On Bessie Head’s Tales of Tenderness and Power

Tenderness and PowerNovels 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?

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According to the introduction, all the stories in Tales of Tenderness and Power are “closely rooted in actual events” and can be divided into four groups: those written prior to her move to Botswana; those written during her first and early stay in Serowe; a batch of historical tales written while she worked on Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind; and a final group of five stories in which she looks at people’s ‘roots and identity’.

I look at three stories from the collection.

–  ‘Let me tell a story now …’ opens the collection. Here, the narrator is grappling with whether to tell people she’s writer:

“I used to answer: ‘Oh, I’m a writer’. Which is quite a lie because I’ve hardly written a thing, and I’ve tried but I know I just wouldn’t be able to earn a living by writing.  Working people are earning a living. I won’t truthfully be a writer until I’m earning something from the business””.

Frankly, I don’t know what this writer was worried about.  These days, folks dream a story and poof! they are branding themselves as writers.#Iamwriting.  I’m chuckling through the story when the writer-narrator sneaks in:

“If I had to write one day I would just like to say people is people and not damn White, damn Black.  Perhaps if I was a good enough writer I could still write damn White, damn Black and still make people live.  Make them real.  Make you love them not because of the colour of their skin but because they are important as human beings. “

This. is. Bessie. Head.  Peel it all away to reveal the person. That individual striving to make good. Apparently, she hated labels of any kind – feminist, nationalist, etc.    I’m tempted to connect her individualism to events of her childhood but today is not the day for that!  We don’t know what happens to our narrator-writer but we know that Bessie Head did write as she as described in this passage.  I’m amazed that she was able to encapsulate so clearly the type of writer she wanted to be at age 25.

–  ‘The Woman from America’ is part of a group of seven stories about life and happenings in late 1960s Serowe.  One gets the impression from this group of stories, that Bessie really enjoyed talking with her fellow villagers.  Certainly, she was an avid observer and chronicler of life in Serowe which, in her words was “an enormous village of 33,000 people’.

‘This woman from America married a man of our village and left her country to come and live with him here. She descended on us like an avalanche”.

The arrival of this woman, ‘resolved and unshakeable in herself’ causes the narrator to evaluate her people:

“We are such a lot of queer people in the southern part of Africa.  We have felt all forms of suppression and are subdued.  We lack the vitality, the push, the devil-may-care temperament of the people of the north of Africa.  They do things first, then we.  We are always going to be confederators and not initiators.”

A very kind view of some; in any event, forty-seven years later and we are all confederators!

Most stories about African-Americans in Africa that are written by Africans tend to examine how the newcomer struggles to fit into her new African surroundings.  The new arrival is always at a disadvantage.  Not this visitor,  because essentially the inhabitants of the village are beaten down by fear of authority. The narrator’s philosophy is thus:

“Either the woman is unreasonable or authority is unreasonable, and everyone in his heart would like to admit that authority is unreasonable.  In reality the rule is: if authority does not like you then you are the outcast and humanity associates with you at its peril.  So try always to be on the right side of authority, for the sake of peace.”

(Priceless!  Lately, we’ve made an art of staying on the right side of authority because of peace. We, the citizens of Africa, sold our voice for betrayal and misrule from Africa’s leaders and power brokers.  That’s the deal we’ve made with authority. )

The woman from America’s backstory is familiar.  She’s an African-American who has no time to spare for America’s ills.  But while Head spends some lines on America, she brings the focus back to the narrator, the woman from America and their unlikely friendship.

“My small hut-house is full of short notes written in a wide sprawling hand.  I have kept them all because they are a statement of human generosity and the wide carefree laugh of a woman who is busy as women the world over about things women always entangle themselves in – a man, children, a home.”

These utterly domestic and hilarious notes show that life is more or less the same whether here or there. That it’s one’s attitude and outlook that matters:

“The woman from America loves both Africa and America, independently. She can take what she wants from us both and say: ‘Dammit!’ It is a difficult thing to do.”

–  Brille, ‘The Prisoner who Wore Glasses’ is a member of Span One, a work group of political prisoners who have managed to intimidate all their white wardens:

“ As political prisoners they were unlike the other prisoners in the sense that they felt no guilt nor were they outcasts of society…  Up until the arrival of Warder Hannetjie, no warder had dared beat any member of Span One.  The battle was entirely psychological.  Span One had got out of control.  They were the best thieves and liars in the camp.. And since they moved, thought and acted as one, they had perfected very technique of group concealment.”

The feeble Brille, who joined the Struggle more or less to escape the chaos of his large family stands up to the authority of  Hannetjie ‘a simple, primitive brutal soul’.  This leads to weeks of utter misery and hunger for Span One until Brille catches Hannetjie stealing fertiliser.  Brille, realising that Hannetjie is ‘just a child and stupidly truthful’, reports the warder to his superiors and consequently, Hannetjie is fined a large sum and is duly compromised as the group’s warder.  Span One can do as it wishes as Brille brazenly taunts and humiliates Hannetjie.

The warder complains, he will do anything for Brille and Span One to cease the humiliation.  But all Span One wants is a ‘good warder because without a good warder, we won’t be able to manage the long stretch ahead”.

“Warder Hannetjie interpreted this request in his own fashion and his interpretation of what was good and human often left the prisoners of Span One speechless with surprise.  He had a way of slipping off his revolver and picking up a spade and digging alongside Span One… and Span One responded nobly and got the reputation of being the best work span in the camp.”

This story of prisoners humanizing a warder is based on actual events.

Over and over again, Bessie Head stresses that the actions of individuals is just as powerful and important as those of authority and power.  While she condemns the excesses and abuses of power, her gaze does not stay for long on authority in this collection.  She urges us to consider our actions and to act from a place of tenderness. She makes much of the individual’s power and character.

Such a view is not popular now, if it ever was. We tend to blame power and authority for everything that is wrong on this continent and perhaps that’s apt.  However, we also expect the same power and authority to change and make everything right. Bessie Head’s point is that power will not change but the individual has power to change authority. The individual has the power to triumph.

Bessie Head’s view recalls Lucille Clifton’s poem ‘won’t you celebrate with me”, especially the line:

“..come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.”

I like to think that Bessie Head’s compassion and humanity triumphed over the many attempts to destroy her.

Tales of Tenderness and Power is superb; I’m not just saying that because short stories are the thing!  I value it also because it reveals Bessie’s appreciation for Botswana and its people. She could have written exclusively about South Africa while living in Botswana. But she didn’t for Botswana was her home.

I recommend Tales of Tenderness and Power to new and old Bessie Head readers.

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6 comments

  1. A powerful and passionate review, Kinna. When I read this collection I was intrigued by The Woman From America and The Lovers. Bessie’s sense of humour shines through, as well as her love for her adopted home. I must admit that A Question of Power had me floundering. Now, with better appreciation of her personality, I shall go back to it.

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  2. Kinna, good.I think I have learnt more about Bessie Head from the post… I love her novels but I get the impression that her short stories give me a much more intimate view of her…I do not know if you’ve read or seen Collector of Treasures.

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  3. Kinna you’ve dissected the selected pieces. This collection actually brings out Bessie’s unique way of seeing things and of writing. Your views on the American Woman is great. It’s so true and the power angle to her writings. It is exceedingly rewarding that I read this book.

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