Bessie Head: Thunder Behind Her Ears


It took me about three weeks of careful reading to finish Gillian Stead Eilersen’s Thunder Behind Her Ears – a Bessie Head biography first published in 1995.

It’s seldom that one discovers an African writer independently. A teacher, for example, had to tell me about Tsitsi Dangarembga, and about Wole Soyinka, then about Njabulo Ndebele – the list goes on and on.

But I discovered Bessie Head on my own. I sort of stumbled onto her work, and I stopped to look – and I’ve been looking ever since. I picked up Maru from the Mbabane Public Library, a dog-eared copy I devoured in one afternoon. Only the gods – and, perhaps, the librarian in charge of records – know when that happened, in 2009, maybe.

A week later I read her When Rain Clouds Gather. And my heart was won over: not only had I fallen for Bessie and her stories, I’d fallen for Botswana as well, and her people, especially the villagers.

It’s not a sort of idealised love I’m talking about. I’m no romantic. I mean an appreciation of seemingly new things, of people, their triumphs and struggles, and of an environment foreign and distant. After all these years, the image of Serowe remains etched in my mind. The landscape. The hot summer sun. The dry and naked earth. Old Batswana men with uncombed hair. The evergreen hedge that the goats never ate, and much more. All told with remarkable skill.

Eilersen had to dig deep into Head’s fascinating correspondence with friends to locate the direction of the biography. Of course, she used her published works too. But, obviously, the gold is in the letters. Head swears in there. She weeps. She laughs. She ponders. She observes. And, boy, does she insult!

Bessie Head Typewriter

In the letters you witness a woman fighting courageously through difficulties. In most letters one sees a kind woman; in all, you see a woman faced with the most impossible of struggles ploughing through with an admirable strength and armed with nothing but optimism.

In a letter to a friend, while working on When Rain Clouds Gather, Head writes: “I have had to discipline myself to stay a week on end without food. And yet somehow hold my mind together. There have been days and days when I’ve had to give all the food to my son and then sit up the whole night typing my book. Now and then Naomi sent me ten pounds … There’s nothing like outright hunger over a prolonged period to make you lie back and stare deeply at life. I thought I should grasp this for the future.”

And in another letter: “I don’t think I told you this but my mother’s family locked her up in a mental asylum for sleeping with a black man. I feel they did this to save the family name from scandal and she was in the asylum by the time I was born. I carried this with me for a long time. There is a terrible depth of loneliness in supposed or even evident insanity. There is more. A birth such as I had links me to her in a very deep way and makes her belong to that unending wail of the human heart … I feel she belongs to me in a special way and that there is no world as yet for what she has done. She left me to figure it out.”

Bessie Head was to celebrate her forty-ninth birthday when she died in 1986. Her death came before she could write the autobiography Heinemann had commissioned from her. She’d written and said: “I have ample material for it in notes, in papers, in letters to private friends. There is no sex and love for these 46 years of my life but rather a rich spiritual discipline which I feel now is finally coming into its own. Go ahead and sign [me] up with Heinemann.”

Well, death came first. But it matters not. Eilersen has been kind in her assessment of Head. She did it with the utmost care, love, and generosity of spirit. I treasure Thunder Behind Her Ears. It may well be the best book I have ever spent money on, at least up to this point.

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