Roots

We have still been unable to commission a specially written editorial for our website, but no matter. We offer something far better — Bessie's Head last substantive essay. Many people think of it as her testament. [Note: also on the site now is her ethereal "Earth and Everything"].
 

Why Do I Write?

I write because I have authority from life to do so.

The areas in which I have this authority are clearly outlined for me and I do not trespass into terrain unsuited to me. Life never asked me to be a politician; it has conferred that authority on other men and women. Life asked me to be a writer of a certain kind.

I examined everything when I was very young and, while being well aware of the sufferings of black people in southern Africa, I knew I could not cope with the liberatory struggle — a world of hot, bickering hate, jealousy, betrayal and murder. I have such a delicate nervous balance that when faced with danger or secret activity, I tremble violently. The spies of the Boers would have long found me out and sent me the parcel bomb. Early in my writing career I made it known that politics was not my concern. But I carry this around with me like a sin. To be South African-born you have to be a politician, you have to be a liberator. You cannot stand aloof and not comment on the horror, the horror.

The international community is so obsessed with South Africa that I have often faced hostile audiences who have exclaimed impatiently: "Why were you invited? You are not a politically committed writer. Why don't you go and liberate the people of South Africa?"

The anguish this arouses! The country offered me nothing as a creative artist. It was a desolation of financial greed and puerile racial prejudice. I could not write about the country and the people. I could not lever any magic and charm out of the situation. After twenty-seven years I was happy to leave it. My books have all been set in Serowe, Botswana, where I have lived for twenty years and those who know my books, know that they are full of magic and wonder.

I know that the static death theme of white minority domination is not the total story of South Africa. That death that hangs over the land, seems in each generation to have called forth towering political leaders who have left their impression on the society and the world. No other country in the world has a record of having produced so many thinkers and leaders of towering grandeur. The political activity in this country has been rich and creative.

Once it was the socialist evolution and it helped at that time to raise the basic wage of mine workers and labourers from a shilling a day to a pound a day. Once it was the African National Congress, the Indian Congress and Mahatma Ghandi's passive resistance. For my generation it was Robert Sobukwe and Pan Africanism. For younger generations, it was Steve Biko and Black Consciousness. Beneath that death there is life, even though the truly great people of the land have never wielded political power. Thus, I can afford not to be a politician or liberator. There are so many politicians and liberators that I would pay homage to.

I ought to mention another hostile audience to whom I am a leper too — the black student of Africa. I have taken a few classes and seen the aggrieved faces:

When we read Achebe, Ngugi and Armah, we find things here we can identify with, but with you we are disoriented and flung into Western civilisation.
I admit that my reading background and influences are international but I would worry if limitation could be placed on the African personality and that only certain kinds of writers could properly represent the African personality. All my characters are black but I reserve for them the charm of being unpredictable and highly original. I would dread to be faced with a dark dungeon called the "proper" and recognisable African and that this should be the standard character one would find in an African novel. There is the urge towards a kind of closed-door nationalism in independent Africa, an urge to reject the colonial experience. But this is not possible. The African personality has been enlarged and changed by the colonial experience. I am not bad on Western civilisation. I simply have a door that stands open and characters that startle and enchant my readers.

All who know me know that in everyday waking reality I am an absolutely solitary person. Friends walk through my life, talk, smile and shake hands, but no one is near me. This is not true of my dream world at night. My dream world is crowded with thousands and thousands of people. It is not fancy or pretty-pretty but a practical, busy world where people are planning for the future and make known to me their preferences. My books are rooted in this source and all commentary and communication from this source have been carefully recorded in all my books. Together with people I have built up a kind of people religion that is rooted in the African soil. My world opposes the world of politicians. They plan for and dictate to the people. In my world people plan for themselves and dictate their requirements to me. It is a world full of love, tenderness, happiness and laughter. From it I have developed a love and reverence for people. I foresee a day when I will steal the title of God, the unseen Being in the sky, and offer it to mankind. From then onwards, people, as they pass each other in the street each day, will turn to each other and say: "Good-morning, God." War will end. Human suffering will end.

I am building a stairway to the stars. I have the authority to take the whole of mankind up there with me. That is why I write.
 


Written in March 1985 for the Paris daily Libération and immediately republished by Mmegi wa Dikgang in Gaborone.

© 1985 Bessie Head

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