Classic Author Focus: Bessie Head

Bessie Head

Although author Bessie Head was born in South Africa and lived there until she was nearly 30, she is considered Botswana’s most influential writer. Her writings were concerned with the contradictions and values in pre- and postcolonial African society.

Head had a damaging childhood. She was the daughter of a white woman, Bessie Amelia Emery, from a wealthy and influential family. Following the death of her first child, Emery had been institutionalized in a mental hospital and was a resident there when she gave birth to Bessie, who was the daughter of a man of color. Bessie was first placed with a white family, but when they realized she was mixed-race, they returned her. Then she was placed with a mixed-race family, the Heathcotes, whom she grew up believing was her family. The authorities eventually sent her to school in Durban, which at first she rebelled against and then was reconciled to because of its access to books. However, after her second year there, the authorities told her that her mother was not Mrs. Heathcote but a white woman, so she would no longer be allowed to return to the Heathcotes on her holidays.

After school, Head worked first as a schoolteacher and then moved to Capetown and afterwards Johannesburg to be a journalist. She joined the Pan-African Congress a few weeks before a massive protest in several black townships. There she helped support the prisoners until she was betrayed by PAC supporters and was imprisoned herself. After her release, she became depressed and eventually showed symptoms of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. She married Harold Head, a man of color sharing her interests, in 1961, and had one son, who suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome. They were very poor. After their marriage floundered, she left South Africa for Botswana in 1964 and never returned. She settled in Serowe, Botswana’s largest traditional settlement.

Head began publishing novels in 1968, most set in Botswana. Her first was her best known, When Rain Clouds Gather. All three of her novels are considered autobiographical and deal with feelings about being considered racially inferior or experiencing psychological distress as well as day-to-day life in a traditional village. She also published a book on the history of Serowe and a number of short stories. She once said that literature must be the daily reflection of undistinguished people.

Head died of hepatitis just as she was beginning to be recognized as a writer and was no longer desperately poor.

Dates: 1937-1986

Most popular work: When Rain Clouds Gather

Other works: Maru, A Question of Power, The Collector of Treasure and Other Botswana Tales, Serowe: Village of the Rain-Wind, A Bewitched Crossroad, and others

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4 thoughts on “Classic Author Focus: Bessie Head

  1. I have reviewed her book ‘Maru’ and short story’ Lovers’ from the collection ‘Tales of Tenderness and Power’ on my blog

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