Head, Bessie Amelia (1937–1986) By MacKenzie, Craig
Novelist, short-story and non-fiction writer Bessie Head was born in a Pietermaritzburg psychiatric institution, her white mother Bessie Amelia Emery (née Birch), who had had a long history of mental illness, having unexpectedly become pregnant (the identity of Head’s black father has never been discovered). Head grew up in foster care until the age of 13; thereafter the welfare authorities placed her in an Anglican mission orphanage in Durban. In 1961 she met and married fellow journalist Harold Head in Cape Town; their only child, Howard, was born in 1962. After the break-up of her marriage in 1964 she relinquished South African citizenship and took up a teaching post in Serowe, Botswana. Plagued by ill health and mental instability, she died in Serowe with six published works to her name and an international reputation as one of Africa’s foremost woman writers.
Head’s first novel, When Rain Clouds Gather (1968), deals in predominantly realist fashion with the flight from South Africa of a young black political activist, his resettlement in Botswana and marriage to a Batswana woman. Her second novel, Maru (1971), which derives its name from its eponymous central character, is an altogether more complex work.