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  • Path of Thunder:Meeting Bessie Head
  • Peter Nazareth


Bernth Lindfors invited me some years ago to give a presentation about my experience with Bessie Head in the International Writing Program in 1977 on a panel he was planning for the annual meeting of the African Literature Association, but I did not reply. When I next met Bernth, I told him that I had not replied because I was conflicted: I did not want to draw attention to her behavior instead of her fiction because I was mindful of the dictum by D. H. Lawrence to never trust the teller, trust the tale. But the new issue of Wasafiri (Winter 2005) contains an essay by James Currey entitled "Publishing Bessie Head," subtitled "Memories and Reflections" in which he lays out the negative things Bessie wrote and said to her publishers and agents—but he does not say anything about the negative things said about me in a biography of Bessie that he published, Thunder Behind Her Ears by Gillian Stead Eilersen (1995), who got her information from Bessie's letters and did not contact me. I feel that Currey has made it necessary for me to explain what happened when Bessie Head came into the International Writing Program in August 1977. Eilersen says about Bessie in Iowa City (in a chapter entitled "Ohio, 1977"!):

There were introductory meetings where the participants sized each other other up. Bessie felt strange and confused. None of them knew her writing but, to be honest, neither did she know theirs. There was a weekly seminar designed to allow each one to present his or her writing and country to the group. Bessie met the lecturer from the Department of African Studies who was her contact person with the University and he too had never read her work, though he admitted to having heard of her. 'I'll have to see how all this nonsense works out. Phew!' wrote Bessie to Betty Fradkin, shortly after arriving in Iowa City.

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Although I taught African Literature, I was not "the lecturer from the Department of African Studies who was her contact person with the University." I was a joint appointment as Visiting Lecturer in the Afro-American Studies Program—there was no African Studies Department—and Advisor to the International Writing Program. My job with the International Writing Program was a new, trial appointment, which I shall explain below. True, I had not read her novels, but we had both appeared in the same magazine, Transition, so I knew of her as a writer while I was in Uganda.

My Uganda citizenship was taken away by the Amin regime in September 1972. I received the Seymour Lustman Fellowship to Yale University for my novel, In a Brown Mantle (1972), which was launched in Kampala in July 1972 and was prophetic of the Asian Expulsion announced by Amin nine days later. 1 To travel to the US, I got a British passport, that is, I became a British citizen, which I was before the Independence of Uganda. I left Uganda with my wife and two daughters in January 1973, having worked in the Ministry of Finance for seven years. The person who had read my novel at Yale and recommended that I be offered the Fellowship was Charles Davis, Professor of English and Chair of the Afro-American Studies Program. He had come from Iowa City the year before and he told me Iowa was the place for me to be—and he made sure I was invited to Iowa City to participate in the International Writing Program, started by Paul Engle and Hualing Nieh (later his wife) in 1967. The IWP brings published writers to Iowa City from all over the world. Since I was already in the country, I could not receive the normal funding (which came from various sources but chiefly the USIA), so to ensure that I would earn enough money to survive (that is, so my wife, daughters and I could survive), Paul Engle arranged with the Chair of Afro-American Studies, Darwin Turner, for me to also teach in the AASP.

When the session of the IWP ended...


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