#100AfricanWomenWriters: 13. Bessie Head

by - 21:09

I cannot pretend to be a student of South African literature; I cannot assess its evolution or lack of evolution. I only feel that the main function of the writer is to make life magical and to communicate a sense of wonder … Literature is very functional in southern African and bound inextricably to human suffering; the death of South African literature is that it is almost blinded by pain; people hardly exist beside the pain … My work has covered the whole spectrum of southern African preoccupations – refugeeism, racialism, patterns of evil and the ancient southern historical dialogue.  

The quote above is from Bessie Head whose works explored the effects of racial and social oppression, as well as exile – drawing a lot from her own experiences of discrimination both in her birthplace of South Africa and in her adopted land of Botswana. While her novels and short stories emphasised a lot of these experiences from a female perspective, Head always emphasised that her outlook was a universal one – refusing to be seen as a feminist, as she abhorred all oppression - racial, sexual, and political, but also refusing to be called an African writer, a black writer, or a revolutionary writer.  Bessie Head passed away in 1986 in Serowe, Botswana, and is buried in the old cemetery, on the hillside behind Botalaote ward, amidst trees and flowers. in 2003 - seventeen years after her death - Bessie Head was honoured with The Order of Ikhamanga.

This is probably one of the longer posts I've written for this series - and I haven't even captured it all. It's also one that took me a while to put together, as I really wanted to do it justice. One thing for sure is that Bessie Head (as with the other women in this series) led a rather rich life - although hers was also tumultuous.  When asked how one becomes a writer, Bessie responded by saying that ‘writing first begins with the love of reading and a love of books, a feeling for all the magic and wonder that can be communicated through books.’ Bessie Head is said to have begun seriously writing in late 1965, often at night by candlelight.  She was also often described as a ‘brilliant yet troubled writer’, but first her entry into this world.

Bessie Amelia Emery was born in 1937 in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa to a white mother and a black father – whose name was unknown. Her mother was a patient at Fort Napier Mental Hospital – where Bessie was born - as under South Africa’s Immorality Act of 1927 sexual relations between people of different races was forbidden. Cared for by foster parents until she was thirteen, Head then attended a missionary boarding school earning  a high school diploma. Head went on to train to be a teacher - becoming a certified teacher in 1957 and teaching in Clairwood, Durban until 1958. 

Bessie Amelia Emery would then move to Cape Town - living and working in District Six, and go on to write for Drum Magazine and Golden City Post  as a freelance reporter – was said to be the only woman reporter - and also wrote for the weekend magazine Home Post. Around the same time, she started her own little homemade newspaper, The Citizen, which expressed her strong pan-African views, questioning the justice of laws and highlighting the absurdities of the apartheid systemIn the late 1950s, Bessie Amelia Emery became a court reporter, witnessed the political unrest and resistance in South Africa and was aware of the trials political activists faced. 

This article on sahistory.org.za provides more insights into her political interests and level of political involvements during this period, including her short time participating in the PAC as well as how Head was often seen as a ‘controversial figure’. Her primary biographer Gillian Eilerson claimed that:

her travels abroad had made her aware that she was a controversial figure in her refusal to give her total support to either feminism or African nationalism and in her unconventional views of good and evil.

Bessie Amelia Emery met Harold Head - a journalist and a member of the non-racial Liberal Party - in 1961, and they also married in the same year. Harold got a job helping to publish Contact, the Liberal newspaper. They moved into a crowded house in District Six until Harold started a new job in Port Elizabeth, which the family followed him to. It is said that 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 launched by Randolph Vigne and some friends. Now known as Bessie Head, while living there, Head worked on a short novel, The Cardinals (published posthumously in 1993).Their son Howard was born May 1962, whom Head raised by herself after her divorce. 

Drum Magazine - initially called The African Drum

Head was reported to have left South Africa in 1964 when she was twenty six for Botswana - then called the Bechuanaland Protectorate, following her divorce from Harold, and due also to a lack of writing freedom. Cherry Clayton, author of A World Elsewhere, wrote:

She left because of the breakdown of her marriage, the economic lure of a teaching post in Botswana, and her despair at being unable to function as a 'storyteller' in a country of rigidly enforced racial separation, which made both personal stability and a sense of human community difficult to achieve.

Unfortunately, she had to leave the teaching job and became a political refugee in Botswana - as due to her political affiliations and left-wing activist friends was denied a South African passport and given a canceled exit visa. Head was stateless until she became a citizen in Botswana in 1979. During the period of her statelessness, she received a small allowance provided by the World Council of Churches. Head also did much of her writing in a small home without electricity during the early years of her life in Botswana. In one of the many biographies I found on Head, during her early years of writing in Botswana: 
Moral support and a little money came by post from Patrick Cullinan in Cape Town and Randolph Vigne in London. However, she remained desperately poor. She met Patrick van Rensburg for the first time, and he came to her assistance. He would help her often during her years in Botswana … she found a job in Palapye, working as a typist. There she received the news — and £30! — that she had sold a story in the UK, "The Woman from America" …
Half a world away, in New York, the publishers Simon & Schuster had read "The Woman from America". In December 1966 they asked her for a novel and sent £80 as an advance payment for the book. Bessie went to work at once. At last having a typewriter, she wrote When Rain Clouds Gather in just under a year .. Rain Clouds was published in New York and London; it received excellent reviews. With encouragement from new friends, and in a wave of creativity, she began a new novel, Maru. With money from Rain Clouds she began to build her own house. Maru was finished in September 1969; the house was completed in November.
Head wrote under extremely difficult circumstances– poverty, mental health, alienation. Indeed, Head was open about her depression - as detailed in one of her letters to Paddy Kitchen:  

I suppose when you have a break down nothing is coherent. I am so used to them, these long periods of darkness when every effort is painful.

In fact the earlier biography I mentioned on Head notes: Head
When Maru was published in February 1971, Bessie was seriously ill with depression and delusions … Once on the road to recovery, she started her most difficult book, A Question of Power. It is an autobiographical novel, using incidents from her early life as well as her recent nightmares. She wrote rapidly, finishing the book in April 1972. But several publishers thought it needed rewriting. She had 8 months of nervous worry before it finally accepted for publication. A Question of Power appeared in October 1973 to immediate praise and acclaim.

Head finished her next book Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind in 1974, but it was published in 1981. Her short story collection, The Collector of Treasures & Other Botswana Village Tales - also written in 1974 - was published in 1977. Her last book - the historical novel, A Bewitched Crossroad: An African Saga - was published in 1984. Her last piece of writing, however, was an article published in March 1985, Why Do I Write?. Her posthumous publications includes Tales of Tenderness and Power (1989)  and A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings (1990)

Head also befriended many influential artists and political activists throughout her life, including Langston Hughes, Paddy Kitchen and Randolph Vigne. She sent approximately eighty letters to Paddy Kitchen, and she corresponded with Langston Hughes between 1960-1961The eight letters between Hughes and Emery were brought to light by David Chioni Moore

In October 1960, young, unknown Bessie Emery wrote, at first under the pseudonym “Julie Smith,” out of the blue to Hughes in New York to seek his support.  Hughes responded warmly, and an eight-letter correspondence ensued. After Hughes’s death, Yale archivists catalogued his papers, giving separate folders to correspondents like Chinua Achebe, Josephine Baker, Kwame Nkrumah, Paul Robeson, Léopold Senghor, Wole Soyinka, and hundreds of others.  But the archivists did not know “Bessie Emery,” so they placed the exchange in an unexplored 2,000-page trove titled “African Letters A-N.”  In 2008, David Chioni Moore came across these letters, recognized their significance, and has edited and introduced them for readers today. 

There is so much more to write on Head's fascinating and complex life, such as the influence of religion (both Christianity and Hinduism) had on her, but I'll stop here for now.

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