Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Bessie Head: Some Notes on Novel Writing

Bessie Head
"Twenty-seven years of my life was lived in South Africa but I have been unable to record this experience in any direct way, as a writer.  A very disturbing problem is that we find ourselves born into a situation where people are separated into sharp racial groups.  All the people tend to think only in those groups in which they are and one is irked by the artificial barriers.  It is as though, with all those divisions and signs, you end with no people at all.  The environment completely defeated me, as a writer.  I just want people to be people, so I had no way of welding all the people together into a cohesive whole."

Bessie Head: A Woman Alone (1978).

Comment: I have been reading Bessie Head in the quiet moments this week and I am deeply moved by her ability to capture the struggle to write inside and outside of race/racism.

A few years ago I was struggling to write an academic article on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission when I came across a newly published book by an American author on the subject.

I was struck by the authoritative and confidant manner of the author.  It seemed she was able to dispense with a torrid history to draw relevant dates, outcomes, etc.

I could not set aside the pain, its burn, and found myself mortified by my inability to write my own story, my own history.

A few months into the failed project I looked at my friend and mentor Art Neal and said "I am too close to write what is so important to me.  I have failed me and mine."

He understood.  The trauma and its consequences are not easy to set aside when the journey to come to terms, let alone heal, still pierces so deeply.

This thinking, this theme of struggle and resistance, is perhaps the most striking aspect of the brave writings of Bessie Head.

May she rest in peace.


Picture Credit


Erica said...

Your inability (struggle) to put your life's experiences on paper is understandable. There is so much to relive,and that's what makes your journey so worthy of being told. Reliving those moments, no matter how traumatic is a part of healing.

Begin again Ridwan

pserean said...


Don't be too harsh on yourself- it's the same as the surgeon who can't operate on his child.

Better to be unable to write cos you feel too much, than to watch in eagerness as events unfold, and write to create feeling where there never was.
Sincerity belongs in other places too- not just a page :)

(A real story- a real story is the hardest to write, for even in your truth, you are open to interpretation. But when you struggle to put down that truth, and then have it flung back- or ignored- you don't quite to put it back together again. I know that's one of my blocks....)

Ridwan said...

Hi Erica:

Thanks ever so kindly for your words. And great advice!

It is less hard to write now but easier away from the source.

Most of what Bessie Head wrote came during her time of exile in Botswana. There she was able to make sense (more sense) of South Africa and life inside the apartheid regime.

Sometimes it is easier writing from outside. Maybe less weighty?

Peace to you,

Ridwan said...

Salaams pserean:

Wise words indeed. Thank you.

You are right about truth and writing. Perhaps the distance that Bessie Head points to is that space for (re)interpretation.

It also helps to tell stories in different spaces (different from where it occurred).

It is all so complex but I found a way around my block on the TRC piece.

I started to collaborate and to write about truth and confrontation in a comparative sense.

The differences in struggle made me appreciate the universality of the human condition even more.

Peace to you,