A living life, a living death: a study of Bessie Head's writings as a survival strategy

Atkinson, Susan D. (1998). A living life, a living death: a study of Bessie Head's writings as a survival strategy. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.00004970


This thesis explores Bessie Head's writing as a survival strategy through which, by transforming her personal experience into imaginative literature, she was able to give meaning and purpose to a life under permanent threat from the dominant groups first in South Africa and later in Botswana. This threat included the destructive effect of the many fixed labels imposed upon her which included: a 'Coloured' woman; the daughter of a woman designated mad; an exile; a psychotic; a tragic black woman, a Third World woman writer. In my view, her endeavours to avoid and defeat such limited and static definitions produced work characterized by contradiction and paradox. In this way she asserted her right to survive and determined, like Makhaya in When Rain Clouds Gather, to establish a 'living life' in place of the 'living death that a man [sic] could be born into' (136 RC). Her preoccupations include her relationship to her absent mother, her feelings about women's sexuality, and her need for love, articulated throughout her writings in terms not only of the threats against her but also the ways in which she empowered herself, and thus survived. I have drawn on a combination of Bessie Head's unpublished letters and papers, her published writings, and relevant critical works in order to show how her writing was the mediating agent which related her preoccupations to her experiences, while also facilitating her ability to survive and finally to transcend the all-pervasive power structures which influenced her life and her sense of self. As she said in the last years of her life (with bitter understatement) ' I am no failure' (20.2.1986 KMM BHP).

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