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‘When I was gone, she sent her memory.’

Ever since I read A Question of Power many years ago I have been fascinated by the life of Bessie Head. I am now on my second reading of Imaginative Trespasser: Letters between Bessie Head, Patrick and Wendy Cullinan, 1963-1977, a book which seems to have become essential reading for my solo holidays in far-off places. My fascination lies with many aspects of Bessie’s life: her intense relationship with Africa and the constant presence of feelings of dislocation with the continent as a whole but Botswana (where she lived in exile) in particular; the loneliness of being an outsider and just being Bessie Head, an African woman with a much-troubled mind – which led to many periods of intense psychosis and sometimes hospitalization – and, of course, her writing.

The letters are an important contribution towards understanding Bessie Head as well as providing context to some of her most important work, such as Maru and A Question of Power. In 1964 Bessie, with help from the civil rights lawyer Ruth Hayman, was able to get an exit permit to leave South Africa. She had dreamt for many years of moving to a ‘free’ African country and eventually she got her permit and a job as a teacher in a small village called Serowe in what was then Bechuanaland (Botswana). The village gave her the much-needed emotional space to begin to write seriously. But unfortunately for Bessie, Serowe, and Botswana in general, reinforced her feelings of alienation as being what she describes as a ‘non-tribal’ African. She explains this in a letter dated 23 February 1974:

‘I do believe that Africa, temporarily, is for Africans with pitch black skins and I don’t think they will do each other much harm. It is only dangerous for people who don’t quite fit in and don’t understand. And I think I don’t understand what is going on here but I can’t stand the suffering.’

Her brief engagement with the Pan African Congress (PAC) had also ended shamefully when she was arrested and turned State’s witness – and which led to a suicide attempt. This impacted on her writing and within a short time of arriving in Serowe she chose to turn her back on ‘protest writing’ and focus on ‘myself, and myself alone’:   

‘It’s no longer S Africa and protest writing. It’s myself, and myself alone that I have to present. A protest is an excuse to cover up. I no longer have that and besides it’s the lowest form of writing. Anyone can be justifiably indignant! How well I know that. But who am I? What in the damned hell am I doing on this planet? Why? My consciousness inside of me is such a heavy burden. There is no answer to it, except a terrible darkness which is impossible to ignore because there is a dreadful pain, craving, longing, ache, fear, uncertainty and I carry it around all the while to drop it anywhere or bargain it off on someone else.’

Cullinan describes this act as a ‘political statement‘ that (at the time) would have been viewed as treachery. Remember, she had to some extent already had this label thrust upon her when she turned State’s witness.  

At the time she produced her best work, Maru and A Question of Power, Bessie Head was in a state of ‘psychic trauma‘. When reading her letters, one begins to see her thought processes and the early beginnings of A Question of Power. The book is based on her life in Serowe, which she describes as living under a ‘terrible undercurrent of horror’ which destroyed her life and health. The horror was real: ‘the trouble wasn’t in my mind, it had an external force’.  One of these forces was the disappointment and reality of living in a ‘free’ Africa where the poor were shamelessly excluded and where life amongst the élite was farcical and corrupt. I think the horror of Africa gone wrong was in some ways worse for Bessie Head than the horrors of  apartheid rule in her own country and neighbouring Zimbabwe and Namibia. The hope and expectations of  an independent and free Africa were not met; it was one thing having white people exploit you and conducting immense acts of cruelty, but how does one explain that of an African government? I don’t think Bessie Head was ever able to understand this, and it destroyed her.

Bessie’s relationship with Patrick Cullinan ended badly in 1977. According to Cullinan there are letters by Bessie Head to others which speak of the acrimony between them, but they remain unpublished. It’s clear from the letters that have been published that Bessie Head was a complex person who experienced extremes of feelings which led to long periods of terrible despair and depression. She was also clearly prone to paranoia, which often led to her to being volatile. Based on her own work, and reading these letters, I see all of these aspects of her as being a way of protecting what was a very vulnerable and lonely woman with an incredible insight into the human condition.


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