Bessie Head is regarded as one of South Africa’s most beloved writers. Born Bessie Amelia Emery, 6 July 1937, in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal, she wrote novels, short stories, and even worked as a journalist and teacher at one time.
Bessie is often known as one of Botswana’s most influential writers given that this is the place where she penned some of her greatest works.
Born in apartheid South Africa, times were not always kind to her. Following a failed marriage with journalist and Liberal Party member Harold Head, an earlier suicide attempt and hospitalisation, and a rising violent hostility between the government and liberation movements, Bessie was determined to get out.
In 1964, she packed her belongings, and with her young son, Howard, headed for Serowe, Botswana (then Bechuanaland Protectorate) after receiving a teaching post at Tshekedi Khama Memorial Primary School. She had been denied a passport from the South African government due to her political involvement with the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) and was forced to accept a one-way exit permit.
“Margaret Cadmore – Bessie’s childhood warden at then St Monica’s Diocesan Home for Coloured Girls – is her shining light. (Cadmore) told her she should be a teacher. That it would save her,” actress Denise Newman told Athlone News in between performances at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival.
Newman is playing Bessie in a newly scripted play, As Ever, Bessie, a collaboration between Newman and writer and director Bobbie Fitchen.
The play takes place in the 1970s during a chance encounter between Bessie and a stranger in the Nairobi Airport. Alongside Newman, Ntombi Makhutshi – known for her role in London Road, plays the fictional character of Dr Caroline Nandi Habib.
“A lot of what we have is based on fact,” said Newman. “Most of her books have an autobiographical (feel),” she said.
A goal in Fitchen’s writing was to maintain the autobiographical essence found in Bessie’s writing and pull from fact to create the storyline.
After many, many drafts, the show opened fruitfully on Bessie’s birthday on July 6. Newman said: “This has been our first audience reaction and it has been successful.
“The play touches on the heart of Bessie’s life. Bessie was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the 1970s and struggled with mental illness and emotional fragility for most of her life. The show presents a discussion on the truths of mental illness and illustrates the issues of racism and sexual abuse.
“There is a big stigma against mental illness and sexual violence and rape,” said Newman. She said that people do not want to talk about these subjects, but that “we have to dialogue about it.”
Growing up in a segregated South Africa and living a life in exile in Botswana, Bessie had lost some sense of identity and belonging.
“That plagued her whole life, where does she belong?” said Newman.
However, Newman said that Bessie felt her life belonged in Botswana. It was not easy for her though, it took Bessie 15 years to gain Botswana citizenship. She never gave up.
“As a person it is important to tell stories about women who resonate with me,” said Newman. “I always find these women who I want to portray… extraordinary people.”
The purpose of the show is not to critique Bessie’s writing, but to understand why Bessie was emotionally fragile. She was known as being quite a volatile woman at times as she struggled with her shifting mental state.
Through it all, Bessie wrote from a positive perspective, rather than a negative one said Newman.
She had a way of talking about good and evil, but through her understanding of the human condition.
“She undercuts everything. She doesn’t talk about her schizophrenia as an issue,” said Newman.
She explained that through her discovery of Bessie, she realised Bessie had a way of undermining hardships in her life and pulling through them. She was a child born out of wedlock and adultery, she was born in a mental hospital, her mother committed suicide when she was a child and she was thrown into a system of foster care as an orphan, but all the while she did not give in and kept her perseverance in life.
Bessie died at the age of 48 on 17 April 1986 from hepatitis while living in her new home of Botswana.
“We have to remember her,” said Newman. “Literature doesn’t die”. She hopes the show will get people interested in Bessie again.
When I ask why she thought it is important to bring to life the stories of South African women of colour, Ms Newman said, “It’s a sense of pride, a sense of ownership.
“They call us the coloured people,” she said, “I hate the term, actually.”
Newman said, “In the middle of this black-white issue, there is this mixed race… It is not just a white-black issue.”
Touching back on Bessie and her place in history, Newman said: “There were brilliant and not so brilliant people. There were people who we should honour… They have a rightful place.”
* “I am building a stairway to the stars. I have the authority to take the whole of mankind up there with me. That is why I write.” – Bessie Head.