South African literature has long struggled to become drought resistant. In the same way landscape painting composed itself around large, reflective surfaces of water, the imported British novel presupposed abundant water as much for its plotlines as for the production of its paper.
Relocated to the semiarid interior of southern Africa, these forms persisted, showing little inclination to shrivel. Settler farmers built dams not only for agricultural reasons but also for aesthetic ones. The plot of the farm novel continued to depend on water.
A handful of writers, among them Olive Schreiner, experimented with “drier” literary forms, to depict the realities of a harsh environment—and an even harsher history. Bessie Head may be the most drought-resistant writer of them all. Fleeing apartheid South Africa, she moved to Bechuanaland (on the cusp of becoming Botswana) in 1964, ending up in Serowe, a town on the eastern edge of the Kalahari Desert. A stateless refugee until she finally attained citizenship, in 1979, Head eked out a threadbare living as teacher, secretary, gardener/farmer in a village cooperative—and writer. She died in 1986, in slightly improved but still precarious circumstances.
Out of these spare conditions, Head fashioned an influential corpus of novels, historical fiction, short stories, and essays. Although her work eventually opened important pathways in Black feminist thought and postcolonial aesthetics, it was very slow to garner recognition. It stood athwart many of the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid orthodoxies of the day. Her stories portray the quiet calamities of village women but avoid the grand gestures of anti-apartheid melodrama. Skeptical of masculinist notions of liberation and horrified by nationalism, she turned her back on the familiar narratives sanctioned by liberation movements and the states they engendered.
Out of kilter with the anti-colonial nationalism of the 1960s and ’70s, Head relied on self-made methods, focusing on rural rather than urban settings and individual experience rather than political ideologies. This orientation toward the interpersonal scale had been thrust upon her from birth by the iron cage of apartheid. With a mother classified “white” and an unknown father classified “black,” she was born in 1937 in a Natal mental institution where her mother had been sequestered once her pregnancy became known. Head was shunted between foster parents and then made a ward of the state and sent to a Durban boarding school in the late 1940s. Trained as a teacher, she moved to Cape Town and then Johannesburg, working as a journalist and becoming active in Pan-African Congress activism. Although only tangentially involved in this resistance movement, in 1961 she was arrested and turned state’s witness, an event which occasioned a suicide attempt.
During Head’s early years in Botswana, home was a mud hut, without electricity or running water. Writing was done by hand, a typewriter initially beyond her means. As her biographer Gillian Stead Eilersen notes, the young woman’s lap doubled as a desk, her knee as a candle-holder—but only when there was money for candles, pen, and paper. Her materials accumulated dust, the droppings of thatch-dwelling insects, and the attention of inquisitive goats. Like all poor residents of Serowe, Head lived what she called “a mud life.”1
The Collector of Treasures, a compilation of short stories published in 1977, best evidences the young writer’s astounding inventiveness. Snippets from oral interviews, colonial school readers, African American publications, Zulu proverbs, and Black feminist networks constitute the resources on which the book draws; her acknowledgments and footnotes bear witness to her magpie methods. Head records her indebtedness to C. L. S. Nyembezi’s Zulu Proverbs (even though Head’s book has a Setswana setting and conveys the impression that the proverbs used are drawn from this world). A footnote to “The Deep River: A Story of Ancient Tribal Migration” cites historical data drawn from interviews with “old men of the tribe” but warns that this information “was unreliable as their memories had tended to fail them”; Head therefore also credits “her own imagination” and the London Missionary Society’s Livingstone Tswana Readers: Padiso III, a colonial-era school text. Her acknowledgments also list publications in which some stories gained their first airing: among them are the Magazine for Black Women, Black World, and Ms. Magazine, where Alice Walker shepherded two of Head’s stories into print.
A pair of stories stands out. Normally, the saga of a community’s genesis (in this case, the Botalaote’s) would take shape around a sequence of male leaders and their exploits. “The Deep River” instead focuses on a male heir to the chieftaincy who breaks with his community in order to marry the woman he loves. His decision precipitates a new lineage, shaped by a chosen marriage rather than chiefly prerogatives and pressures. Head takes up issues close to the heart of African women writers of 1960s and ’70s, namely the rights to monogamy, to choose one’s partner, and to withstand kin obligations and demands. This story clothes these feminist/womanist preoccupations in the language of tradition, rolling feminism back into the past.
The title story “The Collector of Treasures” extends Head’s feminist invention of tradition. The title story centers on a group of women in prison, all sentenced for killing their husbands. The protagonist, Dikeledi Mokopi, has sliced off her abusive husband’s genitals with a sharpened domestic knife. The castration is carried out through calm planning and efficient dispatch, all of a piece with Dikeledi’s customary competence: she is “the woman whose thatch does not leak.” Attention is lavished on her hands (“soft, caressing, almost boneless, hands of strange power”), which excel at crafts like knitting, sewing, and thatching.
Head situates the castration as an unusual but explicable extension of the everyday labor and craft that women like Dikeledi mobilize as an art of survival. Unfolding shortly after Botswana’s decolonization, in 1966, this story investigates competing models of freedom, juxtaposing formal constitutional independence with the experiences of rural women. In the terms established by the narrative, independence is a system broken before it even starts. Its poisoned roots go back to precolonial patriarchy overlaid not just with British imperialism but also with South Africa’s extractive sub-imperialism, which sucked men from across the subcontinent, turning them into the “machine tools” of the gold mines. Independence certainly created opportunities for some, as “more jobs became available … and salaries sky-rocketed.” But these prospects were wasted on many (among them Garesego, Dikeledi’s husband), who were already “broken wreck[s] with no inner resources at all [fleeing their] own inner emptiness.”
Reading Head now returns us to the question of what it took then (and would take now) to create a drought-resistant literature.
This story, and indeed the collection as a whole, asks what national independence actually means for rural women, far removed both geographically and metaphorically from the formal structures of power. Informed by Black feminist thinking of the 1970s and ’80s, Head depicts such fellowships of women inventing tenuous communities through female craft and friendship. In constructing mud walls and huts, thatching, cooking, sewing, and weaving, women like Dikeledi establish networks of support and exchange.
Between Dikeledi and her neighbor Kenalepe, Head sees even more radical potential for new sorts of community. When Kenalepe hears that Dikeledi has never had pleasurable sex, she offers to share her husband. In this miniature zone of independence, women can circulate men between themselves, inverting the normal order whereby women are passed between men. Such moments of independence, though, are fleeting and precarious, soon destroyed by patriarchal intrusion, in this instance by Garesego. Despite being long separated from Dikeledi, he falsely accuses Kenalepe’s husband, Paul, of taking Dikeledi as a concubine and then moves back in to assert his rights over his wife. Rather than endure this defilement, Dikeledi kills him.
Head also imaginatively reconfigures African oral tradition in unexpected ways. Her texts frequently create the illusion that we are hearing the stories spoken in Setswana. Through storytelling formulas, ideophones, repetition, apparent direct translations, and generic markers like “village tales,” these texts appear deeply rooted in a Setswana “oral” world. So successful has Head been in this endeavor that readers are often surprised to learn that she spoke no Setswana, “not even of a rudimentary kind,” as her biographer Eilersen notes. Head is adept at “skazzing,” to adapt the Russian term (skaz) for literary genres that mimic spokenness—a reminder that orality in African literature is not some automatic or osmotic style but is rather the result of careful aesthetic choices and strategies.
I taught two of Head’s texts in Johannesburg in the 1980s, when oppositional themes of “history from below” were prevalent. This preoccupation resonated with her work on oral history. Reading her now returns us to the question of what it took then (and would take now) to create a drought-resistant literature. Head defined her work as “a saga about the elements with dramatic, tormented monologues delivered to the elements,” an appropriate description of stories that unfold on the edge of the Kalahari desert, where too much or too little rain destroys lives. The titles of her books are consistently elemental: When Rain Clouds Gather, Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind, and Maru, which means “clouds,” “the weather,” or, in figurative usage, “the elements.” Just as Head’s feminist perspective on “orality” shifts the meaning and politics of that medium, her material depiction of “the land” resituates one of the key media of anti-colonial nationalism. We might say Head offers up elemental media.
For much of the 1960s and ’70s, Head worked on an experimental farm and a self-help project where she instructed participants on how to germinate, transplant, and irrigate seedlings in a high-evaporation environment. Small wonder her fiction routinely invokes the technicalities of farming: crop rotation, controlled grazing, veld pasturage, ploughing and harrowing, soil conservation, and growing drought-resistant millet. In Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind, the drought- and goat-resistant rubber hedge found throughout the town features as a protagonist in the region’s history. Head completed a correspondence diploma in agriculture and once observed that in another life she would have chosen to be a biologist, working with the generosity of plants, “the only form of life which manufactures its own food … creating energy and releasing it.”2
This article was commissioned by John Plotz.