A Living Life, A Living Death: Bessie Head’s Writing as a Survival Strategy
- Sue Atkinson
- … show all 1 hide
Rent the article at a discountRent now
* Final gross prices may vary according to local VAT.Get Access
This paper explores Bessie Head’s writing as a survival strategy through which she transformed her lived experience into imaginative literature, giving meaning and purpose to a life under permanent threat from the dominant group first in South Africa and later in Botswana. This threat included the destructive effect of the many fixed labels imposed upon her including: a ‘Coloured’ woman, the daughter of a woman designated mad, an exile, a psychotic, a tragic black woman, and a Third World woman writer. Her endeavours to avoid and defeat such limited, static definitions produced work characterised by contradiction and paradox, through which she asserted her right to survive and determined, like Makhaya in When Rain Clouds Gather, to establish ‘a living life’ in place of the ‘living death that a man could be born into’ (Head 1989, 136). Through a combination of Head’s personal letters and papers and her published work, it can be seen how her particular preoccupations and experiences including her life in exile, her beliefs about her origins, her relationship to her absent mother, her distress, her madness and her need for love and for work were transformed into writing which expresses not only the destructive circumstances of her life but also its life-affirming aspects. Her writing was also a means by which she could create identities to express the dangers she encountered from the all-pervasive power structures which influenced her life and her sense of self, as well as ways to transcend them, enabling her to say in the last years of her life ‘I am no failure’ (20.2.1986 KMM BHP).
- Abrahams, C (1990) The Tragic Life, Bessie Head and Literature in South Africa. Africa World Press, Trenton, N.J
- Birch, K.S. ‘The Birch Family: An Introduction to the White Antecedents of the late Bessie Amelia Head.’ English in Africa (1995) 22 (1).
- Dovey, T (1989) A Question of Power: Susan Gardner’s Biography Versus Bessie Head’s Autobiography. English in Africa 16: pp. 29-38
- Denzin, NK (1989) Interpretive Biography. Sage, Newbury Park
- Eilersen, GS (1996) Bessie Head: Thunder Behind Her Ears: Her Life and Writing. James Currey, London
- Emery, Mrs. Bessie, Notice of Admission, Mental Disorder Act 1916. South African Archive Service.
- Emery, Mrs. Bessie, Death Notice 14.9.1943. South African Archive Service.
- Gardner, S (1986) Don’t Ask for the True Story: A Memoir of Bessie Head. Hecate 12: pp. 110-129
- Gray, S. ‘Social and Political Commitment in Bessie Head’s A Bewitched Crossroad.’ Critique 33.1 (1991): 43-52. Quoted in Gillian Stead Eilersen.
- Head, B. Letters: Khama Memorial Museum, Bessie Head Papers: 05.01.1968 KMM BHP, 19.09.1972 KMM BHP, 28.01.1973 KMM BHP, 22.10.1973 KMM BHP, 12.05.1974 KMM BHP, 03.06.1974 KMM BHP, 10.06.1975 KMM BHP, 04.12.1975 KMM BHP, 11.08.1982 KMM BHP, 03.09.1982 KMM BHP, 28.07.1983 KMM BHP, 27.12.1983 KMM BHP, 06.06.1984 KMM BHP, 31.05.1985 KMM BHP, 16.06.1985 KMM BHP, 20.06.1985 KMM BHP, 25.06.1985 KMM BHP, 09.10.1985 KMM BHP
- --- Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind. London: Heinemann, 1981.
- --- A Bewitched Crossroad: An African Saga. Johannesburg: Ad. Donker, 1984.
- ---A Question of Power. London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd., 1987.
- ---Maru. London: Heinemann, 1988.
- ---The Collector of Treasures and other Botswana Village Tales. London: Heinemann, 1988.
- ---When Rain Clouds Gather, London: Heinemann, 1989.
- ---The Cardinals: with Meditations and Stories. M.J. Daymond, ed. Cape Town: David Philip, 1993.
- Keitel, E (1989) Reading Psychosis: Readers, Texts and Psychoanalysis. Blackwell, Oxford
- Lionnet, F. Postcolonial Representations: Women, Literature, Identity. Ithaca & London: Cornell U.P., 1995.
- Moi, T (1988) Sexual-Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. Routledge, London
- Ravenscroft, A. ‘The Novels of Bessie Head’ in C. Heywood ed. Aspects of South African Literature. London: Heinemann, 1976, 174-186.
- Sass, LA (1992) Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art. Basic Books, New York
- Stanley, L (1992) The Auto/Biographical I: The Theory and Practice of Feminist Auto/Biography. Manchester U.P, Manchester
- Taylor, C (1989) Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity. Cambridge U.P, Cambridge
- A Living Life, A Living Death: Bessie Head’s Writing as a Survival Strategy
Journal of Medical Humanities
Volume 32, Issue 4 , pp 269-278
- Cover Date
- Print ISSN
- Online ISSN
- Springer US
- Additional Links
- Bessie Head
- Sue Atkinson (1) (2)
- Author Affiliations
- 1. Nottingham Healthcare (NHS), Trust/University of Nottingham School of Education, Nottingham, UK
- 2. The Social Inclusion and Wellbeing Service, Ivy Suite, Adult Mental Health, Highbury Hospital, Highbury Road, Bulwell, Nottingham, NG6 9DR, UK