As a mixed-race woman living in South Africa during the Apartheid, Bessie Head felt severe inner conflict. Interracial relationships were illegal and the c0lour of Bessie’s skin led to harsh treatment as a child from foster families and authorities. Bessie continued to notice stark societal divisions throughout her early career, too. When working in Cape Town, factors such as language, skin tone, and economic status separated people rigidly.
Bessie started to use her voice in the political sphere. Joining the Pan-African Congress in 1960, mass protest became a way to unite with others against the law requiring Black people to carry passes. However, violent political conflict and deprivation rendered South Africa a place where Bessie could not survive.
Hence, Bessie struggled to feel a sense of belonging long before becoming a refugee. She once wrote that she ‘survived precariously without a sense of roots, without a sense of history’. This vivid image of being disconnected from the soil of her home nation is one which Bessie explores throughout her novels. The natural landscape and its crop cycles of abundance and scarcity becomes an apt metaphor for the instability of displacement. Indeed, the grounds of your heritage can drastically affect what you will reap in life.
‘When Rain Clouds Gather’, for example, opens with the protagonist about to cross the border between South Africa and Botswana to escape racial discrimination. Many social institutions failed Bessie throughout her life, from mental health care to the asylum process. However, Bessie’s provoking literature is testament to her strong willpower to claim her own space where she could influence people. Undeniably, Bessie faced intersectional barriers of race, class, and gender. Yet in writing she felt power, claiming that ‘I write because I have authority from life to do so’.
Isabelle is a second year English Language and Literature student at Oxford University. She researched and wrote this article as part of the Oxford University Micro Internship programme.