Academic journal article Hecate

"Don't Ask for the True Story": A Memoir of Bessie Head

Academic journal article Hecate

"Don't Ask for the True Story": A Memoir of Bessie Head

Article excerpt

Don't ask for the true story;

why do you need it?...

[T]he true story is vicious

and multiple and untrue

after all. Why do you

need it? Don't ever

ask for the true story.

The facts of this world seen clearly

are seen through tears;

why tell me then

there is something wrong with my eyes?(1)

Serowe, Botswana, January 1983. Two women are walking hand in hand in a dusk so hot as to be unendurable: for three days one of them will exist on nine Appletisers, unable to bear the thought of food in this heat, while the other will drink Long Tom beers from dawn to dusk and eat ravenously. There is no respite from this heat: it melts dried apricots and make-up, blisters the hand unwise enough to touch a steering wheel, renders the village totally bereft of cool visitors' water. At night we sleep naked, panting while we fight off ants with peach powder.

As if the heat were not enough to make this meeting difficult, the Vice-President has just died and is being buried here, in his Great Place; the whole nation is subjected to obligatory mourning and radios which can be turned down but not off, play hymns 24 hours a day. Finally, the topic of conversation is not particularly cheerful either, though the two women are laughing about it: "madness". One of the women, Bessie Head, wrote a "novel" -- she herself called it "verbatim reportage", and "a kind of...autobiography book"(2) -- A Question of Power, about her harrowing mental breakdown of several years' duration. It is not only the most difficult of her books to read, but the one that has brought her the most fan-mail from all over the world; the Black Scholar ranked it eighth of fifteen "most influential books of the decade" in 1981 and, after being featured at the first Feminist Book Fair in London in 1984, it became a Women's Press Bookclub selection. One of her most perceptive critics, Charles Larson, acclaimed it, writing: "In her concern with women and madness, Bessie Head...almost single-handedly brought about the inward turning of the African novel."(3)

Knowing all this, I feel slightly uneasy as she and I walk hand in hand in the Serowe dusk, ignored by everyone except an occasional cattle-rustler. I am puzzled, used as I am to African greetings and honorifics, that this woman, who has made this village so uniquely her own (in Sero we: Village of the Rain wind, 1981, based on nearly 100 interviews), seems to be ostracised. In Africa, you simply do not pass people by. In the Xhosa-speaking area where I now live, I quickly learned the difference between the greetings "Molo" ("Hi!") and "Kunjani", for the answer to the latter can take hours; your house may be burning down or your mother dying, but the respondent will tell you all the details of her life ever since she last saw you, and several months before as well, if she feels like it. My students and I are here particularly to visit Bessie, as she asks to be called; later, I recall her slight hesitation when we asked her how she would like to be addressed. It was not a matter of courtesy inflecting and hedging her voice; it was the terrible fact that she did not know who she was, though she had pieced together a legend about herself which almost everyone still believes.

Our visit began a few weeks before when, in our feminist literary criticism honours seminar, we were reading Alice Walker's You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down and noted her stated indebtedness to the short stories of Bessie Head. This led us to read Head's The Collector of Treasures which we all found, given its uncompromising depiction of the oppression of women both by traditional and modern life, impossible to put down: the title story, for instance, is about a woman imprisoned for castrating her husband after years of torment and abuse. Several of my students determined to write their honours theses on Head, and it was then that we thought why not, like nearly every other critic who has ever written about her, visit Head herself? …

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