, in the concluding section of a short piece called “An African Story,” Bessie Head wrote:

South Africa made white people rich and comfortable, but their ownership of the country is ugly and repellent. They talk about South Africa in tourist language all the time: “This grand and sunny land,” they say. The cheap, glaring, paltry trash of a people who are living it up for themselves alone dominates everything, infiltrates everywhere. If one is a part of it, through being born there, how does one communicate with the horrible? That is why South Africa has no great writer: no one can create harmony out of cheap discord.

It is impossible to guess how the revolution will come one day in South Africa. But in a world where all ordinary people are insisting on their rights, it is inevitable. It is to be hoped that great leaders will arise there who remember the suffering of racial hatred and out of it formulate a common language of human love for all people.

Possibly, too, Southern Africa might one day become the home of the story-teller and dreamer, who did not hurt others but only introduced new dreams that filled the heart with wonder.6

Earlier, in 1963 (i.e. probably soon after finishing The Cardinals, for which the presumed dates of composition are 1960–1962), in a “Letter from South Africa,” she had written:

Maybe I am going to pieces. One of the slobs who are left behind [that is, in South Africa, at a time when so many of her friends had gone into exile] told me rather scornfully the other day that I was not a freedom fighter. I have to admit that it is the truth.7

Yet The Cardinals is one of those works implicitly illustrating the case for story-tellers and dreamers to be considered freedom fighters rather than romantic escapists. The feature of the novel that indicates this is the perpetual engagement of both Johnny and Mouse, not only with each other, but with the place and circumstances in, by and out of which they live. Encountering each other, they in fact intensify their scrutiny of their land and their articulation of its meaning—parallelling the process by which Head demonstrates to the reader that loving involves politics down to the furthest recesses of the psyche and that (conversely) political force frights the intimate moments of individual encounters. Erecting distinctions between private and public spheres is shown in this novel to be the mark of the hypocrite8—nor are such tidy fences respected in this narrative, which moves constantly in and out of descriptions of Johnny and Mouse's feelings for each other and of encounters indicative of the politically constituted society in which they live. In the “sequencing” in chapter 8 (pp. 77-85) Head's style itself constantly transgresses these barriers. The narrative moves from the “snugly” ensconced Mouse in her private bedroom to Johnny's entrance and account of the life of his sister, a prostitute at ten to help keep their family, and then to his generalizing distinction between “rules” of society and “suffering.” This is followed by PK's arrival with the news of a rural township “riot” to which he, James and Johnny travel, Johnny's existential distinction between political commitment and his type of “uncommittedness” (p. 82), and finally his return home and first declaration to Mouse of his love for her, the chapter concluding with the paradoxical juxtaposition of Johnny's insistence on irrevocable “commitment” in love with the declaration that he lives “without a code or a law.” The way the novel intertwines “private” and “public” is evident even in such a bald summary.

It is their capacity for passion which—openly in the flamboyant Johnny and in a hidden fashion in Mouse—sets these two off from those around them. In them, passion is “responsibility.” The rareness, the felt riskiness of responsibility, is emphasized by a fringe figure in the novel, the unnamed stranger with whom Mouse strikes up a friendship. He says of “[r]esponsibility” that “[m]ost people fear it” and he refers sardonically to “[t]his other man, that everybody hopes will bear the responsibility for them, [who] just isn't there most of the time” (p. 36). The “wild man” Johnny employs the term in his fiercest condemnations—“PK is responsible for this mess” (p. 64)—and in his later injunction to Mouse: “It is a great responsibility to be a writer at this time” (p. 72).

Political force, conversely, is identified as inevitably irresponsible, just as it requires the relinquishing of individual responsibility for its hold on people's lives. For this reason, power in such an autocracy as the South African system must attempt the control of passion. The Cardinals is, then, a document demonstrating that “private” passion is one of the strongest and most important forms of opposition to political control. The piece of South African legislation known as the Immorality Act (of 1927, amended in 1957), banning sexual relationships or marriages between members of “different races,” is the master narrative against which Head tells the constellation of stories that she calls The Cardinals. The sorts of “stories” (as newspaper reports are appropriately referred to in the novel) that make it into daily print are some of these and are set off against many other accounts of life in South Africa at this time—especially as witnessed and told by both Johnny and Mouse.

Head's novel is preceded by her note to readers that “The Cardinals, in the astrological sense, are those who serve as the base or foundation for change” (unnumbered page facing p. 1). This piece of authorial information is probably the strongest clue to the direction taken by this unusual novel and to the importance Head attaches to the work. It claims for both Mouse and Johnny the status of initiators or pioneers. It cautions us not to mistake the novel for simple realism, unconscious autobiography, sociological portrayal of earlier apartheid conditions in the Cape, or erotic/neurotic wish fulfilment by its author. Like Head's other novels, then, The Cardinals has the dimensions of a parable.

At the core of this story is the fact that Mouse is the product, and Johnny the survivor, of the same failed, though initially successful, relationship which transcended class difference as well as the barriers of South African “Immorality” legislation.9 This fact is also a mystery, since neither of the two has any suspicion of their biological relationship. It is not the law nor the police that ends the spontaneous union between Johnny, then a poor young fisherman, and Ruby, the young woman from a privileged background who is Mouse's mother, but Ruby's momentary snobbery and cowardice and her resulting shame due to this betrayal. She denies knowing Johnny to her “dancing partner,” Paddy. Unable to forgive herself for this severance of the spiritual connection between herself and Johnny, she commits suicide, whereas their baby (who will be dubbed Mouse) is dumped in a Cape Town slum, described as follows in the novel's opening paragraph:

It was a large area of tin shacks, bounded on the one side by a mile-long graveyard and on the other by the city refuse dump and the sea. A national road separated the slum from the refuse dump.

(p. 1)

This wry, blunt style of writing is characteristic of the whole work. It insists on the stark ordinariness of the bleak scene, taken for granted by most of those who drive by on the “national road”—to whom the location of such a slum between dump, graveyard and sea no doubt seems appropriate. The passage is of course imbued with that social vision which the work as a whole conveys. It is the strange placing of the opening word—“It”—that draws attention to the environment as if it were a character or a force in its own right. Its function is to make us see why the novelist does not bother to show or name politicians or a party in her portrayal of apartheid society. The system has become a place, a non-community of victims, and the words “bounded” and “separated” indicate the compartmentalizing thought process referred to above as a false tidiness—for the slum is also chaos, the sign of irresponsibility, a dump for thrown-away people. It is easy enough to sense the resonances and ironies of the word “national” (attached to “road”) as a reference to a ruling political party which perverts precisely its national duty by creating or allowing such ugliness, “separat[ing]” and scattering people. It is out of this ugly cess, this non-community10 that Mouse struggles onto the little ledge represented by African Beat—The Paper of the People, of whose “emptiness and bold vulgarity” (p. 12) she is all too well aware.

It is in the newspaper office that Mouse encounters the hard-bitten Johnny, for whom her claim to his long-hidden tenderness lies in her writing talent, so badly smothered in the slick newspaper world where Mouse flounders from one unsuitable and cynical assignment to another. The editor PK tells her: “This paper is paying you only to write a dirty story” (p. 18), and later she is “[put] on courts” for “[r]eady-made stories … immorality cases and … death sentences … at least one story brought in every day” (p. 44). Head shows Johnny initially in association with the newspaper's editor, a white liberal of the time, and with the other male journalist, an aspirant novelist with a mean, gossipy soul. Johnny moves slowly into an open alignment with Mouse. Most of the novel is a record of his arduous wooing of the woman neither knows to be his daughter (a fact they are never likely to discover). If Johnny has, before knowing Mouse, led a dissolute life of brief encounters with a series of white “high society bitches” (p. 46)—half conscious vengeance on Ruby for abandoning him—Mouse's psychological damage has penetrated more deeply, leaving her a lonely woman who freezes out potential relationships by means of a self-protective barrier for her “thin skin” (p. 116). The narrator gives her shrinking from human relationships the dimensions of animal terror: her “fright” is said to be “dumb” and she is referred to as an “unwanted stray” who had to learn that she should “not answer back” those who could at any time “throw [her] out” from any of the ten “homes” in which she was “placed and replaced” (p. 10). “Year by year she had become more and more silent and her inner retreat was [sic] almost to the point where no living being could reach her” (pp. 10–11). Johnny's perceptiveness and the correctness of his diagnosis is validated by the author (pp. 22, 23 and 29) when he warns that “there's bound to be an explosion” (p. 29).

Although neither Mouse nor Johnny is aware that their sexual union (about to occur, one is led to believe, as the novel ends) is in fact incestuous, Head makes clear that these two are in any case taboo-breakers and that this is the source of her interest in them. Miscegenation is their history—Mouse being the child from and Johnny, unknowingly, the father in such a union. The form of passion which the white South African government outlawed as “Immorality” becomes, as Head designs the novel, a theme that haunts Mouse's and Johnny's professional and emotional lives, the epitome of all that restricts the unfolding of the self in such a society as South Africa. Head associates Mouse's self-defensive emotional withdrawal with the term “reserve” and refers as narrator to the “tight shell of reserve and retreat” (p. 107) out of which she needs to be “draw[n].” This coincides with Johnny's insistence that to be a writer Mouse will have “to break off the bolts that are keeping [her] locked up” (p. 75). Evidently, political oppression and social deprivation are by these images incorporated in Mouse's instinctual behaviour: it is a sort of reflection of apartheid. Mouse's emotional stuntedness as much as Johnny's “expense of spirit in a waste of shame”11 are subtly represented as products, or rather as pathetically inadequate forms, of protest against the mindset that legislates its hatred and fear into the sexual area where the roots of all life lie. The slow deployment of the process by means of which Mouse and Johnny move closer to each other looks, if read one way, very much like a pulp “romance” of the 1950s; read in another way, it is a steely look at one of the few forces strong enough to be resistant to an apartheid society.

The omniscient narrator's voice, often beyond Johnny or Mouse, informing the reader of connections of which the two of them are unaware, also blends easily into the thoughts of both these cardinal characters. The validation of their points of view contrasts with the dry scorn reserved for would-be taboo-breakers—like Mona, a sophisticated dabbler in political causes12 who is sexually fascinated and harshly rebuffed by Johnny. The cheapness of such frivolous lust in which the transgression of the legal racial barrier serves only as added titillation,13 is accentuated by the background of politically and personally ruinous love or sexual encounters between white and black people, accounts of which abound in the novel. Head cleverly uses the newspaper office setting to draw in many anecdotes of so-called “Immorality” acts, especially through Mouse's assignment to the court cases where those arrested for this form of social transgression appear. Interestingly, these are mostly not of the “great but doomed love” type. Mouse, with Johnny's encouragement, attempts to understand the self-destructive urges that bring prosperous white men “of the business-type,” as she calls them (p. 110), to have brief encounters with women who are (in Mouse's words) “real tramps in the sense that they have an unwashed look and give off an overpowering odour of urine and woodsmoke” (p. 110). The slum, it seems, despite being dumped far off, will not go away and cannot be forgotten.

Away from the vulgarity required for the newspaper reports by its editor,14 Mouse writes wonderingly of how “the business-type man”

stares blankly and mutely, struggling not too look too closely at the doom that awaits him, silent about the cause that led to his downfall. Could it not be that for months he had had no normal sex relations with his [sick] wife … Or, is it not simply that to the sex urge, harsh legislation and repugnant odours are of no account?

(pp. 110–11)

The comment on these groping thoughts of Mouse's from one of Johnny's former lovers, the “nonchalant” Liz, is a patronizing and patently insincere “very interesting” (p. 111). Counter to this is Johnny's expression of his own different way of seeing Mouse, “different from the rest” of women he has been involved with because of her “[c]ourage and complete sincerity” (p. 113). What draws Johnny to Mouse is something he inarticulately and yet tellingly describes as “the inside part”—he says that “[s]he's got something inside her that agrees with my system” (p. 65). This, as even the predatory Liz realizes, has made Johnny give Mouse “that part of [him other women] could never reach” (p. 112). Mouse has at last agreed to share Johnny's house with him, although she still rebuffs him sexually. Feeling contaminated by Liz's visit, with “waves of anger beating out of him,” Johnny “stretch[es] out his arms” and kisses Mouse,

with a ferocious despair [so that] a feeling of tenderness over[comes] her alarm and she [winds] her long, thin arms about his neck in an instinctive gesture of comfort. It reache[s] him and ease[s] away his anger.

(p. 114)

Notable in this brief episode is the shame and indignation Johnny feels at the “meaningless[ness]” of the type of sexual involvement he formerly pursued with “sophisticated” white women. In addition, there is the maternal role Johnny plays as he attempts to bring a “woman” to birth out of the “child” (p. 131) Mouse who is in her early twenties. The verbs in the above passage the gradual process of entwining growth towards Johnny from Mouse's side—despite her weeping because she fears that she “cannot love,” “cannot give” (p. 88). Having together survived the onslaught of Liz's visit, Mouse and Johnny return to the writing up and probing of the society in which they live. Johnny contributes to and pursues Mouse's thoughts about Immorality Act victims, using her reference to the “look of death” (p. 114, 115) on the faces of the men on trial. In his view these men are the suicidal registers of the “abyss” on whose edge the society teeters (p. 115). But when he comments on the “insanity” of the whole system being exposed in sexual conduct and its “neurotic,” even “crazed” legal repression, he honestly and immediately turns to acknowledge that Liz is “just one out of about a hundred women” with whom he has himself been “messing around” (p. 115)—“mess” being his favourite expression of disgust at an absence of social wholesomeness.

In these seemingly rough-and-ready ways Head indicates some of the linkages between sex and politics, private intimacies and a huge public system. She shows it also by the natural, unpredictable oscillations of conversation in the kitchen scene, which proceeds from Mouse's reference to the way a nasty remark of James's “pierced” her “thin skin” (p. 116) to Johnny's expression of his willy-nilly “car[ing] … about Africa and its destiny” (p. 117), to his comments on his sense of the writer's vocation which is followed by his observation of Mouse's eyes as “beautiful … exalted … two pin-point lights of concentration” (p. 117). Somehow the quiet Mouse, despite her grieving sense of inadequacy, is unmistakably the more eloquent presence of the two—but it is through Johnny's generosity of feeling that the reader is enabled to see this. Both Mouse and Johnny urgently compel each other to change—he is more overtly demanding of her and she is more inwardly compelling towards him.15

At this point it is probably appropriate to examine Head's indicators of the nature of Johnny's feelings for Mouse. Some of the passages quoted may show how close Johnny seems to the favourite male lead in many pulp romances, the “masterful,”16 male “saviour” of the damsel in distress. Johnny does refer at one point to “this dense wall in which [Mouse] has enclosed herself” (p. 65) as if in a faint echo from the fairytale. No sword hacking through brambles will get to Mouse, though. As Johnny recognizes, “I just have to convince her that I can help her with this writing business” (p. 68) and, earlier on, “There's only one hope of reaching that clot of a woman … Writing” (p. 68). Yet it is evident that Head endorses and values Johnny's feelings for Mouse and I suggest that readers need to take account of this. The author nowhere invalidates the indicators of Johnny's role as, to some extent, that of a saviour of the psychologically damaged Mouse. Implicit authorial endorsement is discernible, for instance, in the choice of image Head applies to Mouse's first participation in creative co-operation with Johnny: when she is “working on the story Johnny had given her” she is “like a child learning to walk” (p. 37).17

It is nevertheless interesting to note the extent to which Head twists “true-love knots” into the “iron pokers” of uncomfortable social and political realities in apartheid South Africa. Mouse's distress, for instance, is rooted in the nature of her birth, in her narrow escape from rape by her slum stepfather, in her unwanted and unloved childhood and young womanhood, and in the way she is “taunted” by her colleague James and patronized by the newspaper editor PK (p. 15); ugly male attitudes from which “the battering effect of [Johnny's] personality” (p. 15) at first seems indistinguishable. Her arrival at the newspaper officer, for instance, is described as follows:

Both men [James and Johnny] battered her with the amused contemptuous looks in their eyes. The short man with the cynical grin [James] said: “Well, look what the cat brought in.”

The other man [Johnny] said: “A Mouse.”

(p. 14)

The echo of the verb “to batter” draws attention to the sense of social, especially sexual onslaught, which causes Mouse's necessary self-hardening and withdrawal, and her initial categorization of Johnny with the other two men.

The fact, made known to the reader but not to the protagonists, that Johnny is Mouse's father, is another feature of the novel that shatters the conventional love story frame. It extends into an extremity, a shock factor, the recognition that “Immorality” legislation (and likewise the larger system from which it emanates) severs the most essential of the human bonds required for psychic survival or wholeness.18 It is entirely likely that Head is in this respect responding novelistically to her severance from and ignorance of the identity and personality of her own father.19 Yet her response to this politically created deprivation is not neurotic lamentation but tough, courageous, stocktaking thought—a creative broadening of the base of an individual tragedy. Many South African novelists have tackled the miscegenation theme20—Head is perhaps the only first-rate writer who does so “from within,” herself the product, like Mouse, of a cross-class, cross-race union. I agree with Margaret Daymond21 that the incest theme is desensationalized, but I would add that it becomes in Head's hands a metaphor for recovery, in the full range of its meaning, as well as a sign of the difficulty of such healing within the South African “mess.” In an important passage, Johnny says of his own childhood: “We just grew up like a lot of animals,” and speaks of incest by dichotomizing “suffering” from its cause, the “rules of society” (p. 78). This can be linked with his earlier statement that “you cannot feel like the underdog and at the same time feel you belong to a country,” enjoining Mouse to “help throw some of those false standards overboard” (p. 72).

The creative surprise in this novel is Head's avoidance of the tragic perspective adopted by other writers which treat of the “Immorality Act,” Head—almost coolly—underplays impressions of doomed love drama and wreckage and inevitable defeat. In her account, a tough energy and determination encounter the political, social and psychic barriers—and begin to surmount them. Head's is a liberation fable, a carefully inspirational account, fiercely refusing political fatalism. Perhaps this is the most interesting reason why this work is so queerly breezy and bracing in both its style and theme, for in this way Head, who may be thought to be writing a self-portrait in her depiction of Mouse, is certainly doing so no less in her portrayal of Johnny. An early passage in the novel begins with Mouse in a dreary mood at the newspaper office.

The day was grey and bleak and rainy. She stood at the office window and felt crushed as she watched the relentless downpour of the late spring rain.

Click, bang, CRASH. And in burst Johnny like the sun. She turned.

“Hello Mouse,” he said breezily. “I wrote another short story last night. Read it and then re-write it the way you think it should be. Make the people real. I want to give that bastard James [The would-be novelist, their colleague] a jolt out of his doltish complacency. … The kind of writing I'm concentrating on is going to get rid of government and systems for good. Here. Catch!”22

She caught it eagerly. His enthusiasm carried her along with it.

(p. 31)

This is actually how and where Mouse begins to function as a writer: through Johnny's recognition of her. Of course the elemental associations—“like the sun,” “breezily”—endorse the invigorating force of Johnny's personality and especially of his engagement with Mouse, as do the verbs “burst” and “[c]atch.” Head does not make Johnny fatherly towards Mouse in any obviously tenderhearted way. Mouse's mother Ruby remarked of a much younger Johnny,

“You are very rough with me … Not even my father talks to me the way you do, but I like it. Often those who talk softly and sweetly hide a stabbing cruelty in that softness and sweetness.”

(p. 53)

Nor is Johnny paternalistic towards Mouse. Head puts in a few light touches to establish this, for instance, by contrasting him with the frivolously condescending the editor PK (who is not obviously unkind to Mouse): “I admit she can't write the stuff we want but I'm not going to get her fired. … Ever since she's been around I've been fathering her. It makes me feel great: PK, sex-maniac, plays father to sweet young innocent thing” (p. 27). To offset possible, if unlikely impressions that Johnny's rough and insistent caring for Mouse is a mere seduction game, we have James's words to her, fairly late in the novel: “if you're not physically attractive to Johnny, you're damned attractive to me. I know your type. They're real hot mamas in bed. … The trouble with you is that you're morbid. You just need a good rape” (p. 94).

Yet Head leaves readers in no doubt of the intensity of Johnny's desire for Mouse, and of the power of her slowly awakening sexuality. In this respect too the author is interested in an inclusive vitalism, depicting escape from, rather than opposition to, political fences, showing “The Cardinals” reaching after fuller life.23 Never, though, does the “pretty solid rainbow” (p. 114), as Johnny calls Mouse, leave its footing in the South African soil. Both Johnny and Mouse have come from slums and the “home” to which they go is a “small whitewashed house” (p. 136) in District Six. Beyond that we are not told where they may have moved or reached. Head could not have known when she wrote The Cardinals that District Six would be razed nor that she herself would gradually and painfully come to reject—in A Question of Power (1974)—the ideal of sexual partnership as an alternative to or haven from racist oppression.

When Johnny makes Mouse the offer to help her to become “the kind of writer [she] want[s] to be?,” it is accompanied by his insistence that

Africa may not need us but we need a country like Africa. It's just a part of this joke called Life. We need a country the way we need food and clothes … [but] you cannot feel like the underdog and at the same time feel you belong to a country.

(p. 72)24

In Johnny's definition, underdogs are those on whom the conquerors “impose false standards” (p. 72). He knows also that “laws and rules of society are made by men and women who know nothing about suffering” (p. 78).25Suffering, then, is what Johnny cares about in Mouse—it is the “inside part” (p. 65) of her which he mentions when he struggles to explain what fascinates him about a woman who seems so unlikely to attract him. But he and Mouse want more than victimhood—their attempts are, through their writing, to insert a new dynamism in their society. Mouse is becoming a writer; Johnny is throughout the novel stimulated by her presence to comment copiously on the craft and purpose of creative writing in a stunted society.

Helping Mouse to “focus all [the] scattered pieces” (p. 133) of herself (as Johnny hopes to do), he encourages her, as an artistic exercise, to “concentrate [the] … vastness … mood … purpose and the flow and rhythm” (p. 134) of the city in which they live. The motif of rejoining what is scattered is central to the novel. There are important passages in which words such as “tapestry” (p. 35); “correlate” (pp. 75, 88); “knit unit” (p. 103); “well composed” (p. 133) and “not in bits and pieces” (p. 134) occur. Through Johnny, Head suggests that the act of communion (in love) or of communication (in writing) is the only alternative to “mess” or chaos, which he links paradoxically with rules and laws—and with the mere pretence of defying these. Mouse, the slum girl, becomes by the end of the novel the artist who can overlook and envision the city's “interweaving patterns,” perceiving that “[i]ts purpose is to sustain human life. Its destiny is perpetual expansion” (p. 135). It is when this has been written that Johnny invites Mouse to “go home” with him. The blossoming of Mouse as a writer here is shown by Head to coincide with her casting-off at last of the rigidity with which she has until now repressed her sexual yearnings. Yet “home” is not simply “safe”: there is no suggestion that this couple will live in a hideaway huddle, “wrapped up in each other.” Instead the suggestion is of persistent aspiration for them both: a living un-ease that will continue to engage them not only with each other, but with their society and its hampering of human life.

The Cardinals is not likely to be hailed as a great work—its power and importance are likely to be overlooked by many readers, exactly as Johnny's seriousness of purpose is obscured by his apparent flippancy, and Mouse's purity and strength are concealed by her seeming timidity. What I hope to have conveyed, though, is the salutary toughness of this work—its refusal to concede that, even as crushing a political system as apartheid, can be made the excuse for not dreaming. It “refuses” both apathy and melancholy. Much later and much more taxingly, Bessie Head would re-address the monster despair in A Question of Power (1974). This is her first skirmish with that beast—I think a victorious one.


  1. N. Scott Momaday, “The Man Made of Words,” Literature of the American Indian/Contemporary Views and Perspectives, ed. Abraham Chapman, New York: Meridian (New American Library), 1975, pp. 96–108.

  2. Bessie Head, The Cardinals/With Meditations and Short Stories, ed. M. J. Daymond, Cape Town: David Philip, 1993. Also published by Heinemann. All quotations are from the David Philip edition and page references are indicated in brackets within the text.

  3. See The Cardinals, p. 33: “Today is Wednesday, September 28th, 1959.”

  4. See Bessie Head's “Notes from a Quiet Backwater,” A Woman Alone/Autobiographical Writings, London: Heinemann, 1990, p. 3, for details in which her early circumstances coincide with Mouse's: “No details were ever available about my father. … At birth I had been handed to a Coloured foster mother [who] … was paid a pittance …” Mouse's employment by a newspaper called African Beat evidently recalls Head working in Cape Town for the Golden City Post, one of the Drum publications. In an anthologized essay, “Bessie Head: Production Under Drought Conditions,” Susan Gardner writes that “[t]he circumstances of Bessie Head's biography appear to be so idiosyncratically inauspicious it can seem miraculous that her creativity flowered at all,” Women and Writing in South Africa: A Critical Anthology, ed. Cherry Clayton, Johannesburg: Heinemann, 1989, p. 227.

  5. See Barbara Harlow, Resistance Literature, New York and London: Methuen, 1987, pp. 85 and 115, for comments on the ways in which resistance narratives challenge literary conventions and generate new literary paradigms.

  6. Head, A Woman Alone, pp. 102–3.

  7. ibid., p. 14.

  8. See such examples as Mona (p. 102), PK (p. 81) and James (p. 93) and note Johnny's distinction between himself and “James and PK” (p. 87).

  9. Evidently I disagree on this point with Dorothy Driver, who writes in a review that “Mouse's mother is not white,” “Gestures of Expatriation and Belonging,” Southern African Review of Books, v, 5, 1993, pp. 16–18. Despite reluctance to participate in pigmentation babble, and despite the narrator's reference to Ruby's “dark brown face,” I hold out on this point because it seems to me of thematic significance. I suggest that Head avoids the vulgarities of race classification terminology, but nevertheless builds in numerous other indicators that make it seem extremely unlikely that Ruby's family would not be classified “white” (pp. 50–60). The “high society” women with whom Johnny has destructive relationships to “get his own back” on Ruby for abandoning him are undoubtedly “white” women.

  10. Johnny refers—with characteristic intensity—to this particular slum as “an oozing, indiscriminate mixture of muck, incest and hell-fire,” as a “swamp” and a “dumping ground.” With this should be compared his discerning description of the so-called improvement/alternative of government-built townships as well as his perspective on the “riot” (see pp. 28, 19–20, 80–81).

  11. Shakespeare's sonnet 129, lines 1–2.

  12. Exposed as such especially by the detail, in a novel so much concerned with the obscenity of “Immorality” legislation, that she would allow her children to attend an “integrated [school],” “on condition that it's not co-educational” (p. 96)!

  13. The nature of Mona's approaches to Johnny may be judged by one brief quotation: “‘We don't have to be conventional in this unconventional atmosphere,’ she said” (p. 97).

  14. See the middle section of p. 18 (especially PK's “This paper is paying you only to write a dirty story”), slyly and tellingly contrasted by Head with PK's preferences for the “human interest side” of a report which endorses the apartheid hegemony.

  15. The metaphor of the human couple as a figure for the ideal of social relationship and “belonging” features strongly in Head's work at this time—compare the following, from one of the slightly later pieces published in this volume: “Nothing can be right until a man and a woman make all things meaningful through each other” (“Where is the Hour of the Beautiful Dancing of Birds in the Sun-wind?” p. 152).

  16. Dorothy Driver, in the review referred to in footnote 9, criticizes Johnny's conduct towards Mouse with some asperity. She writes: “But he most certainly does have a code or law regarding women, including Mouse: his behaviour is oppressive and exploitative. ‘Battered’ (…) by these contradictions, Mouse hides … Writing can barely free her from this state” (p. 18). Evidently my reading differs from Driver's on this point both in how I see Johnny and how I imagine Head to be employing Johnny in this narrative.

  17. Compare Head's later comment which appears in a letter to Patrick Cullinan, dated 20 February 1965: “You know—that funny book I sent—The Cardinals—I started to create a mythical man there and he has since appeared everywhere. I write about him all the time—yet he is not flesh and blood reality. But every time I need to say something about love—he's always there—so conveniently … He gets better and better with each story … He is … ‘Africa’ and the ‘Beautiful Birds Dancing in the Sun-Wind’ and ‘Earth and Everything’ [references to the slightly later pieces printed with The Cardinal].” See Patrick Cullinan, “I Try. In Bits. (Letters from Bessie Head 1963–1982),” New Contrast, xxi, 4, 1993, pp. 66–71.

  18. Compare Head's alarmed and alarming observation of the “almost complete breakdown of family life” in Botswana (Alone, 57).

  19. In the autobiographical “Notes From A Quiet Backwater,” Head writes: “I was born on July 6, 1937, in the Pietermaritzburg mental hospital. The reason for my peculiar birthplace was that my mother was white and my father black. No details were ever available about my father beyond the fact that he worked in the family stables and took care of their racehorses” (Alone, p. 3).

  20. Some of the obvious examples (in English only) would be Peter Abrahams's Path of Thunder; William Plomer's Turbott Wolfe; Alan Paton's Too Late The Phalarope; Dan Jacobson's The Evidence of Love; Lewis Nkosi's Mating Birds; Nadine Gordimer's A Question of Loving. See also Lewis Nkosi's “Sex and the Law in South Africa” in his The Transplanted Heart, Benin: Ethiopia, 1975, pp. 22–30.

  21. Daymond is the editor of The Cardinals, for which she provides an excellent introduction (vii-xviii) in which the incest issue is widely discussed. See also D. J. Driver's comments on this point in her review of the novel, op. cit., p. 17.

  22. Compare Head on her novel Maru (1971)—it “ought to liberate the oppressed Bushmen here overnight”—where Head's tone is very similar to Johnny's in its exuberant yet urgent attitude towards political oppression (Bessie Head, A Gesture of Belonging: Letters from Bessie Head, 1965–1979, ed. Randolph Vigne, London: S. A. Writers, 1991, p. 125).

  23. Compare a sentence from “Where is the Hour …,” in the volume that includes The Cardinals, and written a few years after the novel: “We may liberate ourselves from alien oppressors, but when do we come alive to ourselves?” (p. 152).

  24. Compare p. 117. The tightly paradoxical formulation of Johnny's determination (in his own words, emphases added) “to stand for non-commitment” is noteworthy, as a clue to his character.

  25. See Head's statement in “Africa” (same volume): “The only reason I always admit pain is that it seems the only constructive emotion” (p. 143).

Earl G. Ingersoll (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3317

SOURCE: Ingersoll, Earl G. “Sexuality in the Stories of Bessie Head.” CLA Journal 39, no. 4 (June 1996): 458–67.

[In the following essay, Ingersoll explores Head's treatment of sexuality in her short fiction, particularly her perceptions of female sexuality.]

Bessie Head's tragically early death in 1986, at the age of 49, may seem to have silenced a powerful voice for sanity and sensitivity in the discourse on human sexuality and relations between women and men. On the other hand, her voice has not really been silenced, for, as Susan Beard has remarked, recent years have witnessed a “remarkable Bessie Head renaissance,” signaled perhaps by Alice Walker's singling her out among her “favorite uncelebrated foreign writers … whose work deserves more attention in this country.”1 In the remarks to follow, I will focus on selected stories from her collection The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales (1977),2 in an attempt to demonstrate that Head is both an advocate for women and an advocate for women and men. The stories to be examined are “The Deep River,” “Heaven Is Not Closed,” “Life,” “Witchcraft,” “The Special One,” and “The Collector of Treasures.”

The full title of the first story in the collection, “The Deep River: A Story of Ancient Tribal Migration,” points up its origins in a “village tale” of how the Talaote tribe came into being. It attempts to exhume a legend of origins for a people who have merged with other peoples and lost knowledge of their history. The ancestors of the Talaote were numbered among the Monemapee moving through time as a “deep river” of unself-conscious harmony and unity. When Monemapee died, he left three wives and five sons, ranging from adult sons—Sebembele of his first wife, Ntema and Mosemme of his second—to the infant Makobi of his third wife. Sebembele announces that he will marry his father's young and beautiful third wife, Rankwana, and that Makobi is the fruit of their secret love. Concerned that Makobi will supplant them in the succession of the chiefdom, Ntema and Mosemme gather enough supporters to confront Sebembele with the bitter choice: renounce Rankwana and Makobi or his claim to succeed their father as chief.

Traditional voices in the tribe attempt to persuade Sebembele to be a “man,” for theirs is “a world where women were of no account” (3). Furthermore, they remind him that “[a] ruler must not be carried away by his emotions” (3), and that “[a] man who is influenced by a woman is no ruler. He is like one who listens to a child” (3). Those traditional male voices are juxtaposed to the quiet but powerful voice of Rankwana, who tells Sebembele: “If you would leave me, I would kill myself” (4). Sebembele is overwhelmed with the “sickness” or “paralysis” of his impossible dilemma, and then he cures himself by renouncing his chiefdom and his people diverting part of that “deep river” of his fatherland into a new course, becoming the Talaote, or those allowed to leave.3

The “deep river” of the story's title also seems to be the love of Sebembele and Rankwana, subtly understated in Head's evocative tale of passionate love overcoming the pain of a kind of amputation inherent in the choice made first by Rankwana and then by Sebembele to make love their priority. Head herself in a footnote admits that this is “an entirely romanticized and fictionalized version of the history of the Botalaote tribe” (6), and the reader senses the truth of her statement before reading this footnote. However, the story functions as a strategic starting point for the collection and a kind of anticipatory balance for the second-to-last and the most powerful story in the collection, “The Collector of Treasures.” Even though Head adds a kind of disclaimer to acknowledge that the story is “romanticized and fictionalized,” it establishes a framework of legend or myth within which it is possible to conceive of a love powerful enough to make men as well as women willing to sacrifice everything else for its preservation. The reader believes Rankwana when she tells Sebembele that she and the child will perish without him, and he is willing to renounce, as she does too, his favored position within the deep river of his people's history. Small sacrifice though it may seem to some, he is willing to sacrifice his being as a man by violating his allegiance to the male code of manliness, thereby risking a future as no-man if patriarchy is the sole determinant of identity and being.

In the stories that follow, Head offers the reader various expressions of women who have been less fortunate than Rankwana in finding lovers willing to meet them as alternative “currents” in that “deep river” of passion and tenderness. Galethebege in “Heaven Is Not Closed” seems to come closer than others, even though she has been forced by her traditionalist husband to conduct her worship as a Christian in secret. It is left to her to grieve the possibility that her nonbelieving husband may never gain access to the Christian heaven she herself aspires to. Gaenametse, in “The Special One,” the story just before “The Collector of Treasures,” seems confident that she has found love with the old priest of her church who has promised to marry her, but the reader has difficulty sharing her hope. Gaenametse apparently followed the example of her neighbor, Mrs. Maleboge, becoming the nighttime lover of boys who go to her for sexual release because they need not fear impregnating her. The narrator, a young woman, gets a lesson in female sexuality, for she is shocked that these older women are so sexually active. Indeed, Gaenametse's marriage, we learn, ended in divorce not because her husband was a philanderer but because he was unable to satisfy her sexual hunger, now that she was free from the fear of constant pregnancies. According to a gossipy neighbor, Gaenametse even risked her husband's life by coercing him into intercourse while she was menstruating.

Three other stories in the collection demonstrate Head's perceptions about women and sympathy for their difficulty in dealing with their sexuality. The reader is impressed with the range of situations in which these women find themselves. For example, Life, in the story of that title, is a young woman who left the village for Johannesburg with her parents when she was ten. Now that they have both died, she has returned seventeen years later to a culture within which she can no longer find a place. In the city she made her way as a “singer, beauty queen, advertising model, and prostitute” (39). Because she is a “city girl,” the village women find her attractive and hope that she can bring a “little light” into their lives. Things change, however, when Life becomes the “first and the only woman in the village to make a business of selling herself” (39). To demonstrate that Life is different only in taking money for her sexual responses, the narrator offers the reader the following context:

People's attitude to sex was broad and generous—it was recognised as a necessary part of human life, that it ought to be available whenever possible like food and water, or else one's life would be extinguished or one would get dreadfully ill. To prevent these catastrophes from happening, men and women generally had quite a lot of sex but on a respectable and human level, with financial considerations coming in as an afterthought.


The tragedy for Life is marriage to Lesego, a cattleman, who insists that she accept him as the only man in her bed. His overconfidence that Life can renounce forever her earlier experience is put to the test when he must be away on business, so to speak, and is immediately informed upon returning that his wife has been “unfaithful.” When he asks for tea, Life tells him she has to go out for sugar, but once she has gone he discovers the canister has plenty and surmises that she is off to complete an assignation. He surprises her—perhaps—with her “John” and kills her, of course, not the man whom she is with and for whom this is all an exciting drama.

The word tragedy is not an intrusion here, since Head crafts this narrative so well that the reader has the sense of Life as a tragic figure,4 virtually from the moment she agrees to marry Lesego. Afterward, her friends, the “beer-brewing women,” recall hearing Life say: “My motto is: live fast, die young, and have a good-looking corpse.” To them, Life was a heroic figure who had reached “dizzy heights”—foreclosed from their more ordinary lives—“the bold, free joy of a woman who had broken all the social taboos” (40). Indeed, readers like Maxine Sample5 go too far in their judgments about “the sinful, perverse activities” which make Life's yard a “place of inevitable destruction because of the moral decay” (318). The narrator seems much less judgmental. With marriage Life has descended from the independence of full personhood to a boring existence with a man who insists that she ask him for every cent she spends. On the other hand, he has been made well aware of what Life is about by the chorus of male villagers, whose leader took upon himself to warn Lesego: “You can't marry that woman. She's a terrible fuck-about!” (42). Lesego proceeds with a kind of overweening pride that he is “man enough” to fulfill her sexual hunger, when obviously no one man likely can. The judge, a white man, gives Lesego five years—it is a “crime of passion”—and the leader of the chorus returns to ask why Lesego was so stupid as not simply to walk away. The narrator ends with the ironic commentary: “A song by Jim Reeves was very popular at that time: That's What Happens When Two Worlds Collide. When they were drunk, the beer-brewing women used to sing it and start weeping. Maybe they had the last word on the whole affair” (46). The sentimentality here is only apparent: Life is indeed tragic when all avenues to fulfillment are closed.

At the other end of the age range is another of Head's older women, Mabele, who has a son by the man who kept talking marriage until he had impregnated her and then left. The men in the village have nicknamed her “he-man” because she refuses to “show” herself to them anymore. The narrator tells us: “The only value women were given in the society was their ability to have sex …” (49). Mabele is tormented by the men, one of whom passes himself off as a baloi, or demon. A Christian, she prays for help. When none comes, she wastes away almost to death until she recovers on her own and declares her selfhood: “You all make me sick! There is no one to help the people, not even God. I could not sit down because I am too poor and there is no one else to feed my children” (56).

All of these themes come together in the “biggest” story in the collection, “The Collector of Treasures,” which is a masterpiece of short fiction destined to become a “classic.” As in the story “Life,” Head constructs a tragic framework in this tightly controlled story. Dikeledi has just been transferred to prison to serve a life sentence for having killed her husband, Garesego. The wardess who processes her entry wryly tells her, “You'll be in company. We have four other women here for the same crime. It's becoming the fashion these days” (88). Soon, Dikeledi, whose name means “tears,” meets the other four, one of whom, Kebonye, asks how she killed her husband. Dikeledi answers, “I cut off his private parts with a knife,” to which Kebonye responds, “I did it with a razor” (89). Knowing this, the reader is led back through Dikeledi's life to account for her desperate act.

First, Kebonye tells her story. Her husband was an education officer who “used to kick me between the legs when he wanted that. I once aborted with a child, due to that treatment” (89). He had a penchant for impregnating schoolgirls, and when the parents of his last conquest came to her, Kebonye told them that she would take care of the problem. In her loving helpfulness, Kebonye becomes a new treasure for Dikeledi's collection of acts of unselfish love and kindness.

Dikeledi's story is much more complicated. The narrator prefaces its narration with the generalization that there are two kinds of men: the first is like the male dog who, while enjoying sex from which he has ousted his rivals, temporarily “imagined he was the only penis in the world.” Worse, such men “accepted no responsibility for the young [they] procreated and like the dogs and bulls and donkeys, [they] also made females abort” (91). Given the fact that such men are the majority now, the narrator offers an analysis of their present evil as a result of the weakened sway of the laws of their ancestors and confrontation with their colonizers, who have made them “boys.” Dikeledi's husband, Garesego, is one of that majority. After impregnating her three times, he has abandoned her and her three sons, aged four, three, and one, for the latest in a string of conquests. Dikeledi is “semi-literate,” and Garesego has discovered that educated women are more “exciting” in these heady days of “independence” (92).

She has the good fortune to meet the second variety of men, Paul Thebolo, the husband of her neighbor and friend, Kenalepe. Paul is, the narrator informs us, “another kind of man in the society with the power to create himself anew. He turned all his resources, both emotional and material, towards his family life and he went on and on with his own quiet rhythm, like a river. He was a poem of tenderness” (93). One reader of the story, Ezenwa-Ohaeto,6 calls him an “oasis of goodness” (129). Dikeledi accepts the invitation of first Paul and then Kenalepe to fashion with them a loving and harmonious sense of a larger family, which Dikeledi finds “rich and creative” (94).

It is the relationship between Dikeledi and Kenalepe that the narrative stresses. It becomes “one of those deep, affectionate, sharing-everything kind of friendships that only women know how to have” (94). Other women flock to Kenalepe's yard, and soon Dikeledi's dress-making business has become so successful that she has to buy a second sewing-machine and hire an assistant. In addition to this nurturing of her creativity as a dressmaker, Paul offers her, along with his wife, intellectual stimulation, when the two women sit at the fringes while Paul and the other men talk politics. This is still the old Africa, so that the two women cannot participate, but they continue the debates the next morning by themselves. This is important in the relationship because, as Dikeledi tells her friend, her uncle forced her to leave school before she wanted to: “I longed for more,” she tells Kenalepe, “because … education opens up the world for one” (95). Contact with Paul's discussion group has “opened up” “a completely new world” which seems to Dikeledi “impossibly rich and happy” (96), and yet Kenalepe knows that her friend is missing something.

Kenalepe herself initiates the discussion of sexuality that ends with her surprising proposal. She tells Dikeledi that she ought to find another man, but Dikeledi confesses that she has no interest since sex with Garesego was never much more than “jump on and jump off” (96). Kenalepe confesses in turn: “I sometimes think I enjoy that side of life too much” (96), and goes on to tell her friend that Paul is continually surprising her with some new way of loving her. Because Dikeledi is a special friend and because she is expecting a child, she offers to “loan” Paul to Dikeledi. This is too great a “gift” for Dikeledi to accept and she never does. Kenalepe, however, reveals her offer to Paul, who is first astonished at his wife's daring, then amused by her high regard for him as a lover, and finally rendered silent by this proposal. Dikeledi understands Paul's silence: “I think he has a conceit about being a good man. Also, when someone loves someone too much, it hurts them to say so” (97). Later, Paul will silently acknowledge his wife's offer, and Dikeledi accepts the generous gift of his and her friend's love. The “treasure” is in her friend's offer, not any actual love-making which Femi Ojo-Ade mistakenly concludes took place. In this way, Dikeledi can accept her friends' love without compromising the couple's fidelity to each other.

Eight years later, like the return of a ghost, Garesego comes back into Dikeledi's life. She appeals to him for help in paying for his son's education, as he has done so for the sons of the latest woman in his life. Garesego refuses, directing his wife to seek support from Paul: “Everyone knows he's keeping two homes and that you are his spare” (99). When Paul confronts Garesego, the latter publicly accuses him of having sex with Dikeledi, whom he supplies with food: “Men only do that for women they fuck!” (100). To assert his “rights,” Garesego moves into Dikeledi's home after refusing to pay for his son's education, and she puts to use the knife she has been sharpening for his return.

More than anything, this emasculation, which causes Garesego to bleed to death, is an attempt to nurture the hope for a future in which tenderness and affection may continue to be connected to the power of sexual passion. Dikeledi seeks in part to cleanse Paul of the obscenities flung in his face by her husband. Even more, Dikeledi seeks to make it possible for her sons to be new men in Paul's mode rather than to grow up in their father's image. Dikeledi joins Life as yet another tragic figure who sacrifices herself in a world in which the possibilities for joy, passion, tenderness, and generous love are worth giving one's life for. The trope of the river that Head uses to introduce Paul is no accidental echo of the first story in the collection; indeed, Paul seems a reincarnation of the legendary Sebembele in his rare combination of passionate tenderness as a lover and nurturing love as a father. Indeed, when he comes onto Garesego's death scene, his first assertion is the offer to father Dikeledi's sons and to ensure their education. Bleak as her future appears, Dikeledi has framed her sacrifice within the tragic construct of Rankwana's unwillingness to live without Sebembele. Until the world offers the hope of more men like Paul, there is little room for women like Life and Dikeledi to find fulfillment as women. In their reaching out to others to draw them into the embrace of their relationship of almost unimaginable passion, tenderness, and trust, Kenalepe and Paul seem reincarnations of Rankwana and Sebembele and the best hope for the future.


  1. Linda Susan Beard, “Bessie Head's Syncretic Fictions: The Reconceptualization of Power and the Recovery of the Ordinary,” Modern Fiction Studies 37.3 (Autumn 1991): 575.

  2. Bessie Head, The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales (Oxford: Heinemann, 1977). Subsequent references will be to this text.

  3. Femi Ojo-Ade is singularly unsympathetic to Sebembele, as one of several male characters in these stories for whom “one might not wish to shed a tear” (83). Her essay “Of Human Trials and Triumphs” appears in The Tragic Life: Bessie Head and Literature in Southern Africa, ed. Cecil Abrahams (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1990) 79–92.

  4. Cecil Abrahams encourages readers to think of Head and her writing in just such a context in the collection of essays that he edited and entitled The Tragic Life: Bessie Head and Literature in Southern Africa (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1990).

  5. See her essay “Landscape and Spatial Metaphor in Bessie Head's The Collector of Treasures,Studies in Short Fiction 28.3 (Summer 1991): 311–19.

  6. Ezenwa-Ohaeto, “Windows of Womanhood,” The Tragic Life: Bessie Head and Literature in Southern Africa, ed. Cecil Abrahams (Trenton NJ: Africa World Press, 1990) 123–31.

Desiree Lewis (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Lewis, Desiree. “The Cardinals and Bessie Head's Allegories of Self.” World Literature Today 70, no. 1 (winter 1996): 73–77.

[In the following essay, Lewis analyzes Head's concept of identity in The Cardinals in light of the author's mixed heritage and the racial laws of 1960s South Africa.]

The taboo against interracial sex—officially expressed in the Immorality Act of 1927 and its amendment in 19501—has roused the fictional imagination of a range of South African writers. In God's Stepchildren (1924) Sarah Gertrude Millin explores interracial unions to prophesy against “miscegenation” while affirming the ideal of racial purity. Novels like William Plomer's Turbott Wolfe (1926) and Alan Paton's Too Late the Phalarope (1953) deal with aborted relationships between white and black South Africans, their protest against race laws revolving around the deviant acts of individuals and deriving from a South African liberal tradition. Two years after the repeal of the infamous Act, the theme is revisited in Lewis Nkosi's Mating Birds (1987) and explores the enduring pathology of racism.

Among the many responses to interracial sex and the Immorality Act, Bessie Head contributes a singular voice by disavowing realism and protest, fusing autobiography with fiction, and exploiting circuitous narrative strategies. Revealing her ongoing concern with liberating identities for marginalized subjects, these strategies are illustrated in lesser-known fictions: her letters2 and her posthumously published novella The Cardinals.

First issued together with previously unpublished meditations and stories in 1993, The Cardinals was given to Patrick Cullinan shortly before Head left South Africa for Botswana in 1964. It is not surprising that the manuscript was rejected by several publishers and was retained for a long time by Cullinan, a publisher and prominent literary figure in South Africa. With its abrupt shifts in emphasis, its meandering plot, and its uncertain use of point of view, The Cardinals is not what is conventionally thought of as a “well-wrought” novel. And because the sixties were a time when few publishers or readers of South African fiction were interested in “open-ended meanings” or “writerly texts,” the fact that Head's first novel was published posthumously is as revealing about transforming interests in South African literature as it is about her recently elevated status in literary studies.


In both her fiction and the autobiographical accounts within her letters, Head returns again and again to a narrative about the illicit union between a socially superior mother and a subordinate father, the mother's trauma after being made to relinquish her child, and the daughter's rejection by her mother's family and stigmatization by society. Usually, as in her autobiographical stories and A Question of Power, the child of a union between an upper-class white woman and a black stablehand is placed in foster care while her mother is incarcerated in a mental institution. The mother commits suicide after spending several years there, her family disowns the child, and the child bears the scars of being an outcast, an orphan, and an heir to her mother's “insanity.”

Usually, too, the father is given little direct reference. Head has alluded to her own father to speculate that he was probably killed after the discovery that he was a white woman's lover (B: KMM 27 BHP 119)3 and to claim about her mother: “I feel more for her than for my father because she died a terrible death, in a loony bin while he is most probably still alive somewhere” (Vigne, 65). Dismissing the father, Head forges a determined orientation toward a mother figure silenced by master narratives of apartheid, psychiatric reports, and the prejudice of her family: “I still say she belongs to me in a special way and that there is no world as yet for what she has done. She has left me to figure it out” (Vigne, 65). Rejecting official versions of her mother's identity, the daughter inscribes her subjectivity and policed desires.

She sought some warmth and love from a black man. … When the family found out they succeeded in classifying my mother as insane, sped her down away from the family home in Johannesburg to a small town, Pietermaritzburg and locked her up in the Pietermaritzburg Mental hospital where she gave birth to me. I was then removed from her. … She was never let out of the mental hospital and committed suicide when I was six years old.

(B: KMM 27 BHP 119).

She stresses her mother's defiance of race laws and social policing of female sexuality, the punitive reprisal for her rebellion, and her enforced separation from her daughter.4 She also claims her mother as the source of her own identity and the provider of resources for her entry into public life and the world of writing: “She asked that I be given her exact same name—Bessie Amelia Emery and that attention and care be paid to my education and that some of her money be set aside for my education” (B: KMM 27 BHP 119).

By turning to the mother as the point of origin, Head identifies her own cultural inscription and that of Elizabeth, the central character of A Question of Power, locating parallel processes of subjugation in mothers and daughters. The principal of the mission school which Elizabeth attends as a child warns her of the dangers of this affiliation when she says: “We have a full docket on you. You must be very careful. Your mother was insane. If you're not careful you'll get insane just like your mother” (16).5 Head's autobiographical story in her letters registers a similar affiliation and redefines the mother's legacy of madness: “A birth such as I had links me to her in a very deep way and makes her belong to that unending wail of the human heart. … She must have been as mad and impulsive as I” (Vigne, 65).

The maternal narrative consequently locates an identity for a marginalized subject in a space silenced by dominant narratives: there is “no world as yet for what she has done” (Vigne, 65). Explaining the implication of the terrain of the mother in her own “question of power,” Julia Kristeva defines the narrative space that Head also inhabits: “Territory of the mother. What I am saying to you is that if this heterogeneous body, this risky text provide meaning, identity and jouissance, they do so in a completely different way than a ‘Name-of-the-father’” (Kristeva, 16). By interrogating the Immorality Act, Head dislodges the “Name-of-the-father,” creates for her mother a textual space and subject position, and constructs for the daughter a fiction of selfhood which refuses the sovereign writing subject and makes visible and powerful its muted other.


What immediately distinguishes The Cardinals from Head's other narratives is a preoccupation with the father, who initiates and constantly supervises the writing of his daughter Mouse. The child of a union between a woman of the upper social strata and a poor fisherman, Mouse is handed over to a woman living in one of Cape Town's slums. After spurning her fisherman lover and giving up her child, her real mother commits suicide, and Mouse's father never learns of her birth. Mouse prefigures the later character Elizabeth, as well as the autobiographically represented Head, by being black, female, and, as her successive renaming in the novel illustrates, constantly spoken for or about—denied the authority to speak her own identity.

As “Charlotte,” Mouse finds work with the tabloid African Beat, where she meets up with her father Johnny, by then a cynical journalist who eventually persuades her to share his home and oversees her development as a writer. The characters never discover that Johnny is really Mouse's father, and the novella ends at a point when “the cardinals” are about to make love. Informing us in her epigraph that the cardinals “are those who serve as the base or foundation of change,” Head signals the triumphant meanings of her novella. The Cardinals, however, fitfully unravels its surface optimism and constantly hints at qualified and contesting meanings.

The novella repeatedly suggests that Mouse's desire to write will lead to the ultimate discovery of an unknown self and the power to write her own identity. As “Miriam,” her first encounter with the written word occurs at the age of ten, when an old man enters the slum as a letter-writer with his manual “The Art of Letter Writing.” Miriam is captivated by his activity and intuitively identifies the potential for her deliverance through writing.

Given the letter-writer's source, however, his activity is a reminder that writing can be no more than the repetition of learned codes and transmitted texts. The notion of writing as repetition persists in the description of how Mouse first learns to write. Her own name, ostensibly an immediate mark of her textual self-authorization, is “an almost perfect reproduction on her name the way he had printed it.”6

The progress of Mouse's venture into the world of writing continues, rather than qualifies, the act of writing as acquisition of a prior text. When she starts working in the office of the tabloid, she becomes firmly oriented toward a masculine writing domain. Johnny refers twice to her masculine literary interests and comments: “But, it pleases me somehow. … The scientist in his laboratory is the recluse and mystic of this age. He can be a true benefactor to mankind without risk because he has created an aura of awe and respect to protect him” (107–8).

From Mouse's childhood to her adult life in the newspaper office, then, the texts which offer models for her writing are the proving ground of male authority and the products of masculine self-definition, the most important source of her anticipated growth to creativity and personhood being Johnny as her teacher. What fascinates him about Mouse is what he interprets as an uncharacteristic masculinity.

Because she has guts and has achieved on her own what others can only achieve with the best education a university or college can give. It just happens that I feel strongly about this because I had to educate myself too, and I can't allow the enterprise she has shown to go to waste in a loony-bin.


These statements are revealing not only about Mouse's quest, but also about Johnny's own, since he interprets her desires as his own determined will. Offering masculine interpretation and control of her desire as the greatest gift that can be bestowed on Mouse as a woman, he is anxious that what he defines as commendable masculinity not be wasted by her banishment to a “loony-bin” (29). His gift is therefore also a threat: the shadow of the institutionalized mother figure in Head's other narratives intrudes here, her fate being an ominous warning of the consequences of female defiance and independence. Mouse can discover an authoritative “self” only by speaking his word and constructing herself in his image.

Mouse's induction into the gendered textual space over which Johnny presides occurs in the context of strongly connoted gendered meanings. The masculine world is normative and superior, the exemplar of sovereign masculinity being Johnny: cynical and perceptive, although often abrasive and violent, he proves to be the character whose views about his society and other characters are most reliable.

Another authoritative male character is the nameless man who helps Mouse find a wheelchair for her story about an old woman who needs one. Although commissioned by the editor, the story promises to be one independently constructed and told by Mouse. When she sets out to create this narrative, the nameless hero intervenes. In an appropriative process echoing Johnny's control over her writing, this character ultimately authors her story by assuming a pivotal role in shaping it.

The world marked as “feminine” is contrastively emotional, hollow, and inferior. Johnny frequently reminds us of the binary gender system, while his girlfriends are stereotyped as fickle, conniving, and superficial. Mouse's mother Ruby appears to defy stereotypes of womanhood when she pursues a passionate relationship with Johnny by defying social taboos, yet she treacherously capitulates when she publicly rebuffs her lover and gives up her baby daughter.

With her reconstruction of an autobiographical story in The Cardinals, then, Head has the mother choose to reject her lover and child. Despite her eventual grief and suicide, Ruby's guilt is established at the start of the novella, where an omniscient narrator denies the reader access to her subjectivity. Relinquishing her baby together with five shillings, Ruby is seen to leave the slum with guilty haste. Condemned by the narrator in the opening pages, she is introduced as a subject who bears the marks of weakness and deceit, which are connoted as feminine.

The Cardinals repeatedly affirms a masculine world whose authority is persuasively inscribed in the texts that Mouse confronts and imbibed through the act of writing. Accepting the fictions of female inferiority and of masculinity as a desired model, the central woman character will therefore acquire an identity that silences her unknown self. But the text also hints at the limited path of Mouse's entry into writing with its insistent delineation of the power hierarchies of her world, covertly warning of her ongoing entrapment at the same time that it seems to celebrate her progress: while Johnny will allow Mouse to escape culturally ascribed silence for a public domain of self-defining authority, her freedom will be achieved at the cost of discovering an independent textual space and identity that cannot be discovered in dominant narratives. She will have to continue the word of her father at the same time that he “engenders” her and penetrates her sexually. With the anticipation of this ambiguous birth in chapter 4, Mouse becomes the author of Johnny's paternal story; after he gives her a brief autobiographical outline, she writes his story and submits it for his approval.


Margaret Daymond, in her introduction to the 1993 edition of The Cardinals, explains the incest taboo in Head's novella by comparing the social prohibition against incest with the Nationalist government's legislation against interracial sex, suggesting that the unwittingly incestuous love in The Cardinals dramatizes Head's political anger. From this perspective, incest serves as a trope for the South African “act of immortality,” and the deviant act of Head's characters indicts race laws in a similar way to those of writers of liberal protest.7 Yet this interpretation underplays the connection between incest and a gender hierarchy delineated with remarkable clarity in The Cardinals.

Reading the incest theme only as an index of defiance and regenerating love also cannot explain why the Immorality Act remains so disconnected a theme, since it is by no means clear or even likely that Ruby in The Cardinals is white. Her betrayal of father and daughter and her separation from her daughter are not dictated by race laws. The omission of the racial sex taboo from the relationship between father and mother consequently allows the author to ascribe freedom of choice to the mother. By erasing the repressive role of the Immorality Act, Head denies the authority of the mother as one who tells a heroic story of defiance and repression. Ruby's story is discredited further by the way her father, another of the novella's impressive male characters, encourages her to pursue her relationship with Johnny and to defy social taboos.

While The Cardinals suppresses the Immorality Act as the key to a powerful maternal narrative, Head does not unequivocally invalidate the mother's voice and world. In the same way that the text elsewhere registers unease with and unravels its surface meaning, so does the representation of Ruby covertly subvert the authority of Johnny's paternal text. It is significant that chapter 5, although it starts off as Johnny's memory about his past as a fisherman and his relationship with Ruby, ends up with Ruby as focalizer. Where Johnny usually interprets Mouse's thoughts and constructs her identity, chapter 5 describes a contrasting process as the male character is gradually consigned to the margins while the female character becomes a central subject.

As Driver observes, the chapter is stylistically different from the rest of the text; the suggestion is that it emanates from a different voice-consciousness. The predominant style in The Cardinals is characterized by the journalists' speech, a style suited to realistic treatment of a corrupt, urban, and racialist context. In chapter 5, however, Johnny's recollection, which slips into Ruby's point of view, differs markedly from the realism, the tough register, and the urban atmosphere of the rest of the chapters. The tone of this chapter is romantic, and its register is marked by frequent descriptive sections, references to verbs of perception, descriptions of characters' physical responses and behaviour, and a formality suggesting deliberate myth-making rather than mimetic social realism.

The singularity of this section is reinforced by its setting. In contrast to the worlds of the slum, the newspaper office, and city life, the sea setting of chapter 5 helps create an idyllic mood, seeming to affect the fishermen who are habitually silent and wholly absorbed in their world. Johnny—as Ruby realizes—does not like the sea, which he believes “kills us” (51). The independent and languid Ruby of chapter 5 seems to be nurtured by the sea in some way and responds: “You mean … it's killing you. Those men love the sea. They are here because they want to be” (51). In a subsequent chapter, Mouse, after arguing with Johnny about her failure to love, says, “I just want to be alone” (88), and impulsively plunges into the sea. She is rescued by a shocked but also mocking and unsympathetic Johnny. In this abrupt incident, Mouse's struggle for identity is cryptically linked to a source associated with an unknown mother and her unacknowledged narrative.

While the Immorality Act is not connected to the relationship between Mouse's parents, the taboo against interracial sex does surface in relation to Mouse's point of view and emerging identity. Assigned to cover a story on Immorality Act cases, she witnesses the trial of a young Norwegian sailor. The narrative relays the event through a filtering narrator who hints at Mouse's thoughts and notes. Johnny's point of view then intrudes as he offers her a sensationalist summary which suits the tone of the tabloid they work for.

A cop peeped through a key-hole and a young man and woman found themselves in the Magistrate's Court charged with contravening the Immorality Act.

‘I was only looking for a bit of fun,’ the man said.

He was a sailor from a foreign port and said he did not know about the country's race laws. …


In this reference to the racial sex taboo, the juxtaposition of points of view and the abrupt curtailing of the Immorality Act as a theme reveal a developing subject's ambiguous acquisition of identity from the fictions she encounters. On one level the section describes Mouse's attempt to interrogate the taboo and conveys the victimization of the transgressive lovers. That Mouse's notes are replaced by authorial narration indicates the extent to which the narrative, even when it appears to capture her point of view, hints at its muting. On another level the interruption of Mouse's already-mediated thoughts by Johnny, and his recasting of a story which the narrator represents as a human tragedy, consigns the story to insignificance, a “dirty lead for a dirty paper” (70). Mouse's independent discovery of a story written into the Immorality Act is curtailed by the dismissive and authoritative voice of Johnny.

We can speculate here that Head registers her own tentative affiliation with an elusive narrative discovered by interpreting the Immorality Act, but yields to a paternal voice by suppressing the act and establishing the mother's silence, the father's authority. What is more clearly conveyed, however, is the tension between Mouse's acquisition of a voice from the authoritative fiction of a father and her interrupted quest to interpret the law which in her other narratives aims to suppress a rebellious mother's story.

The second reference to the law against interracial sex in The Cardinals is Mouse's exploration of why there are so many Immorality Act offences. This reference directly conveys the character's point of view through her detailed written notes. But the contrast between this fluent, detached, and descriptive response (which Mouse develops once she has begun living with Johnny) and the previous one suggesting her stifled but autonomous interpretive engagement is a striking indication of her tutelage, a sign of her transformation by her instructor-father and an index of her growing alienation from a narrative accessed by independently interrogating the Immorality Act; Mouse, having imbibed the lessons of her father, abandons an emotional entanglement with her subject and aspires to Johnny's rationalism and clinical detachment from the law which obscures an untold story.


At the end of The Cardinals the central woman character does seem poised to break out of her socially designated condition of silence. But she will transcend her silence only by being elevated to the symbolic status of her father and accepting his fiction of selfhood which denies her authority to construct her own. At the same time that the text celebrates Mouse's anticipated entry into writing through the inadvertently incestuous cardinals, it seems unable to ignore that her progress toward writing is embedded in power relations and narratives that inhibit the discovery of an independent desire.

The Cardinals discloses the covert and contradictory paths which Head pursued in her representation of marginalized subjects and her celebration of creativity. While much of her fiction explores her characters' circuitous defiance of the identities imposed on them, The Cardinals ambiguously confronts the dominant texts that speak for and about a central female character.

Head has claimed that the central male character of her first long piece of fiction offered a prototype of the mythical man she exalted in her later fiction: “He gets better and better with each story.”8 That her subsequent writing shows a continuing fixation with powerful father figures and authoritative masculine codes is not because she was unaware of their relation to hegemonic narratives. The Cardinals illuminates her alertness to the way master narratives shape the public domain of writing and the fictions available to marginal subjects. It also reveals the way she both subverts and reproduces dominant meanings and codes, struggling with a vision which available codes are not able to sustain. The recuperation of paternal meanings in the novella identifies one direction in her writing as the quest for discursive empowerment through the instrumentality of available languages, strategies, and forms. While her search for meanings beyond dominant narratives develops into the construction of a maternal narrative, this narrative was but one inconsistent strand within a much broader and ambivalent process of writing. Head's restless struggles both against and with available narratives, forms, and discourses were rarely univocal, linear, or intentional ones. Her lesser-known fiction encodes traces of her complex battle to construct identities beyond dominant fictions and to discover the conditions for her own creativity.


  1. The amendment of the Act after the Nationalist Party came into power consolidated legislation that entrenched apartheid.

  2. Much of Head's correspondence, which includes approximately 2,000 letters, has been catalogued by the Khama III Museum in Serowe, Botswana. Her letters have been collected in Randolph Vigne's book A Gesture of Belonging: Letters from Bessie Head, 1965–1979 (1991) and a pending publication by Patrick Cullinan.

  3. References are to the Bessie Head Papers (BHP), Khama III Museum, Serowe, Botswana.

  4. Some critics have discredited Head's autobiographical accounts as unreliable stories of her past. See Teresa Dovey for a defense of Head's textual interpretation of her past and a critique of critics' preoccupation with her “true” story. Kenneth Birch, Head's natural uncle, intervenes in the critics' debate and contests Head's version by claiming to offer “further understanding of the complexities within my niece's nature, and those of her antecedents” (18).

  5. Page reference is to Bessie Head, A Question of Power, London, Heinemann, 1974.

  6. Page references are to Bessie Head, The Cardinals, Cape Town, David Philip, 1993.

  7. Dorothy Driver observes that this interpretation is borne out by the allusion to Johnny's incestuous relationship with his sister—a relationship which offers consolation in a world of deprivation, although Driver also draws attention to the ambiguities of Mouse's relationship with her father and birth as a writer.

  8. Quoted in Daymond's introduction to The Cardinals, p. xvii.

Works Cited

Birch, Kenneth Stanley. “The Birch Family: An Introduction to the White Antecedents of the Late Bessie Amelia Head.” English in Africa, 22 (1995), p. 1.

Bessie Head Papers. Khama III Museum. Serowe, Botswana.

Head, Bessie. The Cardinals. Cape Town. David Philip. 1993.

———. A Question of Power. London. Heinemann. 1974.

Daymond, Margaret. “Introduction” to The Cardinals. Cape Town. David Philip. 1993. Pp. vii-xviii.

Dovey, Teresa. “A Question of Power: Susan Gardner's Biography versus Bessie Head's Autobiography.” English in Africa, 16 (1989), p. 1.

Driver, Dorothy. “Gestures of Expatriation and Belonging.” Southern African Review of Books, September/October 1993.

Kristeva, Julia. “The Novel as Polylogue.” In Desire in Language. Oxford, Eng. Oxford University Press. 1980.

Millin, Sarah Gertrude. God's Stepchildren. London. Constable. 1924.

Nkosi, Lewis. Mating Birds. Johannesburg. Ravan. 1987.

Paton, Alan. Too Late the Phalarope. New York. Scribner. 1953.

Plomer, William. Turbott Wolfe. London. Hogarth. 1926.

Vigne, Randolph. A Gesture of Belonging: Letters from Bessie Head, 1965–1979. London. Heinemann. 1991.

Gisela Feurle (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Feurle, Gisela. “‘Welcome Robinson Crusoe, Welcome!’: The Story Re-Told by a Female Voice from Africa in Bessie Head's Botswana Village Tales.” In Across the Lines: Intertextuality and Transcultural Communication in the New Literatures in English, edited by Wolfgang Kloos, pp. 141–49. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998.

[In the following essay, Feurle discusses parallels between Head's “The Wind and a Boy” and Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.]


I shall be dealing with my topic from two angles: first, by interpreting Bessie Head's story “The Wind and a Boy”1 and the intertextuality involved; secondly, by discussing some aspects of the reception of this text and Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.

My focus on reception is based on my teaching experience and (self-) observation. I read texts of African literature—among others short stories of Bessie Head—in a course with students at the Oberstufenkolleg in Bielefeld, making intercultural understanding an explicit topic. During my stay in Zimbabwe in 1995, I read some of these texts again with Zimbabwean students in order to find out more about the reception and understanding of African literature.

My approach to reading and interpreting African literature in the Bielefeld course implied—besides textual interpretation—reflection on our reactions to the texts, on our cultural backgrounds and experiences, on our images of Africa and Africans. I think cultural self-reflexivity, change of perspectives and critical awareness of eurocentrism and its discourse, combined with background information on the African context and the author concerned, are necessary for intercultural understanding and the interpretation of African literary texts.


“The Wind and a Boy” tells the story of a boy (called Friedman after the friendly foreign doctor in the hospital) who grows up with his grandmother Sejosenye in the Botswana village of Ga-Sefete-Molemo. There is a close relationship between grandmother and grandson right from the beginning. Growing up, Friedman becomes one of the typical village boys who live according to their own rules and feel as free as the wind. He is, however, also different from them: he is a boy who knows his own mind, and someone who is beautiful like a “graceful gazelle with large, grave eyes”; although he becomes mischievous and a nuisance in the village, the villagers regard him as better than the others. His grandmother Sejosenye, still an impressive figure at her age, had also had a flaming youth. She is a woman who can plough and is hard-working—being the envy of all the women in the area. She tells her grandson “all those stories of hunters, warriors, emissaries of old” and—“given to dreaming herself”—sometimes sings him a little song. A certain “quaint little song” is always “well received” by Friedman; “a little light would awaken in his eyes.” She would sing: “Welcome Robinson Crusoe, welcome! How could you stay so long away, Robinson, how could you do so?” As a girl, Sejosenye had spent a year at a mission school, where she had made a slight acquaintance with the ABC and one, two, three, four, five and the little song. “Yet Robinson Crusoe lived on as a gay and out-of-context memory of her school days.”2

Friedman asks her if this was a special praise-poem song for Robinson, and if he was loved by his people because he did great things for them. Sejosenye confirms this, and as the boy wants to know what exactly Robinson had done for his people, she tells him her story, “making it up on the spot.” “They say Robinson was a hunter who went by the Gweta side and killed an elephant all by himself.” And she tells Friedman how this happened, how brave and courageous he was in defending himself against the elephant. He gave the elephant to the people; there was something for all of them “in the great work Robinson did.” Friedman is deeply impressed by the story, and says: “Grandmother, one day I am going to be like that. I am going to be a hunter like Robinson Crusoe and bring meat to all the people.” Friedman wants to hear more. “The stories awaken a great tenderness in him.” In his everyday boyish activities and games, he acts out the role of Robinson, who is “touchingly in aid or defence of the people.” One day Friedman expresses this “awakened compassion for life” as follows: when his grandmother orders him to kill the mice that have invaded the huts because of a great storm, Friedman protests, as the mice have come for shelter, and puts them into a box to take them back to the field. He becomes more and more devoted to his grandmother and concerned to help her in any way. One day she sends him to the shops with his new bicycle—a gift from his mother from town. As he is peddling along the road, a truck hits him, drags him along at a crazy speed. The boy is dead, the pretty face “a smear along the road.”

When Sejosenye learns of her grandson's death, she says: “Can't you return those words back?” In the hospital she starts talking and singing to herself, and soon dies. The village people of this “timeless sleepy village” discuss the incident from all sides until it is understood:

The driver of the truck […] belonged to the new, rich civil-servant class whose salaries had become fantastically high since independence. They had to have cars in keeping with their new status; […] they were in such a hurry about everything that they couldn't be bothered to take driving lessons. And thus progress, development, and a preoccupation with status and living-standards first announced themselves to the village. It looked like being an ugly story with many decapitated bodies on the main road.3


The reference to Robinson Crusoe in Sejosenye's story triggers off some associations, images, or memories of Daniel Defoe's novel—if it is known to the reader. Some of the Bielefeld students—but not all—could remember some fragments: Crusoe's shipwreck, the fact that he lived on an island, Friday—“a boy” on the island who learns everything from Crusoe. One student remembered that she had admired Crusoe a lot when she was young because he was able to do everything on his own. Another student said he saw Crusoe and Friday as examples of the colonizer and the colonized.

The importance of Robinson Crusoe as a canonical text of European culture is immense. Ian Watt describes it as one “of the great myths of Western civilization.”4Robinson Crusoe has been interpreted as representing not only English merchant capitalism (or capitalism in general) but human civilization as such, as opposed to nature.5 Crusoe subjugates nature and repeats the ‘developmental stages’ of hunting and gathering, agriculture, and artisanship. Only after having completed this process does he encounter the nameless savage, saving him from his people, the cannibals. Crusoe makes him his slave, giving him the name Friday and ‘civilizing’ him, teaching him how to work (for him) and educating him, by liberating him from his ‘primitive beliefs’ and converting him to Christianity. Friday acknowledges the supremacy of his new master.

Since its appearance in 1719, the novel has been read by countless people, young and old; it has been re-written in numerous versions, especially for young people and with a didactic purpose.6 Philosophers, educationists, writers, and economists have referred to the novel: Rousseau, for instance, regarded it as the ideal book for his Émile, and Karl Marx mentioned it in the context of his theory of value. The German-Swiss ‘Robinsonade’ became a genre in its own right. Robinson Crusoe has been used as illustration or inspiration for such topics as civilization, labour and wealth, economic and religious individualism, the development of capitalism, colonization, and empire-building.

The story is bound to have left some traces deep in the minds of its readers; in the context of the colonial and imperial experience and discourse7 it has contributed to creating conscious or subconscious conceptions and images of the European ‘Self’ and the ‘Other,’ the indigenous peoples of Africa and the Americas. Helen Tiffin sees Robinson Crusoe (like Shakespeare's Tempest) as “part of the process of ‘fixing’ relations between Europe and its ‘others,’ of establishing patterns of reading alterity.”8 The conceptions and images contribute to cultural structures of eurocentrism or racism in our minds, implying a dualistic view of the world: Robinson/Friday, white/black, civilization/primitiveness or barbarism, culture/nature, rational/emotional, science/magic, masculine/feminine. The concepts in this system are seen as binary oppositions, with the first pole representing the supremacy of the Western world (or, if applied to gender relations: of men).9

By discussing Defoe's story and what we remember of it in my literature course, I was able to put into practice the approach described above: to reflect critically on eurocentric, dualistic and hierarchical conceptions and constructions and to become aware of how they were created in us (and still are being created). And it was an African literary text that, by means of its intertextuality, provoked this urge to be concrete and personal. One student, for example, who re-read the children's edition of Robinson Crusoe he found at home, was now quite shocked about the way Robinson and Friday were portrayed. He had not been aware of this before; it had seemed ‘normal’ to him.


The function and effect of this kind of text in Europe make up one side of the coin; Helen Tiffin and Stephen Slemon both underline the function of such a canonical European text at the colonial periphery. It “becomes an important part of material imperial practice”: ie a means of cultural domination through the colonialist educational system. “It continually displays and repeats, for the colonical subject, the original capture of his/her alterity and the process of its annihilation, marginalization, or naturalization.”10 ‘Writing back’ to this is a mode of cultural resistance.

Various discursive strategies in post-colonial literatures and their subversive qualities have been described.11 One is canonical counter-discourse, the re-writing of the European ‘master-texts’ (like Robinson Crusoe). Writing back to Crusoe means ‘writing back’ to the whole discursive field within which such a text operated and continues to operate in post-colonial worlds.


I'd like now to interpret in detail what Bessie Head's counter-discourse implies: how she is ‘writing back’ to Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.

What strikes one first is that Defoe's story is ‘re-told’ as part of the African oral tradition, and by a woman, an African woman. Sejosenye's storytelling represents the oral tradition that remembers the past and has a strong impact on the present and future, as can be seen from Friedman's reaction to the story. Bessie Head's view of the African oral tradition had been shaped by her experience: Living in exile in Botswana after fleeing from South Africa, she finds roots for black identity there; for her, Botswana “kept alive the portrait of ancient Africa.”12 Orature—as the counterpart of literature—is one means of doing this. Its importance is conveyed in contrast but also in parallel to Defoe's classic foundational novel. At the end of Joachim Campe's late-eighteenth-century Crusoe-book, the children say: “We want to be like Robinson”13—who is a morally perfect hard-working puritan—and so does Friedman: only, he is referring to the African Crusoe constructed by his grandmother Sejosenye.

Head inserts the female storyteller, who tells her own story. Among all the other traditional stories she tells, she is making up a story including her utopia. which is taken up by Friedman. Her belief in the power and reality of words is later also shown when she says “can't you take these words back?” in order to annul Friedman's death. She spends the rest of her days singing and talking to herself, “as if still desperately hoping to substitute her own story for someone else's version of progress.”14


All that, ironically, remains of the important canonical text of ‘Western civilization’ is the name of its hero and the “quaint little song.” The effect of this text and its conceptions during Sejosenye's brief mission education seem to be negligible—only the song remains. The latter is presented as a song welcoming Crusoe to England on his return after twenty-eight years, although, according to Defoe's text, there was no welcome at all for him. Sejosenye appropriates the song and the name Robinson for her own purpose, labelling it a praise-poem song, a genre of orature in southern Africa, thereby demonstrates her independence of colonial discourse.

I think the irony is twofold: first, the absurdity (but probable reality) of African kids singing a welcome song for Robinson at the mission school; secondly, the failure or inversion of the purpose of this text as an element in colonial education.

When asking the students of a Form 3 class in Zimbabwe if they had ever heard anything about Robinson Crusoe before, there were only about four out of 26 who had. Two remembered the name only. One girl remembered reading a booklet at primary school with the story of Robinson Crusoe: “He was on an island, had goats and drank their milk. He had a worker called Friday.” This reception can, of course, not be seen as representative, but the situation of Robinson Crusoe—being an out-of-context-memory, just as for Sejosenye, or no memory at all for many people—is certainly true in the African context. On the other hand, Robinson Crusoe is in any case still a story that is relatively widely read. In the bookshops in Zimbabwe I found the abridged and simplified version in the Junior Series of the College Press: “Stories to Remember” (suitable for non-native speakers of English)—first published in 1965, reprinted nearly every year, sometimes twice a year. The impression I saw had been printed in Zimbabwe in 1994, with reprintings yearly since 1988.

Still, a question that may be asked is: what remains of the quotation if the ‘pre-text’ is not known? I think, in any case, that the dimension is important for the author and for those readers who do know it or are acquainted with some of its ideas. Furthermore—as I propose to show—there are other dimensions in Bessie Head's counter-discourse that are independent of this.


The level of reception can be regarded as an additional background factor when interpreting further details of Bessie Head's counter-discourse as unfolded through Sejosenye's story.

There is no explicit changing or adding of aspects of the story or of point of view in order to present a critical version, or a ‘dialogue’ with the pre-text.15 As already mentioned, nothing remains of the pre-text but the name of the hero, and of the (invented) song only the friendly welcome by the people. Sejosenye tells her own story, constructing her Robinson on basis of her assumptions, the British Robinson remaining wholly implicit.

Slemon highlights parody as the essential textual strategy of post-colonial counter-discourse: parodic quotation of the imperial text sets itself up in opposition to the interpellative power of colonialism.16 I think the textual strategy here can't be called a parody in the strict sense of the word, but a parodic (rather: ironical) quotation that emphasizes the originality of her story.

For readers who know or remember the pre-text, the reference to Crusoe not only stimulates the above mentioned images and conceptions and critical reflection on these, but also challenges an interpretation via comparison. Sharper contours, extra depth, but also ambiguity are the result. The reader is activated, stimulated to reflect on his or her mode of reception and associations, to change perspectives, and to look for the message implied via the intertextuality. The reading process is implicitly accompanied by the question “what is different?” but also by a state of ambiguity about whether this is really the appropriate question.

At first glance, there is no Friday in Sejosenye's story—or, as I prefer to see it, Crusoe and Friday are integrated in one person, both in the story told by Sejosenye and in the boy Friedman, who admires the African hero Robinson and dreams of being a leader like him. He is Crusoe and the emancipated Friday at the same time (cf. also the names Friedman/Friday), and also—as the end of the story suggests—Friday the victim.

Sejosenye's Robinson is a great hunter who helps the people, an individual characterized by bravery and courage but integrated into the community and working on its behalf. This contrasts with the individualism, solitude, egocentricity, and hierarchy within Defoe's Crusoe. The Crusoe-personality which Friedman adopts shows compassion for life and cares for nature (an example is the incident with the mice)—contrasting with the philosophy of developing capitalism in the eighteenth century with its conquering and exploitation of nature.

A keyword for Bessie Head's Robinson is “tenderness”—Sejosenye's stories awaken “a great tenderness” in Friedman (unfortunately, this is wrongly translated as “große Gefühle,” big emotions/sentiments, in the German version). In my first reaction as a reader, “tenderness” was a surprising and unexpected term. Usually stories of heroes and great leaders are expected to arouse other feelings: admiration of strength, power, heroism, fighting and winning, and so forth. Tenderness and love, characteristics mostly associated with women according to the socio-cultural construction of femininity, become qualities of the ‘new man’ who loves and cares for the community. In some of Bessie Head's other stories as well, the ‘new man,’ filled with tenderness and emotions, can be found as a utopian element: Paul Thebolo in “The Collector of Treasures,” or Sebembele in “The Deep River,” for example.17

One important element of Bessie Head's counter-discourse is to do away with dualism and binary oppositions: both Crusoe/Friday and all the oppositions such as civilized/primitive associated with it, and masculinity/femininity. The critical counter-discourse is thus not only directed at the discourse of colonialism or apartheid but also at that of African society with regard to gender. Head not only creates “a new kind of man” but also, in some of her stories, inserts women into the oral traditions that she uses as material in her fiction, giving women a voice and importance; Sejosenye is but one example.

I think it is important to note that although Sejosenye is depicted as a strong African woman who has roots and a vision, there is no essentialist idealization. She is humorously shown in her contradictions and common sense. The missionaries' work had some effect on her, as she is one of the “old churchgoers,” although apparently not a very strict one, since “some of the songs she sang to Friedman passed as her bedtime prayer.”


Bessie Head unfolds a vision of a future that gets its support from the past, in which people find their identity in the community, in which women play a crucial role and a new type of man has developed. This vision is closely linked with her life in the Botswana village, as an exile from apartheid South Africa, torn by the suffering of black people, of violence and racism, with her own experience of uprootedness and shaken identity. Botswana, which she experienced as a country less destroyed by colonialism, was for her a place “where it is possible to dream”—in contrast to South Africa—“a peaceful world of black people dreaming in their own skins.”18 It was not so peaceful anymore, however: …

Friedman and the utopia he represents get killed off; as a consequence, so is Sejosenye—by ‘progress and development’ put into practice by the new élite in the independent African country. This class within post-colonial society is characterized by self-centredness and a lack of solicitude towards others, the importance of personal wealth and status, the implementation of technological development as a destructive force: Thus the truck driver in the story represents the counter-values of Sejosenye's and Friedman's vision and can be associated with the line leading from Defoe's Crusoe to late capitalism and modernism. This version of progress and development is predicted to be “an ugly story with many decapitated bodies on the main road.” Story and reality are one again, just as in Friedman's dream and behaviour. It is the community that discusses and interprets the meaning of the “ugly story.”

Actually, it was this aspect, and the irony implied, that turned out to be difficult for the Zimbabwean students to understand; for them, progress and development represented positive values only.


The dual agenda that Slemon states for post-colonial literature19 can be found in Bessie Head's fiction: on the one hand, textual resistance to (neo)colonial rhetoric in the form of counter-discourse; on the other, reference to a political and social reality, to principles of cultural identity and survival. Head's discursive practices are “politically situated” (Tiffin), the ‘site of communication’ Botswana/South Africa in the Seventies and after.

Being aware of this can help readers to explain and analyze the complex multidimensionality of Bessie Head's writing, the multifold counter-discourse used to put forward her values and vision.

Bessie Head is not only ‘writing back’ to the colonial ‘master text’ Robinson Crusoe, but also to the African tradition and its oral history and orature. Furthermore, she is also ‘writing back’ to the ugly story of the ‘progress’ of the new élite in post-colonial society. She is referring to both of these discourses and to the social and political reality in question. And she is, in fact, also ‘writing forward’ with regard to both.

Despite the shocking ending and grim outlook of the “ugly story,” what (also) remains is Sejosenye telling her own Crusoe story, “dreaming in her own skin.”


  1. Bessie Head, “The Wind and a Boy,” in The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales (London: Heinemann, 1977): 69–75.

  2. Head, “The Wind and a Boy,” 72.

  3. Head, “The Wind and a Boy,” 75.

  4. Ian Watt, “Robinson Crusoe,” in Daniel Defoe: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Max Byrd (Twentieth Century Views; Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1976): 51.

  5. See Karl-Heinz Kohl, Entzauberter Blick: Das Bild vom Guten Wilden und die Erfahrung der Zivilisation (Berlin: Qumran, 1983): 37–38.

  6. For example, Joachim Heinrich Campe, Robinson der Jüngere: Lesebuch für Kinder (1780), ed. Dieter von Richter & Johannes Merkel (Sammlung alter Kinderbücher 1; Munich: Weismann/Frauenbuch, 1977).

  7. See Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (London: Chatto & Windus, 1993).

  8. Helen Tiffin, “Post-Colonial Literatures and Counter-Discourse,” in The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths & Helen Tiffin (London/New York: Routledge, 1995): 98.

  9. See Renate Nestvogel, “Kann die Aufrechterhaltung einer unreflektierten Mehrheitskultur eine Aufgabe öffentlicher Erziehung sein?” Zeitschrift für Pädagogik (Beiheft 23 1988), and Peter Martin, Schwarze Teufel, edle Mohren: Afrikaner in Geschichte und Bewußtsein der Deutschen (Hamburg: Junius, 1993).

  10. Tiffin, “Post-Colonial Literatures and Counter-Discourse,” 98; see also Stephen Slemon, “Modernism's Last Post,” in Past the Last Post: Theorizing Post-Colonialism and Post-Modernism, ed. Ian Adam & Helen Tiffin (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991): 4.

  11. Tiffin, “Post-Colonial Literatures and Counter-Discourse,” and Slemon, “Modernism's Last Post.”

  12. Bessie Head, A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings, ed. Craig MacKenzie (London: Heinemann, 1990): 72.

  13. German-language culture, perhaps because of the prevalence of a juvenile readership for the Robinsonade, has appropriated Defoe's character as a type on more ‘familiar’ terms than the originary Anglo-Saxon culture.

  14. Dorothy Dover, “Reconstructing the Past, Shaping the Future: Bessie Head and the Question of Feminism in a New South Africa” in Black Women's Writing, ed. Gina Wisker (London: Macmillan, 1993): 173.

  15. See J. M. Coetzee, Foe (London: Secker & Warburg, 1986).

  16. Slemon, “Modernism's Last Post,” 4.

  17. Bessie Head, “The Deep River: A Story of the Ancient Tribal Migrations” and “The Collector of Treasures,” in The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales (London: Heinemann, 1977): 1–6, 87–103.

  18. Bessie Head, A Woman Alone, 72.

  19. Slemon, “Modernism's Last Post,” 5.

  20. Abridged extract from Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding (Berkeley: U of California P, 1957): 85–92.

Works Cited

Campe, Joachim Heinrich. Robinson der Jüngere: Lesebuch für Kinder (1780), ed. Dieter von Richter & Johannes Merkel. Sammlung alter Kinderbücher 1. Munich: Weismann/Frauenbuch, 1977.

Coetzee, J. M.. Foe. London: Secker & Warburg, 1986.

Driver, Dorothy. “Reconstructing the Past, Shaping the Future: Bessie Head and the Question of Feminism in a New South Africa” in Black Women's Writing, ed. Gina Wisker (London: Macmillan, 1993): 160–87.

Head, Bessie. “The Wind and a Boy,” in The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales (London: Heinemann, 1977): 69–75.

———. A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings, ed. Craig MacKenzie. London: Heinemann, 1990.

Kohl, Karl-Heinz. Entzauberter Blick: Das Bild vom Guten Wilden und die Erfahrung der Zivilisation. Berlin: Qumran, 1983.

Martin, Peter. Schwarze Teufel, edle Mohren: Afrikaner in Geschichte und Bewußtsein der Deutschen. Hamburg: Junius, 1993.

Nestvogel, Renate. “Kann die Aufrechterhaltung einer unreflektierten Mehrheitskultur eine Aufgabe öffentlicher Erziehung sein?,” Zeitschrift für Pädagogik, Beiheft 23 (1988).

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. London: Chatto & Windus, 1993.

Slemon, Stephen. “Modernism's Last Post,” in Past the Last Post: Theorizing Post-Colonialism and Post-Modernism, ed. Ian Adam & Helen Tiffin (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991): 1–11.

Tiffin, Helen. “Post-Colonial Literatures and Counter-Discourse,” in The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths & Helen Tiffin (London/New York: Routledge, 1995): 95–98.

Watt, Ian, “Robinson Crusoe,” in Daniel Defoe: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Max Byrd (Twentieth Century Views; Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1976): 51–59.20

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 208


Eilersen, Gillian Stead. Bessie Head, Thunder Behind Her Ears: Her Life and Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1995, 312 p.

Biographical and critical study.

Ingersoll, Earl G. “Reconstructing Masculinity in the Postcolonial World of Bessie Head.” Ariel 29, no. 3 (July 1998): 95–116.

Maintains that Head reconstructs paradigms of African masculinity in her short fiction.

Ola, Virginia Uzoma. The Life and Works of Bessie Head. Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1994, 91 p.

Provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of Head's work.

Seidman, Gay W. “Living on the Edge.” The Women's Review of Books 8, no. 4 (January 1991): 1, 3–4.

Offers an overview of Head's life and work.

Taiwo, Oladele. “Bessie Head.” In Female Novelists of Modern Africa, pp. 185–214. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984.

Examines Head's early literary work and discusses thematic aspects of her short stories.

Additional coverage of Head's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: African Writers; Black Literature Criticism, Vol. 2; Black Writers, Vols. 2, 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29–32R, 119; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 25, 82; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 25, 67; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 117, 225; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Short Stories; Feminist Writers; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 5, 13; and World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2.

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Head, Bessie (Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Head, Bessie (Feminism in Literature)