Bessie Amelia Head was born at Fort Napier Hospital in Pietermaritzburg, Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal), South Africa, the asylum her mother was committed to at the time. Her mother, Bessie Amelia Emery, came from a wealthy family of Scottish descent. No information on her father exists other than that he was a black man who worked as a groom on the Emery estate. The relationship between Head’s parents was forbidden according to South Africa’s Immorality Act at the time. Consequently, after falling pregnant her mother was deemed mentally insane and committed to Fort Napier Hospital for schizophrenia. Head was subsequently fostered to a white family, when presumed white, then to a poor coloured family, the Heathcotes, when reclassified according to apartheid legistlation as ‘mixed-race’.
Head described her childhood as a haphazard and self-reliant one, juggled between various child welfare organizations. She attended a Catholic church and school and remained ignorant of the Heathcotes not being her biological parents throughout her primary school years. When her foster father died unexpectedly her mother was put under strain to support the family, and Head was sent away to attend high school at Santa Monica’s Home, an Anglican Mission Orphanage in Durban. About 18 months after arriving, expecting to return home for the holidays, Head was abruptly told that her birth mother was in fact white, had been insane and that her true origins were ‘a horror’. She was not allowed to return to her childhood home and the mother she’d loved as her own. The extreme prejudice she experienced was excessive, even by South African standards at the time, and continued to afflict her throughout her life. The issue of mixed-race prejudice became a prominent theme in her writings, markedly in her second novel Maru.
Head completed her Junior Certificate at the end of 1953 and decided to continue her studies with a two year Teacher Training Certificate. She stayed on at St Monica’s while attending a nearby college, which was under the direction of Margaret Cadmore, who Head depicted by name and with admiration in Maru. In 1956 she took up a teaching post in Clairwood, Durban. After 18 months teaching she resigned and moved to Cape Town, determined to start a career as a journalist. She was taken on for three months as a freelance reporter at Golden City Post and then appointed to its permanent staff. Experiences during these early reporting days are related in her posthumously published but first written novel, The Cardinals. She then moved to Johannesburg where she was employed at Home Post, a weekend supplement to Golden City. Her assigned tasks included editing the girly romances published each issue, and writing two popular weekly columns, one for children and the other for teenagers. The latter received many response letters from its readers who were evidently taken by Head’s informal and friendly tone, which began the sections with ‘Hiya Teenagers’, and ventured into less stereotypical territory than its previous model had as a relationship advice column. Her portrayal of masculine and feminine forms in this early work have been viewed as going against the dominant portrayal of the genders, and as possibly the earliest gender perspectives and critique within 1950s black journalism (Guldimann, 1997).
Head became increasingly politicized through her reporting work in Cape Town and witnessing political resistance in Johannesburg. She joined the Pan-African Congress (PAC) during the Anti-Pass Laws Campaign in 1960, and although her role in party politics was peripheral and short lived, retained a lifelong admiration for party leader Robert Sobukwe. Around this time she began to present signs of mania and depression, a particular period of despair leading to an attempted suicide. After time in hospital she briefly returned to Cape Town and to the Golden City Post. She became further involved in left-wing political circles, writing her own newssheet, The Citizen, which depicted local issues and Apartheid absurdities. She also met Randolph Vigne, who would later become something of a mentor and publish much of her writing in his magazine, The New African. While selling The Citizen at the Stakesby Lewis Hostel in Cape Town she met Harold Head, who she married a few weeks later. They first lived together in District Six but left Cape Town when Harold got a reporting job with the Evening Post in Port Elizabeth. In May 1962 Head’s first and only son, Howard, was born. The family moved back to Cape Town when Harold took up another job, but Head was in a state of instability, recounting the arrest and imprisonment of her friend Dennis Brutus as a great loss both personally and politically. This potentially contributed to her feelings at the time of her life being a failure. She decided to leave Harold and went to live with her mother-in-law in Atteridgeville, just outside Pretoria. (Eilersen 2007; 69)
By 1964 Head was desperate to leave her mother in law’s home. Needing a job to support Howard and herself she applied for a teaching position at the Tshekedi Memorial Primary School in Botswana. Her application was accepted but her passport denied, leaving her with the sole option of taking an exit permit and thus being permanently barred from re-entering South Africa. In early March she accepted the teaching post in Serowe and left South Africa for good with Howard. They moved into a rondavel in Sebine ward, near the centre of the town. Years after the move, Head recounts the journey as the necessary step to ground her and enable her creative expression. She wrote that having
survived precariously without a sense of roots, without a sense of history [she needed] an eternal and continuous world against which to work out [her] preoccupations […] a deep commitment to people, an involvement in questions of poverty and exploitation and a commitment to illuminating the future for younger generations (Head in Daymond, 87).
Head’s career as a teacher ended after a bad confrontation with the Tshekedi school headmaster, who she bit in response to unwanted sexual advances. In late 1965 Head started writing seriously, often by candlelight. She was desperately poor and relied on the moral support and money posted by Patrick Cullinan in Cape Town and Randolph Vigne in London. She then met Patrick van Rensburg who came to her assistance and continued to provide her with support throughout the years.
In 1966 she left for Radisele, a small village South of Palapye and home of the Bamamangwato Development Association. There she met Vernon Gibbert, an agriculturalist running a government-owned, experimental farm, and was permitted to live and work there. Her stay lasted only a few months, but the skills learnt aided her greatly, both practically, in knowing how to farm drought-prone land, and in providing material for her first novel, When Rain Clouds Gather. Critics have described her writing on gardening as evocative of her mental health, as she experienced both the land and her mental state shifting between vitality and abundance, to desolation. Like the cycle of the seasons however, each decline with Head foreshadowed a spectacular creative resurgence, both in her work and in her fierce self-determinacy as a mixed race woman, largely unaccepted within her community.
After five months Howard and her had to leave the farm due to accommodation disputes. Fortunately she found work as a typist in Palapye. It was there that she received the news, along with 30 Euros, that her story ‘A Woman from America’ had been sold in the United Kingdom (UK) and was to appear in the New Statesmen. Unknown to her at the time, this was the turning point in her career. In the meantime, employment was once again brief; she was fired after two months for quarrelling with her boss. Unemployed and broke she felt her only option was to become a political refugee, so she and Howard took a northbound train to settle in a large refugee camp in Francistown. The town was dedicated to refugees awaiting educational opportunities outside Southern Africa. They moved into a two-roomed, wood and corrugated iron cottage that was known to be haunted, while Head applied to several countries for re-settlement. Her applications were in vain and she was stranded in a desperate situation with no passport or money.
In spite of this she maintained a fierce will to write, and through Randolph Vigne’s request wrote a short article, ‘Chibuko Beer and Independence’, about Botswana’s Boipuso (Independence Day) celebrations in September 30, 1966. She was also planning a full-length novel based on her experiences at Radisele.
In New York the publishers Simon and Schuster had read ‘The Woman from America’, and on the strength of it invited her to submit a novel. Her correspondent Jean Highland sent her writing paper and a small advance after hearing about her financial troubles, and Head set to work at once. Finally owning a typewriter as well as having constant contact with her editors, Head was able to finish the first draft of When Rain Clouds Gather in just under a year. It was published in 1969 to instant success, particularly in the United States of America (USA).
Around this time Howard was experiencing bullying from children at his Francistown school, as they considered him not to be a real Motswana but a ‘coloured’. To protect him from the same prejudice she’d experienced, Head decided to return back to Serowe so that Howard could return to Swaneng Hill School where he was already known and socially accepted. The return however was not an easy one. Rumours about her spread; especially about the source of her money. Many people were not familiar with her funding from the refugee allowance or United Nations grant to study agriculture, and suspected her money to be coming from a secret lover. On occasion she was publically humiliated, and the distress led to her first breakdown and brief hospitalization. The breakdown led to a greater tolerance of her, as the community regarded it as an indication of her being crazy rather than just ‘loose-living’. The community allowed her to rent a little, traditionally built hut in the Sabina ward of Serowe, where she lived with Howard while writing her second novel, Maru.
The selling of the paperback rights to When Rain Clouds Gather gave Head a substantial income, and after the completion of Maru she built a three-roomed house in Serowe. While awaiting the house’s construction she joined the gardening section of the Serowe Farmer’s Brigade, where she experienced condescension from the white instructors. The publication of When Rain Clouds Gather sparked several new correspondence relationships, chief among them the London based novelist Paddy Kitchen who became Head’s lifelong friend. In her letters to Kitchen, Head articulates the tenacity with which she’d risen to her life’s many challenges. Concerning the times in which she’d barely been eking out survival, she wrote:
I liked such a situation because I have learnt to pull tricks and poverty is my second name. I am at home in a situation where there is nothing and I force something to happen. (Everyday Matters, 105)
She also discussed topics of solitude, alienation, women and sexuality, the polarities of beauty vs. evil, pleasure vs. earnestness, and her immense admiration for D.H. Lawrence, among other influences such as Mahatma Gandhi’s political statements and children’s stories like Alice in Wonderland and Winnie the Pooh.
In 1971 Maru was published, looking at abuse of tribal power in the Serowe community. This was followed by A Question of Power, often viewed as her most ambitious novel, and addressed issues of racial and tribal prejudice. She struggled to get the work published however; a situation she experienced as a patronizing rejection by her publishers and literary agent and contributed to another breakdown. The work was eventually published in 1973. In 1977 her The Collection of Treasures became the first short story collection to be published by a black South African woman. In the same year Head attended the prestigious International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, USA. In 1979 she was granted Botswana citizenship, her literary success and frequent international travel having established her as something of an ambassador for the country. Her final publication, a long historical novel called A Bewitched Crossroad: An African Saga, appeared in 1984.
Head lived with her son in Serowe until her death from hepatitis in 1986.
Five forgotten, unpublished poems were rediscovered in 1995 in Cape Town, and donated to the National English Literary Museum in Grahamstown. Its speculated that the poems were written towards the end of 1961 and beginning of 1962, and provides invaluable insight into her early creativity. Head provided an accompanying cover letter in which she strongly criticized them. She writes that
against my better judgment, I have included some of my impetuous writing with certain ‘flowery’ phrases that I now dislike intensely. I don’t have much choice as the writing I would really like you to read is still in my head.
Her ambition to become a writer is already evident here as she hints at what might emerge further down the line, once she’s begun to engage more intently and less frenetically. The only poem she was ever happy with was ‘Where the Wind Don’t Blow’, writing that “it’s the nearest I’ve come to saying what I really want to say”. (Head, 1962 in Coetzee and McKenzie, 1996:31)
In their tribute to Bessie Head, the progressive literary magazine Staffrider wrote that
she was a vigorous storyteller, a novelist who swivelled her commentary to mirror the dehumanisation of South African black people in new ways, an 'exile' who rebuilt her personal identity amidst the multiracial benevolence and co-operative effort of Botswana society, and a writer who married the tradition of the novel, of literacy itself to an older African oral tradition.” (Clayton, 14: 1987)
In 2003 she was awarded the South African Order of Ikhamanga in Gold for her “exceptional contribution to literature and the struggle for social change, freedom and peace”. In 2007 the Bessie Head Heritage Trust and Bessie Head Literature Awards were established. On 12 July 2007 the library of Pietermaritzburg was renamed the Bessie Head Library in her Honour.
The Bessie Head Papers are stored in the Khama III Memorial Museum in Serowe.
C. Clayton. (1987) A Tribute to Bessie Head. Staffrider Magazine. Vol 6. No 4.
Bessie Head Heritage Trust (2009) accessed on 19.8.2019 at http://thuto.org/bhead/html/biography/brief_biography.htm
M. J. Daymond. (2005) Everyday Matters: Selected letters of Dora Taylor, Bessie Head and Lillian Ngoyi. Jacanda Media (Pty) Ltd.
Enotes. Bessie Head Biography. Accessed on 2.8.2019 at https://www.enotes.com/topics/bessie-head
C. Guldimann. (1997) Bessie Head: Re-writing the Romance: Journalism, Fiction (and Gender) Masters Thesis, University of Cape Town, Cape Town.