Faces & TraesBESSIE HEAD, An African Writer with a Thunder behind Her Ears [Archives:2008/1134/Culture]

March 3 2008

Prepared by Eyad N. Al-Samman
Head, Bessie, African novelist, short-story writer, and journalist. Born on July 6, 1937, in Pietermaritzburg, a city in eastern South Africa, Head was the product of a controversial union between a wealthy white South African mother and a black servant father during a time when interracial relationships were illegal. Her mother was mentally ill and therefore Head was put into the care of a devoutly Catholic African couple. Head's mother died when Head was only 6 years old, and at the age of 12 Head was sent to an Anglican boarding school for African girls near Durban. After successfully passing her Junior Certificate examination at the age of 16, she started a 2-year course for primary school teachers. Head began teaching in 1956 at the Clairwood Colored School in Durban. She taught for almost 2 years, but she did not enjoy her work and resigned in June 1958 to become a journalist. In the same year, Head moved to Cape Town, the legislative capital of South Africa, and became a freelance reporter at the “Golden City Post” newspaper. She moved to Johannesburg, city in northeastern South Africa, to write for the “Home Post” magazine in 1959. At this time, South Africa was severely divided over the issue of apartheid, and Head joined the “Pan-Africanist Congress” (PAC), a political party advocating a more militant approach in the struggle against apartheid. In 1960, Head was arrested for her PAC activities and was tortured; consequently, she tried to commit suicide. She returned to Cape Town and began to write again for the “Golden City Post” and after several months she started her own newspaper, “The Citizen”, which expressed her strong pro-Africanist views. Head married a South African journalist in mid-1961, and from 1962 to 1964 she moved with her husband to different South African cities such as Port Elizabeth, Cape Town, and Pretoria.

Due to the deep-seated social and political tensions dividing South Africa along racial lines, Head decided to leave her country to live in another, more peaceful African country. She applied for a teaching post in Botswana in a village called Serowe and fortunately she was accepted. The South African government refused to give Head a passport, but instead allowed her a one-way exit permit. Head chose to leave South Africa, never to return, and in March 1964 she arrived in Serowe. She began her new career as a teacher in Tshekedi Khama Memorial Primary School, but after a short time she abandoned her post. In Botswana, Head worked in an agriculture business and as a typist. She also lived in the Botswanan cities of Palapye and Francistown, finally settling in Serowe in January 1969. During the first half of the 1970s Head fell into a period of deep depression, and her spiritual visions and hallucinations became more frequent and extreme. Head was still a refugee in Botswana when she applied for citizenship in 1977, but she was refused until two years later when, without having submitted another request, she was unexpectedly granted Botswanan citizenship.

Head's literary writings cover many aspects of her personal experiences as a person of mixed race, growing up without a cohesive family in South Africa. Her works focus on issues of discrimination, refugees, radicalism, African history, poverty, and interpersonal human relationships. Although she claimed to be vehemently non-political in her actions, Head's writings dwell on injustice and oppression in South Africa's intensely divided political arena, as well as her hopes for social change and peace in the future. Head's writing also employs intense imagery to vividly describe the beauty found in both human and environmental nature. Head once said that she wrote best if she could hear the thunder behind her ears, and that literature must be a reflection of daily encounters with ordinary people.

During the early 1960s Head experimented with poetry and fiction, publishing a short story in “The New African” newspaper. “The Cardinals,” her first short novel and the only novel Head ever set in South Africa, was published posthumously in 1993. In it she questions traditional notions of love, family, and genealogy. In her chosen rural haven of Serowe, she wrote novels and stories that earned her international recognition as one of Africa's most remarkable and individual writers. Her novel entitled “When Rain Clouds Gather” (1968) offers a genuine look at the rural African life, values, and obstacles to progress. In her novel “Maru” (1971), Head brilliantly combines a portrait of loneliness with a rich affirmation of the mystery and spirituality of life.

Head is best known for her novel “A Question of Power” (1973), the first part of which is autobiographical. The novel revolves around the life of a female expatriate living in Botswana and her attempts to make sense of the world around her. The novel is rich in symbolism and can be read with psychoanalytic theories in mind. She built her 1974 novel, “Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind,” on the history of Serowe itself, tackling the lives and times of three of its eminent personalities. “The Collector of Treasures & Other Botswana Village Tales” (1977), a volume of short fiction, includes brief vignettes of traditional Botswanan village life and passionate attacks on African male chauvinism. Head's long historical and traditional novel, “A Bewitched Crossroad: An African Saga”, appeared in 1984 after many years of research and complicated writing. Some of her other posthumously published works include “Tales of Tenderness and Power” (1989) and “A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings” (1990).

When she had just begun to attract real acclaim for her writing, Head passed away on April 17, 1986, in Serowe, Botswana, after suffering from hepatitis.