- Colonization and the Feminine in Bessie Head's A Question of Power
Nothing happens here that is not political —A. E. Jennings, qtd. inBessie Head's Serowe, 26 1
The Mother is present in every house. Need I break the news as one breaks an earthen pot on the floor?—Rāmprasād, qtd. in Heinrich Zimmer, 602 2
Bessie Head's 1974 Novel A Question of Power is not an easy book to do justice to in a few short pages. If my purpose were merely to discuss her presentation of the power relationships that exist between the sexes [End Page 591] in postcolonial Botswana, I would have done better to have chosen her novel Maru or one of the short stories in The Collector of Treasures as my primary text. If I had wanted to talk about her dedication to the concept of modern cooperative farming as a strategy for achieving the level of economic independence that she sees as a prerequisite for the establishment of a nation free of colonial or neocolonial constraints, her first novel, When Rain Clouds Gather, or even her sociological study Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind, would have been my text of choice. But, as Bessie Head herself has commented, although agricultural technology can ease the path to freedom, "there are deeper causes for human suffering and starvation—perhaps found in the realm of the spirit," and these are the concerns which motivate her fiction ("Bessie Head" 288). This novel, although rooted in exploitation, slavery, and oppression, is a record of hopeful trends, trends which Bessie Head perceives may shape a future full of dignity and compassion for Africa ("Some Notes" 64). So, let me warn you: my purpose in this presentation is more complex than either of those projects would have been. A Question of Power is a very complex novel—as any novel would have to be which attempts to present a cure for the cultural psychosis which is the result of colonization in real, personal, tangible terms.
To say that the novel is difficult and complex, however, is not to say that it is incomprehensible. Indeed, Elizabeth's psychological battles with the demons who oppress her, her horrific nightmares which intrude into her waking life, her struggle for her sanity as she tries to define her self in an environment which seems hostile and alien constitute elements of a reality familiar to all of us for we have all experienced, to some degree or another, nightmares with a presence more real and affective than actual experience. The problem of the complexity of the issues involved in socially relevant fiction and the comprehensibility of the novel is one that is explicitly dealt with in A Question of Power. Camilla, the subconsciously racist Danish aid worker of the novel (82) who preaches the superiority of things European to things African (see, for example, 75) comments: "In our country culture has become so complex, this complexity is reflected in our literature. It takes a certain level of education to understand our novelists. The ordinary man cannot understand them . . ." (79). In response to this pronouncement, Elizabeth, the novel's protagonist, wonders whether it is really true that incomprehensibility and a high level of culture go together, or if in fact, the writers of incomprehensible novels are producing objects of no cultural value whatsoever (79). A Question of Power demonstrates that, in Africa at least, a comprehensible novel can make a culturally valuable contribution to a society that itself demonstrates a complex, highly advanced level of culture. The contribution this novel makes is one of insight and demonstration. It is a novel that demonstrates and directly confronts, on a personal level, the interrelationships which exist between racism, sexism, and economic and cultural colonization. [End Page 592]
That these are the major themes of A Question of Power is abundantly evident from the first few pages of this highly autobiographical novel. Elizabeth is the daughter of a white South African woman whom the authorities felt had to be locked up in an insane asylum "as she was having a child by the stable boy, who was a native" (16). In...