Bessie Head

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A Question of Power

Head, Bessie

Last Updated: Nov-18-2011
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel


In this autobiographical novel, written while the author was under severe mental strain and as she recovered from psychotic breakdown, Head tracks the protagonist Elizabeth’s struggle to emerge from the oppressive social situation in which she finds herself, and from the nightmares and hallucinations that torment her. Elizabeth, like Bessie Head, was conceived in an out-of-wedlock union between a white woman of social standing, and a black man--a union outlawed by her country of birth, South Africa.

Like the author, Elizabeth leaves South Africa with her young son--but without her husband, from whom she is fleeing--to live in neighboring Botswana, a country that has escaped some of the worst evils of colonial domination. But in rural Botswana she is once again faced with a constricting social system as the African villagers are suspicious of her urban ways and frown upon her individualistic behavior. Further, they bear her ill will on racial grounds because she is light skinned like the "bushmen" who are a despised tribe there.

Elizabeth suffers not only social isolation but intellectual deprivation as well. One of the few people with whom she can converse as an intellectual equal is the American peace corps volunteer, Tom, who acknowledges that "men don’t really discuss the deep metaphysical profundities with women" (24). During the four years in which Elizabeth is plagued by tribal suspiciousness, terrifying dreams, economic hardships, and two hospitalizations for mental breakdown, it is Tom, and her own love for and obligation to her young son that help her to survive this ordeal.

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