- Bessie Head's Syncretic Fictions:The Reconceptualization of Power and the Recovery of the Ordinary
More than any other major twentieth-century writer—excepting, possibly, D. H. Lawrence—Lessing challenges her readers and changes them; alters their consciousness; radicalizes their sexual, personal, and global politics.—Carey Kaplan and Ellen Cronan Rose (5)
While Kaplan's and Rose's hyperbole easily testifies to the power one Southern African writer has had on a whole generation of scholars, it inadvertently colludes in the muting of yet another of many extraordinary contemporary voices, one of which is gradually being discovered and rediscovered in the process of a remarkable Bessie Head renaissance. Several recent publication projects signal this revived interest in Head. Alice Walker named Bessie Head one of her, "favorite uncelebrated foreign writers" . . . "whose work deserves more attention in this country" in Mother Jones in January, 1986 ("Let us now praise unsung writers" 27). [End Page 575] Gillian Stead Eilersen's edition of some of Bessie's short narratives in Tales of Tenderness and Power and Craig MacKenzie's Bessie Head: A Woman Alone—Autobiographical Writings provide chronological compilations of samplings of Head's prose. These complementary volumes of primary texts augment the number of works by and about Bessie Head available since the 1986 Head bibliography published by South Africa's National English Literary Museum. As a direct result of a proliferating scholarship about Head,1 and the purchase and cataloguing of the Bessie Head papers by the Khama III Memorial Museum in Serowe, Eilersen and MacKenzie can enthusiastically speculate, as they do in their introductions, about the next generation of critical scholarship on Head. Eilersen makes specific mention of the autobiography Head was working on at the time of her death. "Unfortunately she had not reached the stage where some form of posthumous publication would have been possible" (15). In lieu of that possibility, however, Eilersen anticipates the response to another potential publication: a volume that could contain Head's prolific correspondence. MacKenzie, having already completed a master's thesis focusing on the Head oeuvre entitled Bessie Head: An Introduction, has announced plans for a full-length literary biography of the writer (xviii).
Despite all this focus on what could be new, groundbreaking scholarship, however, the Bessie that MacKenzie recovers is largely the essentialized, reductive Head of many earlier commentators. This is the tortured Bessie "of pain and uncertainty":
Whatever the uncertainties, the task of mapping the life of an author like Bessie Head undoubtedly becomes an investigation into the enigma of human prejudice. For in the process of unravelling the strands of her anguished life story one encounters instances of immense suffering and privation, crippling alienation, and perhaps most of all, personal confusion. It is this personal confusion . . . that is at the centre of Bessie Head's troubled life,(ix, my emphasis)
Such analysis recalls Lloyd W. Brown's observation in Women Writers in Black Africa that this writer's exile history "has tended to make Head the supremely alienated individual" (160) or Roberta Rubenstein's review of A Question of Power which concentrated on "the topography of madness" (30) in Head's life and its relation to the insanity of apartheid itself. Elizabeth N. Evasdaughter opens her own recent study of A Question of Power as a blueprint for "healing our universal paranoic tendencies" (82) with the inescapable stranglehold on the Head life narrative: "A Question of Power (1974), whether considered an autobiographical novel or a third-person autobiography, is full of the author's experience of what was called [End Page 576] at the time a 'nervous breakdown.' While an author cannot be diagnosed from a literary text, a character can be" (72).
A brief overview of Head scholarship reveals a preoccupation with one of three foci: the autobiographical madness, more or less, reconfigured in her work; Head's feminist ideology; or her seemingly apolitical commentary. These are usually treated as isolated, monochromatic lenses. "While proposing a spiritual solution to the South African question," asserts Cecil Abrahams in one of the earliest critiques of Head's work, "she has chosen an angle which, although frustrating to the more militant oppressed, is new in...