- Critical Essays on Bessie Head
Maxine Sample and her fellow critics have put together an impressive collection of essays on Bessie Head, a writer whose tortured life and the works derived from it provide excellent material for forays into the mysteries of the human heart and soul. The critics explore a wide variety of themes from the complex Headian corpus: life under apartheid, and in exile; place and space; the revolution of language; definitions and implications of madness; and being a woman, or issues of feminism.
What the text basically contributes to the growing number of studies on the late South African writer is the scope of methodologies and ideologies brought to bear on the subject. Frantz Fanon, Edward Relph, Yi-Fu Tuan, Lacan, Kirby Farrell, Dori Laub—such are the theoreticians and ideologues used to dissect Head's life and works. Among the most compelling chapters of the book are Maureen Fielding's "Agriculture and Healing" (ch. 2); Maxine Sample's "Space: an Experiential Perspective" (ch. 3); Colette Guildmann's "Bessie Head's Maru: Writing after the End of Romance" (ch. 4), and Helen Kapstein's "A Peculiar Shuttling Movement" (ch. 5).
Fielding uses the novel When Rain Clouds Gather to show how Bessie Head, instead of breaking down under the weight of trauma and oppression, wrote to liberate and to heal herself and her sick society. The objection that one would have to this interesting analysis is in regard to Fielding's efforts to restrict Head's experience to her condition as a woman. She is not the only one desirous of such feminist exclusivism. Indeed, the whole book has an underpinning of Western feminism that would make one wonder about the much vaunted objectivity of those trying to deconstruct African ethos and tradition. The tendency to emphasize individualism is seen in several of the critics' failure to recognize the importance of community in Head's work. In the [End Page 127] conclusion of her chapter, Fielding mentions the necessity of "various components of agriculture [coming] together to create a sustainable future" (24). Yet she desists from using the word community, which would certainly describe the process being described. That word would also apply to Guildmann's comments on Maru (63). That fourth chapter is a good example of how feminist critics force their ideology upon the African text. Perhaps is a recurrent word in Guilmann's analysis, as she makes every effort to particularize events to suit her purpose.
Kapstein's valiant effort in breaking down the theme of madness in Head's work is definitely food for thought. It raises several questions, especially as one realizes that madness, while being potentially subversive, does not erase the marginalization and the diminished status of the mad person. In other words, what real, positive possibilities does the state of madness hold for the individual, and for the society? What is the cause of madness? Another point regarding this chapter is the use of language. Kapstein quotes Fanon's seminal work, Les damnés de la terre,in translation (The Wretched of the Earth), using the word native for Fanon's original, le colonisé. This is through no fault of the critic's; nonetheless, that very word is a subtle affirmation and confirmation of the history of Africa and African literature in the hands of Western experts. Thus, the native literature is seen through the superior eyes of the masters and mistresses from abroad. While one cannot complain that Head's work has aroused the interest of critics from near and far, one would have liked to see some inside knowledge of African culture and esthetics put into play in the book under discussion. Finally, the fact that all the critics are women may be a statement on its own.