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



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 


  1. Abrahams, C. The Tragic Life, Bessie Head and Literature in South Africa. Trenton, N.J: Africa World Press, 1990.Google Scholar
  2. Birch, K.S. ‘The Birch Family: An Introduction to the White Antecedents of the late Bessie Amelia Head.’ English in Africa (1995) 22 (1).Google Scholar
  3. Dovey, T. ‘A Question of Power: Susan Gardner’s Biography Versus Bessie Head’s Autobiography.’ English in Africa (1989) 16 (1): 29-38.Google Scholar
  4. Denzin, N.K. Interpretive Biography. Newbury Park: Sage, 1989.Google Scholar
  5. Eilersen, G.S. Bessie Head: Thunder Behind Her Ears: Her Life and Writing. London: James Currey, 1996.Google Scholar
  6. Emery, Mrs. Bessie, Notice of Admission, Mental Disorder Act 1916. South African Archive Service.Google Scholar
  7. Emery, Mrs. Bessie, Death Notice 14.9.1943. South African Archive Service.Google Scholar
  8. Gardner, S. ‘Don’t Ask for the True Story: A Memoir of Bessie Head.’ Hecate 12, (1-2) (1986): 110-129.Google Scholar
  9. Gray, S. ‘Social and Political Commitment in Bessie Head’s A Bewitched Crossroad.’ Critique 33.1 (1991): 43-52. Quoted in Gillian Stead Eilersen.Google Scholar
  10. Head, B. Letters: Khama Memorial Museum, Bessie Head Papers: 05.01.1968 KMM BHP, 19.09.1972 KMM BHP, 28.01.1973 KMM BHP, 22.10.1973 KMM BHP, 12.05.1974 KMM BHP, 03.06.1974 KMM BHP, 10.06.1975 KMM BHP, 04.12.1975 KMM BHP, 11.08.1982 KMM BHP, 03.09.1982 KMM BHP, 28.07.1983 KMM BHP, 27.12.1983 KMM BHP, 06.06.1984 KMM BHP, 31.05.1985 KMM BHP, 16.06.1985 KMM BHP, 20.06.1985 KMM BHP, 25.06.1985 KMM BHP, 09.10.1985 KMM BHPGoogle Scholar
  11. --- Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind. London: Heinemann, 1981.Google Scholar
  12. --- A Bewitched Crossroad: An African Saga. Johannesburg: Ad. Donker, 1984.Google Scholar
  13. ---A Question of Power. London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd., 1987.Google Scholar
  14. ---Maru. London: Heinemann, 1988.Google Scholar
  15. ---The Collector of Treasures and other Botswana Village Tales. London: Heinemann, 1988.Google Scholar
  16. ---When Rain Clouds Gather, London: Heinemann, 1989.Google Scholar
  17. ---The Cardinals: with Meditations and Stories. M.J. Daymond, ed. Cape Town: David Philip, 1993.Google Scholar
  18. Keitel, E. Reading Psychosis: Readers, Texts and Psychoanalysis. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.Google Scholar
  19. Lionnet, F. Postcolonial Representations: Women, Literature, Identity. Ithaca & London: Cornell U.P., 1995.Google Scholar
  20. Moi, T. Sexual-Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. London: Routledge, 1988.Google Scholar
  21. Ravenscroft, A. ‘The Novels of Bessie Head’ in C. Heywood ed. Aspects of South African Literature. London: Heinemann, 1976, 174-186.Google Scholar
  22. Sass, L.A. Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art. New York: Basic Books, 1992.Google Scholar
  23. Stanley, L. The Auto/Biographical I: The Theory and Practice of Feminist Auto/Biography. Manchester: Manchester U.P., 1992.Google Scholar
  24. Taylor, C. Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1989.Google Scholar

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

Personalised recommendations