Academic journal article ARIEL

Garden-Variety Holiness: Bessie Head's "Reverence for Ordinary People" in A Question of Power

Academic journal article ARIEL

Garden-Variety Holiness: Bessie Head's "Reverence for Ordinary People" in A Question of Power

Article excerpt

From among the overwhelming number of legislative actions that incrementally built the Union of South Africa into an apartheid state, several have bearing on the life of Bessie Head and her third novel, A Question of Power (1974). Enacted in February 1937, the Aliens Act was put into place just before Head was born on 6 July 1937. Although the bill aimed to restrict the number of Jewish immigrants entering South Africa as a result of oppression in Nazi Germany, the Aliens Act codified Afrikaner ideas of racial purity and privilege even as it expressed these same ideas through the concept of citizenship (Bunting 59-60). This category of citizenship formed the raw material for the state's racist construction and control of identity in the Population Registration Act No. 30 of 1950, the very legislation which came into force on 7 July, one day after Head's thirteenth birthday. Where the first piece of legislation leveraged the ideas of assimilability and unassimilability to curtail Jewish migration to South Africa, the second act concretized another kind of Manicheanism, even though the document never uses the word "black." Rather, by using the terms "white," "native," and "coloured," the Population Registration Act turned all South African citizens into whites and non-whites, irrespective of its various categories for whites, natives, and coloureds ("Act No. 30 of 1950" 1.iii). Head died rather young on 17 April 1986, just before the Identification Act No. 72--enforced 1 July of that year--repealed much of the Population Registration Act, in particular, the obligation to connect identity numbers to race.

Although A Question of Power does not directly address these three legislative acts within the context of South Africa, the setting of Botswana places the novel, as Head indicates, merely "one door away from South Africa" ("Preface to 'Witchcraft'" 27). Insofar as "one door" bespeaks contiguity, it recalls Rob Nixon's admonition for postcolonialism to foreground bioregionalism rather than binaristic structures such as centre/margins (Slow Violence 238). From Botswana, Head counters the consequences of these acts by taking up the topics of exclusion, identity, delirium, evil, alienation, displacement, and emplacement. That Head's life was to a significant extent defined by these topics makes A Question of Power a book that invites autobiographical treatment, a trend which forms, perhaps, the majority of critical responses to this novel. Indeed, Head's work weaves together the personal and the political in ways that respond--from Botswana--to what she calls the "immense suffering" engendered by apartheid ("Some Notes" 63). Despite the gigantic proportions of this trauma, Head says that her response issues from her "reverence for ordinary people" (63).

In accordance with Head's joining of "reverence for ordinary people" and "immense suffering," the ensuing argument examines A Question of Power in light of Njabulo S. Ndebele's "theoretical conclusions" (156) articulated in his essay "The Rediscovery of the Ordinary: Some New Writings in South Africa," conclusions which discuss the ordinary in relation to the spectacular. (1) Ndebele theorizes the spectacular by recourse to Roland Barthes' "The World of Wrestling," "with its attention to the 'Exhibition of Suffering' that defines the wrestling match" (19). Adapting Barthes' essay, Ndebele makes "the aggressive Boer" into "the massive wrestler" who opposes "the Black writer," whose imagination is overtaken by the "mind-bogglingly spectacular" injustice and oppression that defines the "South African social formation" (143). The "representation of spectacle," a "highly dramatic, highly demonstrative form of literary representation," thus forms what Ndebele calls the history of Black South African literature (143). Writing in 1984, Ndebele reflects that "the culture of the spectacular" has "run its course" insofar as the aftermath of the 16 June 1976 Soweto Uprising saw a "new trend of writing which was more 'life-sustaining' in its focus on the ordinary" (150). …

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