Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Looking for a Rain God” resembles a fable in that the plot is rather brief, the characters less than fully drawn, and there is a clear moral. However, the story, inspired by a newspaper report that Bessie Head read in Africa, also belongs to a particular time and place, Serowe in 1958. Likewise, the focus is not on human behavior in general but on the worst human behavior, and the tale’s moral is not one that invites consensus because it is a justification of ritual murder and does not make common sense as much as cultural sense.

In keeping with Head’s background as a journalist and her goals as a writer, the story is written in compact reporting style, displaying taut prose, detailed description, and little dialogue. In the opening paragraph, Head presents a favorable picture of the physical and cultural landscape then quickly disrupts it, creating suspense and causing the reader to experience some of the shock that the villagers must feel. Embedded in the initial description of the edenic lands that the villagers go to cultivate are mere hints of the tragedy to come, such as “lonely,” the second word of the story. Grafted onto the mythic present-tense description of the land is the historic event of the drought. Likewise, in the same paragraph is contained the villagers’ initial humorous response in close proximity to men hanging themselves.

Similarly, in the fourth paragraph, Head presents the land as being ready to produce, then suddenly barren again, and tags the play of children to the end of the paragraph, foreshadowing yet another tragedy. Here, the only dialogue occurs, the girls’ talk among themselves, characterized as “funny chatter,” but which indicates their meager value in the society. The adults pay no attention to the girls’ play, but the plot functions as though they were responding to it rather than succumbing to pressures brought on by the drought. This example of culture complicating where to place motivation and blame is characteristic of Head’s work.

Head’s writing is typically concerned with the encroachment of European culture on Africans and the resulting suffering. Although the questions Head presents are not clearly answered for the reader, she works to bridge cultural divides and create empathy, even in the worst circumstance.