Head, Bessie (Bessie Amelia Emery Head)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Head, Bessie (Bessie Amelia Emery Head)

Head, Bessie (Bessie Amelia Emery Head) (1937-1986) South African novelist and journalist

A feminist libertarian, Bessie Head challenged apartheid as an inescapable hell for the biracial citizen. Born Bessie Amelia Emery of Scots-African ancestry in Pietermaritzburg, Head was the illegitimate daughter of a white mother committed by her family to the Fort Napier Mental Institution in punishment for sexual intimacies with a black stableboy. In “Notes from a Quiet Backwater I,” the opening chapter of A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings (1990), Head pondered the destiny of children born of miscegenation “whose birth or beginnings are filled with calamity and disaster, the sort of person who is a skeleton in the cupboard or the dark and fearful secret swept under the carpet” (Head 1990, 3). After her mother killed herself, white foster parents gave Bessie a home until black characteristics marked her as a bicultural misfit. Under South African law, she became the ward of black parents. A few months before she turned 13, she entered St. Monica's Home, an Anglican boarding school near Durban.

After earning a teacher's certificate, Bessie began teaching at a primary school in Durban. In 1958, she moved to Cape Town, where she was hired as a reporter. She married Harold Head in 1961. Always a voracious reader, she investigated Hinduism, the religion of local Afro-Indians. She embraced motherhood but found marriage, teaching, and journalism in South Africa unsatisfying. Of the constant reminder of her mixed race, she lamented that the political situation was so untenable that she could not fashion it into fiction.

In 1964, Head took her son Howard and fled north to Botswana, which gained its independence from Great Britain in 1966. While raising Howard among the Bangwato in Serowe and writing for Drum magazine and the Golden City Post, she became an activist for other refugees from South African apartheid, and she began producing fiction about biracial misfits pressed to desperation and suicide. She spent 15 years at the Bamangwato Development Farm before becoming a citizen of Botswana.

Anguished Narratives

While living in poverty and mental torment, Head became the spokesperson for the racial pariah in self- exile from colonial and gender discrimination and injustice. At age 32, she published her first novel, When Rain Clouds Gather (1969), about the residue of colonial racism that alters the fate of the Zulu ex-con Makhaya, an idealist who settles at Golema Mmidi, an agrarian commune. Paradoxically, in his flight from tribalism, he takes pride in his skill at language, a gift of the Zulu empire: “Since the days of Shaka we've assumed that the whole world belongs to us; that's why we trouble to learn any man's language” (Head 1995, 3). Far from the golden age of the Zulu hegemony, the narrative serves up the worst of starvation, picturing dying children, “their knees cramped up to their chins, their bony fingers curled into their palms like steel claws” (162).

Locked in mental turmoil and subject to episodes of schizophrenia, Head continued to battle her memories of childhood scandal and rejection. In 1971, she published Maru (1971), the story of a woman sired by a bushman with an Englishwoman. Mirroring Head's early womanhood, the orphaned protagonist, Margaret Cadmore, a teacher in Dilepe, suffers from alienation and a stifling malaise. Head's autobiographical novel A Question of Power (1973) enlarges on the solitude and ostracism of the expatriate through the fantasies of Elizabeth, a victim of mental disintegration. The phantoms that stalk her schizoid visions derive from the author's own battles with mental illness and from her fusion of tortuous hallucination with racist oppression and dispossession of self and country. After years of distress and heavy drinking, Bessie Head died in Serowe, Botswana, on April 17, 1986.


Head, Bessie. Maru. London: Heinemann, 1997. . A Question of Power. London: Heinemann, 1974. . When Rain Clouds Gather. London: Heinemann, 1995.

------- . A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings.

London: Heinemann, 1990.

Lewis, Desiree. Living on the Horizon: Bessie Head and the Politics of Imagining. Lansing: University of Michigan Press, 2007.