Bessie Head Thirty Years On:
Southern African Women Writing Resistance
2016 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the death of one of Africa’s most important writers, Bessie Head. Exiled from South Africa for her work with the Pan-African Congress, Head spent most of her life in Serowe, Botswana writing texts that explored the power structures of race and gender that shaped Southern Africa in the second half of the twentieth century. While her work is widely known and revered on the African continent, it receives a dearth of attention in western academic discourse. Because of this, our panel is focused on celebrating the powerful legacy of Bessie Head and the work of other African women writers who shared Head’s vision of a truly egalitarian Southern Africa.
Our panel begins with Sri Mukherjee and her paper entitled “Reading Bessie Head through Foucault: Power, Discipline, and Punishment in ‘The Collector of Treasures.’” Published in 1977, the same year that Foucault’s Discipline and Punish became available in English translation, Bessie Head’s short story, “The Collector of Treasures,” details the journey of its female protagonist and recent husband-murderer, Dikeledi, to incarceration. Given the year of publication and Head’s focus on the themes of power, discipline, and punishment, it is important to bring Foucault’s tenets into conversation with this nonwestern feminist text. Western debates over Foucault and feminism hinge on his understanding of modern power as “creative” rather than repressive, as operating through “gentle” strategies such as norms and discipline. Head’s text may be read as making a unique intervention into this feminist debate by deconstructing the binary opposition of sorts that marks it: capturing a twilight zone in newly post-colonial Botswana, where reactionary forms of female oppression co-exist with more modern subtle forms, she destabilizes the linear progressive logic of Foucault. Deploying strikingly effective narrative strategies, Head unmasks the double disempowerment that nonwestern women face at such moments in history. Furthermore, while Foucault elides any explicit addressing of resistance in Discipline, Head offers a powerful yet provocative message: in the absence of other ideal options for women, the co-existence of blatant oppression with subtle manipulation can serve as a catalyst for feminist agency in a way that the sole operation of the latter cannot. It is only by transforming into volatile female bodies, provoked by brute force, that women can begin to question the implications of docility.
Gary Rees continues this investigation into Head’s depiction of the ways in which Western and African powers work to oppress on both a local and global scale in his paper “Agency Through Cultural Creation: Bessie Head’s A Question of Power.” Published in 1973, Head’s most famous novel is a tour de force centering on the mental breakdown and rehabilitation of a young woman, named Elizabeth, who flees from South Africa and works as a primary school teacher in a small Botswana village. In Elizabeth, Head creates a character that is marginalized on numerous fronts. She is an exile from her native country, racially ostracized due to her “coloured” status, female, a single mother, poor, and mentally ill; all of which place Elizabeth in the incredibly difficult position of being an outsider among outsiders (a situation that closely mirrors Head’s own biography). To tell Elizabeth’s story, Head employs a mix of relatively straightforward prose narration and deeply convoluted sections of internal monologue in order to disrupt the narrative status quo. Regarding this type of “mixed” writing, Patricia Yaeger notes that “the best…writing is not erasure, but a combination of cogency and playfulness.” In A Question of Power, Head produces a text that incorporates both cogency and play and, in so doing, works to deconstruct the “vectors of power” and the damaging binary oppositions she observes them reinforcing, including male/female, sane/insane, first world/third world, and exile/native. While oftentimes disturbing, A Question of Power forces its reader to deeply consider what it means to be humane and strive to create a better world for all.
In our final paper, “Time to Revisit: Nadine Gordimer and Times of Transition,” Amanda Waugh Lagji explores Head’s continuing impact and legacy through a reading of Gordimer’s novel July’s People. When Nadine Gordimer passed away in 2014, her oeuvre of fictional and nonfictional work spaned a tumultuous time in South African history. Lagji acknowledges this incredible legacy by revisiting her 1981 novel, July’s People, and focusing on its production of a temporality of waiting and apocalyptic time that characterizes a time of transition and uncertainty—and in the process yields a particular orientation toward futurity. Gordimer’s apocalyptic time is in the descriptions linking it also to a temporality of waiting through the time of transition and suspension. July’s People suggests that in pressing at the limits of what Lagji calls colonial time, Gordimer demonstrates that linear time and history are insufficient for imagining the post-Apartheid future, and that such a future requires a radical reconstruction and interrogation of the very categories of past, present, future, old and new that the dominant narrative of history depends on. The novel ends with Maureen refusing to wait any longer, closing mid-run toward a helicopter. The novel’s epigram from Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks positions the novel between the dying old and the new that cannot be born and, combined with the temporal angle of the future’s view of the present’s already past-ness, suggests that wherever Maureen is going—and we are not sure of the helicopter’s markings or its alliances—a return to “back there” there is impossible. In returning to July’s People, Lagji argues for its continued relevance—despite its historical specificity in Apartheid South Africa—to imagining South African futures.