Bessie Amelia Emery Head, or Bessie Head, is a famous bi-racial writer of novels, fiction, and autobiographies. Bessie was born in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa in 1937. Her mother was a rich white woman and her father was a poor black servant. Her mother was sent away to have Bessie so that the town's people would not know that she had gotten pregnant. Her mother committed suicide and Bessie was sent to live with foster parents. She lived with foster parents for a while before being sent to an orphanage.
Background on Bessie Head
At the age of 20, Bessie began teaching in Clairwood. Three years later, in 1960 she began working for the Golden City Post and Drum, which was a magazine. She married her husband Harold Head on September 1, 1961. Together they had a son.
In 1964, she fled to Botswana to get away from Pan-African politics that she had gotten wrapped up in. Head lived near the capital Serowe. It took 15 years for her to become a Botswana citizen.
While living in Serowe, Bessie wrote three novels. These are:
- When Rain Clouds Gather
- A Question of Power
When Rain Cloud Gather is one of her most famous works of writing. Head also published some short stories. Most of her writing is around life in Africa.
Bessie was awarded the South African Order of Ikhamanga in 2003. She was recognized for this reward because of a social activism. In 2007, the library in Pietermaritzbur was named after her to honor her.
Example Essay on Life by Bessie Head
The short story, "Life", by Bessie Head paints a picture of life in a small South African village just outside of Johannesburg. It is a character study with several underlining themes.
Briefly, the story's main character is Life. Life was orphaned at a young age and made her living in Johannesburg by singing, modeling and the more glamorous professions of the city. These professions fit Life's personality, which was boisterous, carefree and easy-going.
When life was twenty-seven, she moved back to her small, native village just outside of Johannesburg. Here she found that she did not fit in with the women of the village. However, life was resourceful and became the first prostitute the village had seen. Shunned by the farming women, life set up business and friendship among the beer-brewing class of women. They enjoyed Life's spirit and she brought a bit of luster into the dull village life.
Only a short time after life arrived in the village, a wealthy cattleman named Lesego, noticed her. He was taken in by the fact that she was different and offered to marry her. The men of the village and his friends advised him against it, but he did not heed their advice and Life and Lesego married.
Lesego was a harsh man and demanded that Life conform to the ways of a good village wife, henceforth, remain faithful to him or he would kill her. Life attempted this, but quickly became bored with the mundaneness of village life. Life began to rebel and see other men.
Life decided she had enough of married life and rebelliously began sleeping with other men. Lesego returned from a trip early one afternoon and implored his wife to make him tea. She lied about needing to go to the store, and left for the bed of another man. Lesego's neighbor reported this to him and Lesego went to the home of the other man with a knife in his shirt. Upon finding Life in bed with another man, he bludgeoned her to death. Lesego was charged with murder and sentenced to 5 years in prison.
The theme that Bessie Head presents is that two worlds can not collide. She blatantly states this when Lesego proclaims to his friend that "There are good women and good men but they seldom join their lives together. It is always this mess and foolishness"(443).
Life represented the carelessness of life. The attitude of live for today and live life to its fullest. In a broader sense, it can be said that Life was life. The unpredictability of living each day is represented in the character of Life, especially in youth. Life represents how an adolescent experiences the newness of the world. "She had a bright, vivacious, friendly manner and laughed freely and loudly"(436). As Life moved back into her native village, her childish, carefree nature was shunned by those in the working class but delighted the lower class of beer-brewing women.
When Lesego entered the story, it was no mistake that Head referred to him thus: "Then one evening death walked quietly into the bar"(438). Lesego was seen as death both literally and figuratively. Literally, he murdered Life and therefore, brought about death. Figuratively, Lesego was the emotional death of Life. When they married and he demanded that she change her ways and conform to his life, he was killing her spirit and the nature of her character. Literal death was liberating to her carefree spirit that could not be satisfied to conform to his way of life.
The two worlds illustrated in the story could be viewed from several angles. First there is the class structure of Life associating herself with the beer-brewing class, or the lower class of women not involved in farming and homemaking. This class was in direct contrast to what Lesego wanted from a wife, yet he chose Life and attempted to conform her. It did not work and illustrated the theme, that two worlds can not collide without disaster.
Second is the contrast between life and death. Life, in her vibrant nature, could not be subject to live with Lesego, who was calm, refined and never hurried. Death is much like the personality of Lesego. It is matter-of-fact, absolute and the final judgement in a person's life. In as much as one can not be dead and be alive, one can not live as Lesego did and have such an animated spirit as Life possessed. Life's motto was "live fast, die young, and have a good-looking corpse"(438).
The villagers watched the marriage of Lesego and Life with deep interest. They looked on in judgement to see if one could mix good and bad. Lesego had attempted to turn Life to "good". The failed attempt proved to the village that good and bad can not mix. Once someone is "bad", they remain that way, it is in their spirit. Bessie Head examines behavior and absolutes in the short story of Life. She makes the point that class is divided, good and bad are divided, and life and death can never be one. Such was the world of South Africa during the time Ms. Head lived.