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Africa , African Feminism, Literature, South Africa

“Tales of Tenderness and Power”

From Kinna Reads a celebration of Bessie Head  – ..

Novels get all the love.  Among Bessie Head’s novels, A Question of Power certainly hogs most of the (deserving) attention. But Ms. Head also wrote shorts stories, twenty five of which are collected into the posthumously published Tales of Tenderness and Power.

I love the stories in this collection.  Most importantly, I’ve discovered this:  Bessie Head had a sense of humour!  I smiled a lot when reading this book, even when she looks unflinching at the African condition and writes profound stuff  like :

“Poverty has a home in Africa — like a quiet second skin.  It may be the only place on earth where it is worn with an unconscious dignity.  People do not look down at your shoes which are caked with years of mud and split so that the toes stick out.  They look straight and deeply into your eyes to see if you are friend or foe.  That is all that matters”

This excerpt is from ‘Village People’.  The story’s entire opening page is a gem really. Lines like “Poverty here has majority backing” won’t go down well with the ‘Africa-rising’ crowd!

These tales are so so tender even as Bessie looks at power in its different configurations. (Like the poet here, I’m having a issue with what to call Bessie Head: Bessie, Bessie Head, Ms. Head, oh well).  Her belief in an individual’s ability to express love and good towards his or her fellow human beings even when under extreme dehumanizing conditions gives me comfort.

See, it’s hard to escape the brutal reality and facts of Bessie Head’s life.  Indeed, she drew heavily from her pained life when she wrote three of her novels.  This pain is there for all to read in the powerfully haunting A Question of Power.

Craig Mackenzie, editor of Head’s collection of autobiographical writings, A Woman Alone, asserts:

“Whatever the uncertainties, the task of mapping the life of an author like Bessie Head undoubtedly becomes an investigation into the enigma of human prejudice. For in the process of unravelling the strands of her anguished life story one encounters instances of immense suffering and privation, crippling alienation, and perhaps most of all, personal confusion. It is this personal confusion . . . that is at the centre of Bessie Head’s troubled life…”

As Linda Susan Beard* points out, such analysis is ‘essentialized and reductive’.

No, I don’t mean to ignore Bessie’s struggles, her anguish or her pain.  But it gets to a point where one needs to know: was she happy somewhere, sometime?  Did she laugh out loud, often?  There is a picture of Bessie Head with her arms outstretched and she appears to be laughing with abandon.  Where these moments of openness frequent?

I think I found the answers in Tales of Tenderness and Power.  Quite presumptuous of me, but what is an adoring reader to do?

Continue reading on Book Review

More on Bessie Head here