Literature Annotations


Head, Bessie
A Question of Power


Genre Novel (206 pp.)
KeywordsAbandonment, Acculturation, Colonialism, Communication, Cross-Cultural Issues, Developing Countries, Freedom, Hospitalization, Human Worth, Individuality, Loneliness, Mental Illness, Narrative as Method, Obsession, Parenthood, Power Relations, Racism, Rebellion, Scapegoating, Sexuality, Suffering, Survival, Women's Health
Summary

In this autobiographical novel, written while the author was under severe mental strain and as she recovered from psychotic breakdown, Head tracks the protagonist Elizabeth’s struggle to emerge from the oppressive social situation in which she finds herself, and from the nightmares and hallucinations that torment her. Elizabeth, like Bessie Head, was conceived in an out-of-wedlock union between a white woman of social standing, and a black man--a union outlawed by her country of birth, South Africa.

Like the author, Elizabeth leaves South Africa with her young son--but without her husband, from whom she is fleeing--to live in neighboring Botswana, a country that has escaped some of the worst evils of colonial domination. But in rural Botswana she is once again faced with a constricting social system as the African villagers are suspicious of her urban ways and frown upon her individualistic behavior. Further, they bear her ill will on racial grounds because she is light skinned like the "bushmen" who are a despised tribe there.

Elizabeth suffers not only social isolation but intellectual deprivation as well. One of the few people with whom she can converse as an intellectual equal is the American peace corps volunteer, Tom, who acknowledges that "men don’t really discuss the deep metaphysical profundities with women" (24). During the four years in which Elizabeth is plagued by tribal suspiciousness, terrifying dreams, economic hardships, and two hospitalizations for mental breakdown, it is Tom, and her own love for and obligation to her young son that help her to survive this ordeal.

Commentary

This remarkable book, written by an important and interesting African woman writer who left her native South Africa in 1964 on an "exit visa" (no return possible) and who was stateless for most of the rest of her life (it was 15 years before Botswana granted her citizenship) can be read on at least two levels. On the one hand, it is an insider description of the mind of a suffering, delusional person. On the other hand, it is an exploration of power relations and political-social evil. By conflating these two levels, Head demonstrates that social evil inflicted on individuals can lead quite literally to madness.

Elizabeth’s mental journey is harrowing (for the reader as well), as she slips in and out between dream, hallucination, and reality. Dan, one of the major hallucinated figures--to whom she is initially much attracted-- torments her with sexual perversions. Elizabeth feels like she is "living inside a stinking toilet; she was so broken, so shattered, she hadn’t even the energy to raise one hand" (14). Dan is a clever manipulator who understands "the mechanics of power" (13). By casting Dan as a native African, Head draws attention to the complex legacy of European colonial domination of Africa.

Bessie Head’s own letters from the period described by the book are useful in elucidating the parallels between A Question of Power and Head’s own experiences and thoughts (A Gesture of Belonging, ed. Randolph Vigne, Portsmouth: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1991). Joyce Johnson’s article, "Metaphor, Myth and Meaning in Bessie Head’s A Question of Power," (World literature written in English, vol. 25, No. 2, Autumn, 1985, pp. 198-211) is helpful in delineating the historic and political significance of Head’s hallucinatory representations.  A more recent paper argues that Head's writing was a "survival strategy" against personal and political threat ("A Living Life, A Living Death: Bessie Head's Writing as a Survival Strategy." Sue Atkinson. Journal of Medical Humanities. Vol.32, No. 4, pp. 269-278, 2011.)

PublisherHeinemann Educational Publishers
Edition1974
Place PublishedPortsmouth, N.H.
Annotated by Aull, Felice
Date of Entry 02/01/99
Last Revised 11/18/11