Bessie Head - World Literature

World Literature

Bessie Head


BORN: 1937, Pietermaritzburg, Natal, South Africa

DIED: 1986, Botswana


GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction


When Rain Clouds Gather (1968)

Maru (1971)

A Question of Power (1973)



Bessie Head. Head, Bessie, photograph. Reproduced by the kind permission of the Estate of Bessie Head.



Bessie Head explored the effects of racial and social oppression and used the theme of exile in her novels and short stories. She was of mixed race, and she experienced discrimination both in her birthplace of South Africa and in her adopted land of Botswana. Her novels, unlike many other works of protest literature, cast a distinctly female perspective on social injustice and the psychological costs of alienation. Head, however, refused to be called a feminist, insisting instead that she abhorred all oppression—racial, sexual, and political.


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

An African Childhood. Bessie Amelia Emery was born on July 6, 1937, in a mental hospital in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Her white mother, Bessie Amilia Emery, had been committed there because the father of her child was a black stable hand, whose name is now unknown. Their relationship was forbidden under South Africa’s Immorality Act of 1927, which barred sexual relations between people of different races. This was one of many such rules found under the government-sponsored system of rule later known as apartheid, which is Afrikaans for ‘‘separateness.’’ Apartheid also designated certain buildings, areas, and services for use only by certain races and led to the segregation of living areas within South Africa, with black citizens of different cultural groups separated from each other as well as separated from whites.

Bessie was handed over to ‘‘Coloured,’’ or mixed-race, foster parents, who cared for her until she was thirteen. Because her natural mother had provided money for Bessie’s education, she was placed in a mission orphanage, where she earned a high school diploma and was trained to be a teacher. She taught elementary school and then wrote for the African magazine Drum.

Marriage and Divorce. In September 1961, she married Harold Head, a journalist with whom she later had a son, Howard. Around this time she also entered the world of literature, publishing a poem and several autobiographical pieces in the New African, a left-wing journal that followed most of its contributors into exile later in the decade.

The Head family lived in a slum in Cape Town because apartheid laws dictated that people of different races had to live in specific districts. While living there, Head worked on a novel, The Cardinals (published posthumously in 1993). Her marriage broke up after a few years, and she accepted a teaching job in the British Bechuanaland Protectorate (later Botswana), because, in her words, she could no longer tolerate apartheid in South Africa. Head left South Africa with her infant son in March 1964. Because of her political affiliations and friendships with left-wing activists, however, she was denied a passport and instead was given a canceled exit visa, depriving her of South African citizenship.

Life in Exile. When the teaching job did not materialize, Head was declared a political refugee in the Bechuanaland Protectorate and was required to report to the police daily. She had no income other than a small allowance provided by the World Council of Churches and without a passport she was unable to seek employment opportunities elsewhere. Head did much of her writing in a small home without electricity and sold homemade guava jam for extra money during the early years of her life in Botswana. For fifteen years, she lived as a refugee at Bamangwato Development Farm.

The Novels On the strength of The Cardinals, which was still unpublished, Head was offered a contract with New York publishing house Simon and Schuster to write a novel about Botswana, which became independent from Britain in 1966. The result was When Rain Clouds Gather (1968). Head’s first published novel is the story of Makhaya Maseko, a political refugee from South Africa who escapes to Botswana after serving a prison term for sabotage. When Rain Clouds Gather was widely acclaimed as a surprisingly mature first novel.

Head was less concerned with political or economic ideology than with moral principles, such as generosity, courtesy, and respect for the common person. For her, both white neocolonial oppression and the black nationalist backlash were impediments to African progress. With what she called in When Rain Clouds Gather the ‘‘hatemaking political ideologies’’ of newly independent Africa came a new set of reactionary ideas, and she regarded people who promoted those ideologies as ‘‘pompous, bombastic fools.’’

During 1969-1970 Head suffered sporadic attacks of mental illness. Nevertheless, in 1971 she published her second novel, Maru. The theme of this novel is racism, not of whites against blacks as might be expected, but the prejudice of the Tswana people, the Botswana majority, against the Masarwas, the Bushmen or indigenous people of the Kalahari Desert. As in When Rain Clouds Gather, Head cannot unite the sphere of public life and social commitment with that of the inner life and individual fulfillment.

A Question of Power (1973) is Head’s most perplexing novel and the one that has received the most attention from critics. Openly autobiographical, the novel charts the terrifying course of her mental breakdown, her recovery, and her ultimate affirmation of the values—humility, decency, generosity, and compassion—that provide the basis for Head’s moral perspective in all three novels.

Head did come to love her adopted country and was fascinated by its history. In the early 1970s, Head became interested in the history of the Bamangwato people, one of Botswana’s main tribes. Her oral history of the tribe, Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind, was commissioned but then rejected by Penguin. The book was virtually complete by 1976 but did not appear in print for another five years. Meanwhile, a collection of stories that Head was inspired to write by her interviews with the Serowe villagers was published in 1977 as The Collector of Treasures, and Other Botswana Village Tales. This collection was considered for the New Statesman’s Jock Campbell Award. The stories vividly and richly evoke the sense of a living, bustling village struggling to cope with the intrusion of new forces into the traditional social fabric and explores the social condition of women.

Global Recognition and Later Life. Head gained further renown as a writer in the 1970s. She was invited to speak at a 1976 workshop at the University of Botswana alongside other notable South African writers and was invited to international writers' conferences, to which she traveled after being granted a special United Nations refugee travel document. Finally, in 1979, she was granted Botswanian citizenship and visited Europe for the first time when she took part in Berlin’s Horizons ’79 Africa Festival. In 1984, she traveled to Australia. Though she was hailed as one of the most important female African writers in English, Head had endured a difficult life and began to drink in her later years. Her health declined, and she contracted hepatitis. After sinking into a coma, she died in April of 1986 at the age of forty-eight.

Two volumes of Head's writings have been published posthumously: Tales of Tenderness and Power (1989) and A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings (1990). Each collection begins with a substantial biographical introduction and ends with Head's observations about the role of storytellers in South Africa.



Head's famous contemporaries include:

Lewis Nkosi (1936-): South African writer and essayist whose work explores politics, relationships, and sexuality; he has lived outside of South Africa since 1961.

Lilian Ngoyi (1911-1980): South African antiapartheid activist and orator; the first woman elected to the executive committee of the African National Congress, the antiapartheid political party, and cofounder of the Federation of South African Women.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (1936-): Controversial South African activist and politician, as well as ex-wife of former South African president Nelson Mandela. She has headed the African National Congress's (ANC) Women's League and currently sits on the ANC's National Executive Committee.

Sipho Sepamla (1932-2007): One of the leading South African ''Soweto poets'' that rose out of the Black Consciousness movement in the 1960s and 1970s; awarded the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1985.

Mao Zedong (1893-1976): Head of the Communist Party and the People's Republic of China from its founding in 1949 until his death. He oversaw the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

Sheila Rowbotham (1943-): British feminist and writer who argues that socialist feminism is necessary because women are oppressed by economic as well as by cultural forces.


Works in Literary Context

African Feminism Head has been acclaimed by such internationally renowned authors as Angela Carter and Alice Walker and has served as an inspiration to female writers of Africa, and, more particularly, to the suppressed women of her native South Africa. Noting in Black Scholar that Head has ‘‘probably received more acclaim than any other black African woman novelist writing in English,'' Nancy Topping Bazin adds that Head’s works ‘‘reveal a great deal about the lives of African women and about the development of feminist perspectives.'' According to Bazin, Head's analysis of Africa's ‘‘patriarchal system and attitudes'' enabled her to make connections between the discrimination she experienced personally from racism and sexism and the root of oppression generally in the insecurity that compels one person to feel superior to another.

Old Ways Versus New Ways. The theme of conflict between old and new, a recurring one in African fiction since Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958),is given a fresh direction by Head, notably in When Rain Clouds Gather. The novel diverges from other works that deal with this theme in at least two important ways: It inverts the customary story line, which focuses on the passage of the protagonist from a rural village to the bright lights of the city, and it avoids a simplistic pattern of racial conflict by allowing for the possibility of interracial cooperation and friendship.

The African Individual in Fiction. Many works by African writers in the twentieth century dealt specifically with political issues facing developing nations. Head departed from this tradition. In Head's concern with women and madness in A Question of Power (1973), critic Charles Larson claims, she ‘‘almost single-handedly brought about the inward turning of the African novel.’’ The novel was ranked eighth of fifteen ‘‘most influential books of the decade'' by the journal Black Scholar in its March-April 1981 issue.

Larson credits the importance of A Question of Power not just to the introspection of its author, but to her exploration of subjects previously ‘‘foreign to African fiction as a sub-division of the novel in the Third World: madness, sexuality, guilt.’’ Noting that the protagonist’s ‘‘Coloured classification, her orphan status at the mission, and her short-lived marriage’’ represent the origin of most of her guilt, Larson attributed these factors directly to ‘‘the South African policy of apartheid which treats people as something other than human beings.’’

Robert L. Berner considered the novel ‘‘a remarkable attempt to escape from the limitations of mere ‘protest’ literature in which Black South African writers so often find themselves.’’ Berner recognized that Head could have ‘‘written an attack on the indignities of apartheid which have driven her into exile in Botswana,’’ but instead chose to write a novel about the ‘‘response to injustice—first in madness and finally in a heroic struggle out of that madness into wholeness and wisdom.’’

Bessie Head’s achievements result from her uncompromising attitude to her work and to life in general. When many black South African writers of the period went into exile in Britain, Europe, and the United States, Head chose Botswana, which was then almost completely undeveloped. And while her contemporaries were producing searing indictments of apartheid South Africa, Head turned to local sources for inspiration and recorded in stories of parable-like intensity the daily lives of people in a remote African village.



Head's first works focus on themes of refugeeism and racism, but in her later works she shifted the focus from an individual's struggle for dignity to helping preserve the cultural and historical heritage needed to achieve dignity. Here are some works that examine similar themes.

Emperor Shaka the Great (1979), a poem by Mazisi Kunene. An epic poem originally written in Zulu, this work tells the story of the rise of the Zulu people under the great leader Shaka.

Daughters of the Twilight (1986), a novel by Farida Karodia. A fourteen-year-old girl of Asian and "Coloured" (mixed black and white) parents tells of her life under apartheid in this novel.

Have You Seen Zandile? (1990), a play by Gcina Mhlope. In this award-winning play, a girl raised in Durban, South Africa, by her grandmother is kidnapped by her mother to live in the rural Transkei region and become a "traditional and proper'' woman.

Welcome to Our Hillbrow (1997), a novel by Phaswane Mpe. This novel addresses the mixture of tradition, the black middle class, inner-city violence, and AIDS in postapartheid Johannesburg, South Africa.


Works in Critical Context

Critics have analyzed Head’s novels in terms of their thematic concerns and their thematic progression. Suggesting that the works ‘‘deal in different ways with exile and oppression,’’ Jean Marquard noted that ‘‘the protagonists are outsiders, new arrivals who try to forge a life for themselves in a poor, underpopulated third world country, where traditional and modern attitudes to soil and society are in conflict.’’ Unlike other African writers who are also concerned with such familiar themes, observed Marquard, Head ‘‘does not idealize the African past and ‘‘resists facile polarities, emphasizing personal rather than political motives for tensions between victim and oppressor.’’ ‘‘It is precisely this journeying into the various characters’ most secret interior recesses of mind and ‘‘of soul,’’ Arthur Ravenscroft observed, ‘‘that gives When Rain Clouds Gather, Maru, and A Question of Power a quite remarkable cohesion and makes them a sort of trilogy.’’

Maru. Critical reaction to Maru has been diverse, ranging from Lewis Nkosi’s view that it is ‘‘as nearly perfect a piece of writing as one is ever likely to find in contemporary African literature’’ to Cecil Abrahams’s dismissal of it as ‘‘a rather weak vapoury study on theme of racial prejudice.’’ Maru is Head’s attempt to universalize racial hatred, pointing out that victims seek other victims lower in power and prestige than themselves.

A Question of Power. The symbolic richness in A Question of Power invites a wide range of critical interpretation. The extensive sexual content and dominant concern about insanity have prompted readings, including that of Adetokunbo Pearse, drawing heavily on psychology and arguing that the sexual negativism expressed in the book is the result of the negative self-image projected on black Africans by the South African government.

Readers who seek in Head’s work metaphorical statements about the future of Africa find a picture of enduring hope touched by a cynical mistrust of politics. Feminists, including Femi Ojo-Ade, have been attracted by the female protagonist of A Question of Power and the nature of the battle she wages.

Religious interpretations (such as those of Linda Susan Beard and Joanna Chase) are also common, fed by the Christian symbolism of the main character, Elizabeth, as a Christlike figure who redeems herselfand the world through her suffering. These readings are not incompatible with Head’s overriding humanistic message that God and goodness are to be found in people. Similarly, Arthur Ravenscroft discerned no ‘‘confusion of identity’’ between the character and her creator: ‘‘Head makes one realize often how close is the similarity between the most fevered creations of a deranged mind and the insanities of deranged societies.’’


Responses to Literature

1. Should immigrants to the United States keep their cultural traditions, or should they try to fit in with American culture? What if they are political refugees? Are the personal costs greater for those who try to melt into the big American ‘‘pot,’’ or those who try to maintain their traditions?

2. Using the Internet and your library’s resources, research the social fabric of a country that you are unfamiliar with in terms of the feel of its general society. As well as looking at official Web sites and sources, read several blogs by people, both male and female, from that country. Write a paper examining the country as presented by traditional sources versus the blogs. What hidden details are revealed by ordinary people’s lives?

3. Prejudice is not just about race (black/white); people of different ethnic groups (Serbs/Bosnians), religions (Muslim/Christian), or even divisions of the same religion (Roman Catholic/Protestant) can be prejudiced against each other. Research two or three authors who write about different forms of prejudice. Write a paper examining their conclusions about the causes of prejudice and how these prejudices manifest themselves in people’s every day lives and families. Where do you see discrete or overt prejudices in your social circles? How do your peers respond to these prejudices?




Abrahams, Cecil, ed. The Tragic Life: Bessie Head and Literature in Southern Africa. Trenton, N. J.: Africa World Press, 1990.

Eilersen, Gilliam Stead. Bessie Head: Thunder Behind Her Ears: Her Life and Writing. Portsmouth, N. H.: Heinemann, 1996.

Larson, Charles R. The Novel in the Third World. Washington, D.C.: Inscape Publishers, 1976.

Ravenscroft, Arthur. ‘‘The Novels of Bessie Head,’’ in Aspects of South African Literature. London: Heinemann and New York: Africana Publishers, 1976.


Beard, Linda Susan. ‘‘Bessie Head’s A Question of Power: The Journey Through Disintegration to Wholeness.’’ Colby Library Quarterly (December 1979): vol. 15: 267-74.

Chase, Joanna. ‘‘Bessie Head’s A Question of Power. Romance or Rhetoric?’’ ACLALS Bulletin (November 1982): vol. 6: 67-75.

Marquard, Jean. ‘‘Bessie Head: Exile and Community in Southern Africa.’’ London Magazine (December 1978-January 1979): vol. 18: 48-61.

Ojo-Ade, Femi. ‘‘Bessie Head’s Alienated Heroine: Victim or Villain?’’ Ba Shiru (1977): vol. 8, no. 2: 13-22.

Pearse, Adetokunbo. ‘‘Apartheid and Madness: Bessie Head’s A Question of Power.’’ Kunapipi (1984): vol. 5, no. 2: 81-93.

Topping Bazin, Nancy. ‘‘Feminist Perspectives in African Fiction: Bessie Head and Buchi Emecheta.'' Black Scholar (March/April 1986): vol. 17: 34-40.

Web sites

The Bessie Head Heritage Trust. Retrieved February 17, 2008, from