A Woman Alone (Autobiographical Writings) by Bessie Head

Meet Bessie Head

Bessie Amelia Emery was born in 1937 in Pietermaritzburg, Natal, South Africa and was put in foster care immediately. Her mother died in 1943 and she was placed in an Anglican mission orphanage in 1950. She trained and worked as a primary school teacher. She moved to Cape Town in 1960 and married Harold Head in 1963. They had a son, Howard. Bessie was estranged from her husband in 1964 and in that year she left South Africa on an exit permit for Serowe, Botswana where she began teaching again. She was certified mentally ill in 1967 after having sold her first novel to Simon and Schuster (When Rain Clouds Gather). She had recovered by 1070 and published Maru. She was granted Botswanan citizenship in 1979. She died in Serowe of hepatitis on April 17, 1986, aged 49.

Here are some quotes from the Introduction to A Woman Alone written by Craig MacKenzie in 1989:A Woman Alone

“Her early life is a blur of pain and uncertainty. Little is known about her marriage and the reasons for its breakdown. In fact it is only with her arrival in the literary world of the seventies and the relative stability this created that her life begins to take on familiar contours. ”

“Whatever the uncertainties, the task of mapping the life of an author like Bessie Head undoubtedly becomes an investigation into the enigma of human prejudice. For in the process of unravelling the strands of her anguished life story one encounters instances of immense suffering and privation, crippling alienation, and perhaps most of all, personal confusion. It is this personal confusion (no doubt wrought by the bureaucratic callousness of a regime that legislates against people of colour) that is at the centre of Bessie Head’s troubled life.”

“The intention of this book is to allow the author the opportunity to tell the story of her own life, and to offer the reader a collection of illuminating although sometimes contradictory writings that span the entire productive period of her life.”

All sections of this collection are interesting but I personally found those about writing of greater interest although those concerning a political projection were equally intriguing.

Here is something from “Some notes on novel writing”:

“Twenty-seven years of my life was lived in South Africa but I have been unable to record this expereince in any direct way, as a writer. A very disturbing problem is that we find ourselves born into a situation where people are separated  into sharp racial groups. All the people tend to think only in those groups in which they are and one is irked by the artificial barriers. It is as though, with all those divisions and signs, you end up with no people at all. The environment completely defeated me, as a writer. I just want people to be people, so I had no way of welding all the people together into a cohesive whole.

I have attempted to solve my problem by at least writing in an environment where all the people are welded together by an ancient order. Life in Botswana cannot be compared to life in South Africa because here people live very secure lives, in a kind of social order shaped from centuries past by the ancestors of the tribe. I have tended to derive a feeling of security from this, so I could not be considered as a South African writer in exile, but as one who has put down roots., And yet, certain strength in me, certain themes I am likely to write about, have been mainly shaped by my South African experience.”

Other pieces on writing include “Social and political pressures that shape writing in Southern Africa”, “A Note on Rain Clouds”, “Some Happy Memories of Iowa” and “Writing Out of Southern Africa. In the latter piece, Bessie outlines her major themes or as she puts it “the major shaping influences in my life”. These include “A bit of Christianity”, “A bit of Pan-Africanism”, “The inspiration of Bertolt Brecht”, “Experiments with the new” and “A reverence for people”. “These,” she states in closing this piece “are the themes that have preoccupied me a s a writer.”

The last piece in the story is entitled “Epilogue: an African Story” and, for me certainly, is a beautiful statement of Bessie’s theme, ” a reverence for people.”

I suspect some readers would use the word “dated” as well as the word “naive”about some of Bessie Head’s writing but they would be wrong in my humble opinion. In 1985 she wrote

“When people are holy to each other, war will end, human suffering will end.”

and “I see this achievement as not the effort of a single man but a collaboration of many great minds in order that an integrity be established in the affairs of men. Only then can the resources of the earth be cared for and shared in an equitable way among all mankind.”

As long ago as 1972, Bessie Head wrote: “Thought patterns change rapidly from one generation to another. We reformed the language of our parents because once the white man in South Africa started putting up notices , ‘For whites only’, he also dispensed with  normal human decencies – like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘I”m sorry’ -while black people retained theirs as they have no benches to defend. It is impossible to translate a scene like this into human language. I once sat down on a bench at Cape Town railway station where the notices ‘Whites Only’ was obscured. A few moments later a white man approached and shouted: ‘Get off!’ It never occurred to him that he was achieving the opposite of his dreams of superiority and had become a living object of contempt, that human beings, when they are human, dare not conduct themselves in such ways.”

Reading Bessie Head’s work will make you think hard about what we have or have not accomplished since her death in 1986.

A Start in Life by Anita Brookner

This was the first novel by Anita Brookner and she wrote it in her fifties. I have read some of her later work like the well known Hotel du Lac but I was recently inspired by heavenali’s blog (which has inspired me previously on a re-reading project) to join her in spirit and read some more Brookner.   On July 16th, 2013, Brookner turned 85.

Here’s a Brookner quote that I really like:

Life… is not simply a series of exciting new ventures. The future is not always a whole new ball game. There tends to be unfinished business. One trails all sorts of things around with one, things that simply won’t be got rid of.

Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/a/anita_brookner.html#wfdh3os4oChgg5W2.99

A Start in Life has a wonderful opening sentence: “Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.” This is  followed by some equally wonderful sentences, the next one in fact constitutes the second paragraph: “In her thoughtful and academic way, she put it down to her faulty moral education which dictated, through the conflicting but in this one instance united agencies of her mother and father, that she ponder the careers of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, but that she emulate those of David Copperfield and Little Dorrit.” Having recently worked my way through Little Dorrit, I chuckled loudly after reading that sentence.A Start in Life

Much of Ruth Weiss’s life has been spent studying and writing about Balzac’s novels and she had published the first volume of a three volume which, as Brookner puts it, “would probably do duty for the rest of her life.” But success has brought neither comfort nor satisfaction and at the close of Chapter one we find her reflecting upon her life: “Her adventure, the one that was to change her life into literature, was not the stuff of gossip. It was, in fact, the stuff of literature itself. And the curious thing was that Dr. Weiss had never met anyone, man or woman, friend or colleague, who could stand literature when not on the page.” And so begins her journey back through her formative years.

As Ruth saw it, “she was expected to grow up as fast as she could decently manage it, and to this end was supplied with sad but improving books. From Grimm and Hans Andersen she graduated to the works of Charles Dickens. The moral universe was unveiled.” While she was reading, “she hardly noticed that her home resembled the ones she was reading about: a superficial veil of amusement over a deep well of disappointment.”

And so we enter the story of Ruth’s parents: “Poor Helen. Poor George. The grandmother knew, and bore the knowledge grimly and in silence” that the parents “would damage the child.” “The child loved her parents passionately and knew them to be unsafe.” She was not afraid of physical danger but rather disappointment.

She gets through her younger years then while at college she makes a friend. Anthea is “amusing, sharp-witted, lightweight and beautiful” and in need of “a foil” “for her flirtatious popularity; Ruth needed “the social protection of a glamorous friend.” “Both were satisfied with the friendship although each was secretly bored by the other.” Brookner’s attention to these minute details seems to me the source of one of the greatest satisfaction in reading her work.

The delicate balance which Ruth must try to find is the one between keeping her parasitic parents satisfied while establishing a life she can call her own. Anthea encourages her and she does get a flat of her own, promising to go home on weekends and inspite of the ongoing pressure from her parents. “But the nights, Ruth, the nights! Supposing Daddy or I were taken ill?”

Ruth wins a scholarship from the British Council entitling her to a year in France to work on her thesis. Before she is to leave, a holiday for her parents is arranged at her friend Molly Edward’s place in Hove by the sea. Molly is a Christian Science follower and a vegetarian who bathes in the sea every day for a half an hour. Helen’s comments when she returns home sum up the experience: “Sitting in that dog kennel(beach chalet) all day with the monsoon blowing and Molly’s cooking sticking permanently in one’s teeth. Why are vegetarians so unreasonable?” But there has been a change in Helen: she has become frightened and old and does not intend to be other than totally dependent upon George, Ruth and/or Mrs. Cuttler.

The character of Helen and her career and her choices as she ages are a very interesting accompaniment to Ruth’s story as are the characters and choices represented by Maggie Cuttler and Molly Edwards. The latter two women doubtless contributed considerably to Ruth’s personal growth and some of the choices she made. Brookner’s ability to draw these comparisons between individuals and to succinctly pinpoint flaws and strengths through behaviour and interaction is  what attracts me to her writing. The skill at characterization in this  first novel demonstrates that she has been a careful observer of human nature throughout her life while the major role she assigns to literature and libraries adds another very attractive quality to her writing.

Flee, Fly, Flown by Janet Hepburn

This a delightful read on the entertainment level, a comforting read on the information level and an optimistic read on the personal level. It is a road trip novel in which Lillian Gorsen and Audrey Clark take a vacation from their lives in the Tranquil Meadows Nursing Home in Ottawa. Both women have Alzheimers and both are more or less aware of their challenges and both moved into the nursing home at about the same time. Lillian’s husband Albert is dead as is Audrey’s husband Terry; Lillian has a son Tom and a daughter Carol. Audrey has no children.

Lillian is the narrator and her revelations about her condition are insightful and her viewpoint is often accurate as well as humourous. She and Audrey figure out how to get out of the home without getting “caught” proving that their condition does not make them stupid but, rather, challenged in particular ways. (This blogger’s mother constantly reminded her during her stay in a nursing home that she might be old but she was not stupid!)

Audrey recalls that her car was sold to a neighbour’s son and so they begin by finding the car and using the extra set of keys she still has to take possession or repossess her car, a blue Olsdmobile Intrigue.Fly

Here are some of Lillian’s observations of her condition and their cab ride to Audrey’s house:

“My doctor has told me I’ll have good days and bad, and I know he’s right.  People tell me stories about things I say and do;  things I don’t remember at all. I don’t always believe them. I call these my fog days. I try to let them go. Thinking about them too much makes my stomach and head hurt.”

“We ride for what seems like forever through the streets of Ottawa, my head spinning as a try to recognize the city I’ve lived in all my life.”

So begins an adventure not the least of which things like remembering how to operate a motor vehicle, how to get money out of a bank, how to park a car, how to get out of a city, etc. etc. become major challenges and/or obstacles.

And then, there is the confusion that occurs between past and present especially between family members and new acquaintances.

Throughout the entire adventure, Audrey’s flirtatious behaviour and Lillian’s smart remarks such as “We have self-defense training you know” and Audrey’s discoveries such as  ” a handful of flat, square plastic packages ” in the glove compartment provide chuckles on a regular basis.

Alzheimers is no joking matter as many of us are quite aware but Janet Hepburn’s book acknowledges that in the concern of the supporting characters as well as in the poignant episodes when each of the women revisits their past. The book does more than that however: it celebrates the dignity and intelligence of these individuals and demonstrates the possibilities for enriching their lives to those of us who are prepared to listen with open minds and hearts.

Janet Hepburn is a writer and poet. This is her first novel. She lives and works in Port Dover, Ontario. (from author bio in back of book).

Kudos to Janet Hepburn and to all the Lillians and Audreys in nursing homes everywhere.



Auld Acquaintance

Auld AcquaintanceThis was what I call a “very comfortable” and also a very comforting read. Anna is in her sixties,has divorced and not fully recovered from the effects of that disturbance. Her friends comprise a group called Samba which is a name made from the first initial in each of the members’ names. These friends and the rewards of a part-time library job bolster Anna’s confidence and are particularly important when she gets a letter informing her that she has inherited a property in Scotland near a place called Oban north of Glasgow. The challenge of what to do about this as well as the mystery surrounding the legacy form the remainder of the story which the reader shares with Anna. Along the way there are many new people to meet, a new feline friend named Sylvester who needs serious help if he is to survive, a complete change of geographical surroundings as well as life style to adjust to and, of course,  major decisions to make regarding the property in Scotland and her former life in London, Ontario. No heavy, complicated plot here, no gut wrenching emotional stress, just solid, down to earth, life situations to contend with and sort out: one might say a late life sorting out of what a person wants. One could also say it is a new take, if you like, on “coming of age”. I am looking forward to the second book.

Self published by Ruth Hay, “a retired teacher-librarian with a lifetime interest in reading and writing. She is a published author of educational materials and has taught elementary school Social Studies for over a decade at the Faculty of Education, University of Western Ontario, London.” (back of the book cover)

Not Wanted on the Voyage Book Four

“…and the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth…into your hand are they delivered.  Genesis 9:2”

Supplies are running low on the ark as this last book begins. Things have been much harder below deck since Emma was moved upstairs to fulfill her wifely duties with Japeth. Hannah has been under increasing emotional stress and has stopped going to collect supplies, writing over and over again in the margins of her handmade notebook: “By god, if women had writen stories , they would have writen of men more wikkednesse than all the sex of Adam may redresse.” “She also wept, who had not wept since before memory.”

Japeth’s raids on the animal pens inspires revolution on the part of Ham and Lucy and Mrs. Noyes. Ham collects an arsenal of sorts using broom sticks and kitchen knives while Lucy enlists the support of the one-headed and two-headed demons which were among the creatures housed on the ark. Mrs. Noyes helps Lucy put the demons in water-soaked sacks and carry them up to the door into the upper deck.

Lucy explains to Mrs. Noyes how to carry a sack of demons:

“You sling them over your back, just like a sack of anything else. You’ll see…they rather love it.”

Lucy swung the others (she carried the two-heads while Mrs. Noyes carried the one-heads) over her shoulder and there was a chorus of delighted squeals.

“Heavens!” said Mrs. Noyes. “You’re quite right. They do like it….” And she hefted her own sack onto her back, swinging it through the air as she did.

Wheee!” said the one-heads to Lucy, from deep within their bag.  “Tell her to do that again!”

The demons’ rear ends were applied to the door jambs and the “wood flared and burned like a magic cinder,and very soon,there was a hole in the door jamb the

Not Wantedcircumference of a broom stick.

The Revolt of the Lower Orders was about to begin.”

They had planned well but they were ambushed. They expected Japeth to be in Armoury but he suddenly appeared behind them with his two wolves. Their wrists were bound and the three of them were “seated on the deck with their backs to the Armoury wall and the sacks of demons hissing in the snow beside them.” It had begun to snow when they first came out on deck and climbed up to the Armoury.

It has been so long since Noah has seen this part of his family that he doesn’t recognize them.

Lucy’s anger revives old powers and the ropes on her wrists begin to smoulder and the smell upsets Japeth’s wolves and they refuse to obey his order to attack. Their howling wakens Mrs. Noyes from the  effects of the cold and also brings Hannah to the door of the Castle. Sufficient commotion is created to allow Lucy to leap at Japeth and the wolves turned against him and attacked his legs and feet.

Eventually the forces from the lower decks are defeated and imprisoned and Japeth “made the rounds of the entire three lower decks, smashing all the lanterns and throwing all the candles into a sack.”

“There will be no light for you from here on,” he had said. “You will live in perpetual darkness until we come to land.”

“This door will be barred in ways that you will never defeat,”he said. “You may starve, and we may starve,” he added; “but at least we won’t starve in the dark.”

“In this darkness, while Lucy was removing the ropes from Ham’s and Mrs. Noyes’s wrists, Mottyl came and stood at Mrs. Noyes’ feet and cried.

Mrs. Noyes was alarmed.

“You should never have left your nest while Japeth was about,” she said. “I’ve told you that.”

But Japeth was not the problem.

The problem was Mottyl’s and Mrs. Noyes’s favourite kitten, Silver.

All the while the Revolutionaries had been on deck the door had stood open, and during that time, Silver had disappeared.”

How will the Revolution end? What will happen to Silver? Will they reach land?

I will close with Margaret Laurence’s words about Not Wanted on the Voyage:

“This marvellously fantastic fable, an awesome and poetic rendition of the ancient one, is tender and terrifying, humorous and heart-rending, abundant in implications and questions for our own desperately hurting and threatened world.”