Bessie Head: The Road of Peace of Mind: A Critical Appreciation

Bessie Head: The Road of Peace of Mind: A Critical Appreciation

Bessie Head: The Road of Peace of Mind: A Critical Appreciation

Bessie Head: The Road of Peace of Mind: A Critical Appreciation


Directs attention to Bessie Head's literary preoccupations. The book reviews the context in which she wrote in relation to her ideas about the creative imagination, the art of fiction, and the situation of the writer in modern Africa. It explores her uses of local oral tradition, her encoding of meaning, and her texturing of language.


A lecturer in Nigeria said he found a coolness and detach
ment in my writing that was un-African…. A Zimbabwe
student said to me: “We read Ngugi, Achebe, Ayi Kwei
Armah, and we find things there we can identify with. But
with you we are disoriented and thrown into Western litera

—Bessie Head, Between the Lines

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone.
His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his re
lationship to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value
him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison,
among the dead.

—T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and Individual Talent”

BESSIE HEAD (NéE EMERY) WAS BORN IN PIETERMARITZBURG, SOUTH Africa, on July 6, 1937, a child of mixed race whose white mother had a history of mental illness and whose black father was unknown. Growing up in the 1940s and 1950s in a context of deteriorating race relationships, as the structures of apartheid were being established, she had a difficult childhood. Rejected by her mother’s family, who placed her in foster care, she was later transferred to an Anglican mission orphanage in Durban. She trained as a teacher and taught for a while but abandoned teaching for journalism. Head’s job as a journalist took her to Johannesburg and to Cape Town. In 1961, she married Howard Head, who was also a journalist. Moving between cities, she was exposed to urban poverty, while her interaction with journalists led to engagement with political issues, experiences that inform her later writing. In 1964, Head left South Africa, on an exit permit, for Botswana, where, despite financial hardships and troubled social relationships, she achieved success as a novelist and short-story writer. At her death in 1986, Head’s reputation as a writer of extraordinary talent was assured. The continued inter-

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