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Bessie Head’s reputation was established by her novels When Rain Clouds Gather (1969), Maru (1971), and A Question of Power (1973). After that, she shifted her attention to historical chronicles of her adopted country, Botswana, producing Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (1981) and A Bewitched Crossroad: An African Saga (1984). In 1991 Head published A Gesture of Belonging: Letters from Bessie Head, 1965-1979.

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Achievements

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Bessie Head’s A Question of Power was a finalist for the Booker McConnell Prize in 1973. Her short-story collection The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales was nominated for the Jock Campbell Award for literature by new or disregarded talent from Africa or the Caribbean in 1978.

Other literary forms

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Bessie Head first published her writing as a journalist in South Africa. In the early 1960’s, she also began writing essays and short stories, some of which appear with later work in two posthumous collections of short pieces, Tales of Tenderness and Power (1989) and A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings (1990). The line between fiction and autobiography was always blurred with Head, and critics disagree about the genre of some pieces. In the 1970’s, she began studying the history of the Bamangwato people of Botswana. She interviewed many members of the tribe, and the resulting material informed both an oral history, Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (1981), and a collection of short stories, The Collector of Treasures, and Other Botswana Village Tales (1977).

Achievements

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In her lifetime, Bessie Head was recognized as one of Africa’s greatest writers, although she spent much of her career isolated in Botswana without the papers that would have allowed her to travel and promote her work. She was a featured speaker at the 1976 University of Botswana Writers Workshop, the 1979 Africa Festival in Berlin, and other important events. Her early novel The Cardinals, although not published until after her death, is one of the earliest examples of a novel written by an African woman. Her work has been translated into many languages, and When Rain Clouds Gather is one of the best-selling volumes in Heinemann’s African Writers’ series. As a successful writer in Africa in the 1970’s and 1980’s, she inspired a generation, especially a generation of women.

In 2007, the Bessie Head Heritage Trust and Pentagon Publishers, both in Botswana, announced an annual Bessie Head writing contest to recognize the best creative writing in English by writers in Botswana. That same year, the trust began translating Head’s works into Setswana so that they could be used as required readings in Botswana schools.

Discussion Topics

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How does Bessie Head depict power as good or evil, or a combination of both, and which characters most convincingly exhibit those traits?

Discuss how Head reveals the way insanity can empower characters.

What boundaries, both physical and emotional, entrap or free Head’s characters and how do they react to those borders?

How does Head depict impoverishment and wealth? Which status seems to empower her characters the most? Why?

Examine the descriptions of setting that enhance or weaken Head’s narratives.

How do suffering and sacrifice reinforce community in Head’s fiction?

Discuss the role of deception and truth to assert power in Head’s novels.

How does Head use imagery of drought and moisture, including tears, as a literary device?

Bibliography

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Abrahams, C., ed. The Tragic Life: Bessie Head and Literature in Southern Africa. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1990. This collection of essays on Head is one of the best full studies available. Chapters deal with the short stories. Includes bibliography and index.

Chapman, Michael. Southern African Literatures. New York: Longman, 1996. One of the Longman “Literature in English” series, this is one of the fullest overviews of South African literature. Sets Bessie Head well into context in the section “Writing in the Interregnum.” An excellent chronology and a full bibliography of individual authors.

Eilersen, Gillian Stead. Bessie Head: Thunder Behind Her Ears, Her Life and Writing. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1995. Discusses the relationship between Head’s life and her writing.

Ibrahim, Huma. Bessie Head: Subversive Identities in Exile. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996. A feminist account of Head, dealing with powerlessness and marginality in terms of actual exile. The Collector of Treasures forms the subject of her chapter “Women Talk: A Dialogue on Oppression.”

Johnson, Joyce. Bessie Head: The Road of Peace of Mind—A Critical Appreciation. Newark: University of Delaware, 2008. Head’s mental illness and the effect if had on her writing and the public’s perception of her are the focus of this book. It places her writing in biographical context and offers an insightful and easy-to-read analysis of her works.

Lionnet, Francoise. “Geographies of Pain: Captive Bodies and Violent Acts in the Fictions of Gayl Jones, Bessie Head, and Myriam Warner-Viegra.” In The Politics of (M)Othering: Womanhood, Identity, and Resistance, edited by Obioma Nnaemeka. New York: Routledge, 1997. This deals specifically with The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales from a generally feminist point of view.

Mackenzie, C. “Short Fiction in the Making: The Case of Bessie Head.” English in Africa 16, no. 1 (May, 1989). Mackenzie is one of the leading South African exponents of Bessie Head, having edited her A Woman Alone. He traces the interweaving of the making of Serowe and The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales.

Ola, Virginia Uzoma. The Life and Works of Bessie Head. Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1994. One of the most useful introductions to Head’s work. In seven chapters, Ola deals with the topics of good and evil, women’s roles, nature, and her ability to tell stories. She concludes by comparing Head to other African women writers.

Olaussen, Maria. Forceful Creation in Harsh Terrain: Place and Identity in Three Novels by Bessie Head. New York: Peter Lang, 1997. An overview of three Head novels.

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Critical Essays