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Bessie Head - Biography

Bessie Head (1937-1986)
Commentary by Karen Bernardo

Born in South Africa of a white mother and a black father, it is no surprise that Bessie Head deals extensively in her works with the politics of oppression. Yet her writing is unique because she focuses not as much on racial oppression as on the oppression her society invokes against women. Head's works depict the struggle of both African men and women against ghost-ridden pasts; yet she shows the way that struggle cleaves along gender lines.

She agrees with most writers of color that the African people have suffered much as the result of colonialism; and even today the Western world and the African world conflict in the everyday lives of the average African. But she argues that African men, who have traditionally had firmly-entrenched roles in tribal society, consequently have less ability to change; the people their postcolonial societies have made them is simply who they are. Women, on the other hand, because of their more tenuous position in traditional African society, are more able to break both their tribal and postcolonial bonds and learn to be someone new.

In 'Looking for a Rain God,' for instance, the two adult women, Tiro and Nesta, react to the lack of rain by weeping, metaphorically letting their tears water the earth and nourish the parched soil. The two girl children react to the drought by 'playing house'; in other words, they carry on a symbolic version of their parents' normal daily activities when their elders are unable to do so. It is the father and grandfather who return to the ancient practices of their ancestors -- human sacrifice -- in a futile attempt to invoke a god lost in the shuffle from tribalism to Christianity. In 'The Collector of Treasures,' the unloved wife Dikeledi puts up with her marriage to Garesego until she realizes that the marital relationship of her friend Kenalepe is so much better. Now that her eyes have been opened, she can no longer endure Garesego's abuse, and she castrates him; she knows she will go to prison, but for her this is not confinement but liberation.

Bessie Head contributes to the dialogue on colonialism through her presentation of feminism. For better or worse, her female characters are willing to leave the oppressions of the past behind and go forward into the future without looking back.

Read Storybites' analysis of...

Looking for a Rain God

The Collector of Treasures

Both these stories can be found in the collection "The Collector of Treasures."

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