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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

A Question of Power (1973) Bessie Head


Book Review
A Question of Power (1973)
 Bessie Head

   Bessie Head is the most well known novelist from the southern African country of Botswana.  Her back story is incredible, born in 1938, the result of what they then call a "union" between a wealthy white South African woman and a black African.  Head's mother was quickly and decisively sent to a mental institution and she may or maynot have been insane as well.  It's unclear what actually happened to Head's mother.  Head came of age in South Africa where she briefly married an African political activist and got on the bad side of the South African government.  She left, permanently, for Botswana and A Question of Power is a work of biographical fiction about a mixed-race woman living in super-African Botswana, while struggling with the burden of mental illness.

 The description of  Elizabeth, the protagonist/Head character's repeated descent into the throes of mental illness is astonishing.  It's hard to make an accurate diagnosis- Botswana, at the time of A Question of Power has one western trained psychiatrist, who sees the institutionalized Elizabeth early on in the book, once, and dismisses her as "difficult."  Elizabeth is outsider in multiple senses: She's half white, which is essentially unheard of in Botswana.  She is educated, though Botswana in the 1960's and 70's was not the place for rarified discourse, especially for women.  Head's Elizabeth is a woman without family, without anyone, living, essentially at the end of the Earth.  A Question of Power is an extraordinary achievmant in that regard- almost impossible to imagine it being written, let alone published, though I suppose simply receiving something by a Botswanan author writing in English would be enough to get a review for publication.

  The fact that Head wrote this book while she herself struggled with similar mental health issues is enough to make the most cynical reader just stop and consider.   I think the way the literature from the post-colonial global south has developed, the conflict between western-intellectual psychology and non-western cultures either already has taken or will take center stage.  A Question of Power, written in 1973 in a trail-blazer.

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