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Excerpts from Chapter One of Sue Atkinson's PD thesis on Bessie Head. For the full chapter, download the PDF file.

Writing As Autobiography

Sue Atkinson

I write what I am living (22-23 February 1975 KMM BHP)

So you think what you have is your own? What is your own comes to you bit by bit (Camus, quoted in letter 11.10.1984, KMM BHP).

In this chapter I want to examine the concept of autobiography, its relevance to Bessie Head's creative output as a means of telling her own story and embedding her 'living life' in narrative, and some versions of her life and writings that threatened to impose upon it the stasis of 'living death'. I also want to look at some of the issues and difficulties which arise in the light of criticism which uses a biographical approach.

After the publication of Bessie Head's third published novel, A Question of Power, which is the work most widely acknowledged as autobiographical, her focus ostensibly shifted, first into the local community with the research and publication of Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (1981). Some of the pieces she researched for this, but did not include, made up the collection of short stories The Collector of Treasures and other Botswana Village Tales (1988) which continued her autobiographical emphasis. For example, Bessie Head said of the short story which gives the collection its name, that 'the life of the woman Dikeledi is more or less my life. My husband was a man like Garasego Mokopi' (16.6.1977 KMM BHP). For the short story 'Looking for a Rain God' she draws on her own experience of being locked up at the Lobatse Hospital after her breakdown with two old women from the village of Kanye who had killed two little girls and cut up their body parts for medicine (28.1.1973 ~ BH?). Even in Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (1986), Bessie Head's strong personal presence is evident, as it is in her final work, A Bewitched Crossroad (1984).

Of the central character in this fictionalised history of Southern Africa she said 'For Sebina read Bessie Head — one of the great B. Head male characters, tender, enchanting, flexible and delightful. For Shoshong read Serowe' (Undated letter KMM BHP). Her posthumously published collections Tales of Tenderness and Power and The Cardinals also transform her personal experiences into narrative, while the hundreds of copies of her personal letters housed in the Khama III Memorial Museum in Serowe communicate more directly her experiences to her many correspondents.

Although Bessie Head was clear about the autobiographical nature of her work, there are a number of reasons why others might disagree. Not least of these is that the autobiographical genre is held to be European in origin, and Bessie Head was a South African. She was also a woman, and the genre has traditionally been predominantly male-authored; for example, early central figures who have come to prominence through their use of the confessional form and the authoritative 'I' have included Montaigne, St. Augustine, and Rousseau ... There are, of course, broadly political reasons why Bessie Head did not attempt to tell her life story in a conventional, linear way, and why her work is rarely characterised by the first-person narrative form associated with the autobiography, although she uses the first person in some of her essays and, of course, in her letters.

Bessie Head asserted her right to express her experience in her own way, and invariably used the style and form characteristic of the novel to present aspects of her lived reality, a reality which has caused some contention among her critics. One of the most problematic issues which arises when a writer is, as Bessie Head was, particularly open about their life, is the use critics make of the information available to them. She said, 'I am always forced to give biographical information so everything on me begins rather pathetically: Bessie Head was born the 6 July, 1937, in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa ... One had to begin somewhere' (27.12.1983 KMM BHP).

The interpretation of Bessie Head's work to which I am about to turn leads her readers to an interpretation of her work as 'family romance' (Gardner 1986, 122) on the one hand, and total fabrication on the other. Susan Gardner's biographical memoir, 'Don't Ask for the True Story' was published in Hecate shortly after Bessie Head's death and highlights some of the dangers of biographical interpretations. Gardner was a member of Hecate’s editorial board (Dovey 1989, 30), which gave her the power of academic authority to claim superior knowledge of her subject, and which enabled her to succeed, for a time at least, in raising doubts about Bessie Head's own version of her early life. Craig MacKenzie, for example, refers to the article by pointing out that 'some doubts about the truth about her life story have recently been voiced' (1989, 11). He attempts to distance himself from the debate by stating that it is not his task 'to offer the reader a definitive version of Bessie Head's origins, or to vouch for the absolute veracity of the version that she herself offers' (4). His acceptance that there might indeed be an 'absolute veracity', a 'definitive version' indicates, however, that a belief in the static nature of truth still pervades academic life and this inevitably influences any discussion on biography and autobiography.

When a life story is told by a third party in the course of a biographical construction, both subject and reader are dependent upon the biographer's willingness to accept that they are not the possessors of the total and unequivocal truth. Gardner's article is entitled 'Don't Ask for the True Story', which, on the one hand could indicate her acceptance that there can be no 'true' story of Bessie Head's life. But on the other, Gardner clearly states that her aim is to unpick 'a legend ... which almost everyone still believes' (1986, 111) and to replace 'the pathos of the life-story she would tell again and again, obsessively' (114) with a story 'more incredible than any Bessie had ever told' (122). While claiming that the story Bessie Head told about her own life 'seemed almost too "good", in its horrible way, to be true' (115), Gardner aims to replace what she called the 'ideal biographical legend' (115) with her own version at the heart of which, she claims, lies a secret which she can never reveal.

Gardner uses her own power to attempt to dismiss what Bessie Head saw as the most important and meaningful factors in her background as 'commonplaces about Bessie's life that she may herself have believed, but which were not true' (1986, 112) and she uses three distinct strategies in order to do so.

The first strategy is that she immediately establishes an intimate and also a superior relationship with Bessie Head which serves to reinforce her existing authorial power, and which begins with a description of herself and her subject, walking hand in hand in the Botswana heat. Her second strategy is to undercut any positive statement she makes about Bessie Head with a negative one, a pattern which she repeats throughout her article, as for example when she later claims that this intimate relationship was, in fact, 'disquieting' (112) to her, and had been 'immediately established' (112) by Bessie Head herself. Her third strategy is to remind the reader that Bessie Head's fame rested largely upon an autobiographical novel about her 'harrowing mental breakdown' (110). She points out that her own reason for wanting to meet the writer was because she did her Master's degree on "'mad" women writers' (111). It is within this derogatory and dismissive category that she then proceeds to embed Bessie Head by describing her as loudly proclaiming the cleanliness of her vagina in a hotel dining room and juxtaposing Bessie Head's 'ravenous' appetite and her heavy drinking of 'Long Tom beers from dawn to dusk' (110) with her own inability to eat, and to drink only Appletisers because of the intense heat. She also questions why, when at the time of her visit Bessie Head was a writer of international reputation, no one appeared to know where she lived. She asks why 'this woman, who has made this village so uniquely her own ... seems to be ostracised' (111).

The cumulative effect of these statements leads the reader to the assumption that the writer is indeed ostracized, and that this is because she establishes inappropriately intimate relationships with virtual strangers, is a public embarrassment, and eats and drinks too much. In short, Gardner carefully constructs a 'mad' personality for her subject before she begins her investigation into Bessie Head's version of her early circumstances, which she obtained without the latter's permission or knowledge. She justifies her intrusion into Bessie Head's background by saying 'In this article I have followed a methodology used by Bessie herself for, as she told us in Serowe, one of her interviewees once asked her not to reveal what he said, "and of course I wrote it"' (127).

Accusing Bessie Head of naiveté in having never tried to trace her mother, she points out that in South Africa everyone is 'eminently traceable' and goes on to claim that she had confidential information about the writer's background which proved that she belonged to 'a prominent South African family' (124). She then suggests that Bessie Head had 'no interest in documenting a truth which she may have known anyway' (122), that she 'was not born in the Fort Napier mental hospital in Pietermaritzburg, nor had her mother been a patient there' (122-3). Gardner continues, 'Having given her infant daughter all that she could, Bessie Emery handed her over to foster care. And disappears from the scene' (124).

However, as Gardner has pointed out, everyone in South Africa is 'eminently traceable'. Because of this, verifiable information from the South African Archive Service exists which substantiates Bessie Head's own story that her mother was a patient in Fort Napier, that she herself was born there, and that her mother later died there.

Works cited

Gardner, Susan. "'Don't Ask for the True Story". Hecate, 1986.
Head, Bessie. Multiple letters and fragments among the Bessie Head Papers.

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