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Bessie Head

Considered to be the most important Botswanian author, her work lets readers feel the beat of African history and its traditions, as well as her commitment to social change, freedom and peace.

"I´m building a set of stairs that leads to the stars. That´s why I write."

Bessie Head, one of Africa´s most famous authors, was born in South Africa in 1937. She was born to a wealthy South African woman and a black servant in an era when interracial relationships were prohibited in that country. Due to her mother´s mental illness, the writer lived with a host family until the age of 13, and she then studied at a mission school before being trained to become a teacher.

After spending several years in the field of education, she decided to work as a journalist for the Golden City Post. Her ties to literature became increasingly closer: she experimented with poetry and fiction, and published her first story in The New African. However, this apparent calmness would come to an end. A failed marriage with the journalist Harold Head (with whom she had a son), a deep depression and the repressive South African regime led her to flee Botswana in 1964.

Despite the occasional financial aid from friends, the author lived in absolute poverty, forcing her to live in a refugee camp with her son. Her luck changed when a New York editorial offered her to write a novel, When Rain Clouds Gather (1969), in which she tells about the era she lived as a refugee. This book was met with positive reviews from critics, which encouraged her to continue her literary career with Maru (1971).

After living in the country that adopted her for 15 years, the Botswanian government began proceedings to require her to return to South Africa. This situation, along with psychiatric problems inherited from her mother, led her to be admitted to psychiatric institutions, although she continued writing, creating some of the works that are considered amongst the most important of African literature in English. During this time, she wrote the intense autobiographical book titled A Question of Power (1973), which received the immediate applause of critics and international respect.

The Collector of Treasures (1977) was her first collection of short stories, which was followed by Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (1981), an original historical portrait of the Botswanian community´s 100 years; A Bewitched Crossroad (1984), a collection of her autobiographical writings, and Tales of Tenderness and Power (1990), a moving selection of unpublished works (published posthumously).

Her premature death in 1986 at the age of 49 came at the moment when she began to be recognised and abandon the state of poverty in which she had always lived.


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