Journal of Medical Humanities

, Volume 32, Issue 4, pp 269–278 | Cite as

A Living Life, A Living Death: Bessie Head’s Writing as a Survival Strategy

  • Sue Atkinson


This paper explores Bessie Head’s writing as a survival strategy through which she transformed her lived experience into imaginative literature, giving meaning and purpose to a life under permanent threat from the dominant group first in South Africa and later in Botswana. This threat included the destructive effect of the many fixed labels imposed upon her including: a ‘Coloured’ woman, the daughter of a woman designated mad, an exile, a psychotic, a tragic black woman, and a Third World woman writer. Her endeavours to avoid and defeat such limited, static definitions produced work characterised by contradiction and paradox, through which she asserted her right to survive and determined, like Makhaya in When Rain Clouds Gather, to establish ‘a living life’ in place of the ‘living death that a man could be born into’ (Head 1989, 136). Through a combination of Head’s personal letters and papers and her published work, it can be seen how her particular preoccupations and experiences including her life in exile, her beliefs about her origins, her relationship to her absent mother, her distress, her madness and her need for love and for work were transformed into writing which expresses not only the destructive circumstances of her life but also its life-affirming aspects. Her writing was also a means by which she could create identities to express the dangers she encountered from the all-pervasive power structures which influenced her life and her sense of self, as well as ways to transcend them, enabling her to say in the last years of her life ‘I am no failure’ (20.2.1986 KMM BHP).


Madness Power Autobiography Identity Bessie Head 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Nottingham Healthcare (NHS)Trust/University of Nottingham School of EducationNottinghamUK
  2. 2.The Social Inclusion and Wellbeing Service, Ivy Suite, Adult Mental HealthHighbury HospitalNottinghamUK

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