Academic journal article African Studies Review

Living on a Horizon: Bessie Head and the Politics of Imagining

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Living on a Horizon: Bessie Head and the Politics of Imagining

Article excerpt

Desiree Lewis. Living on a Horizon: Bessie Head and the Politics of Imagining. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2007. vii + 317 pp. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $29.95. Paper.

Desiree Lewis's highly academic and impressively substantive study of the life and work of the South African novelist Bessie Head moves beyond more traditional readings of Head as a tragic literary figure; it focuses instead on the performativity, spirituality, and textual politics (and the pleasures) of Head's writing. Lewis takes as her title Head's own sentiments about an autobiography that she never wrote: "I would like the book entitled as Living on a Horizon - a title definitive of one who lives outside all possible social contexts, free, independent, unshaped by any particular environment, but shaped by internal growth and living experience" (18-19). Of course, the subtitle added by Lewis invokes her work's theoretical stance, informed as it is by Benedict Anderson's notion of imagined national communities - a concept that is particularly relevant given Head's various national and rhetorical displacements and her self-identification as a "stateless" (20) mixed-race citizen of South Africa who later lived in exile in Botswana.

Lewis's study initially situates Head's work by examining it through various theoretical perspectives including postcolonialism and feminism, and she begins her textual analysis by teasing out the performative discourse contained in Head's letters. According to Lewis, Head's "letter-writing, while not formally connected to her fiction, addresses problems of exclusion and canonicity in the same way that much epistolary fiction does" (45) . By examining the way that Head's epistolary persona shifted from amicable to paranoid, depending on whether her audience consisted of her white male publishers or her African American female friends (particularly Nikki Giovanni), Lewis is able to demonstrate at once the impermanence of identity - particularly for the female postcolonial subject - while alternately demonstrating an autobiographical basis for the tropes of "victimization, martyrdom and visionary insight" (61) that materialize later in her fictional works. …

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