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.
“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.