Bessie Amelia Emery Head, 1937–1986
Bessie Amelia Emery was born at the Fort Napier Mental Institution in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Her mother was a patient at the Institution; her father remains unknown. She was adopted by a “Coloured” family in Pietermaritzburg and believed them to be her real parents. When she was fourteen, she was made a ward of St. Monica’s Anglican Home for Coloured Girls—thus learning abruptly in court that her biological mother had died in a psychiatric hospital. This knowledge and the loss that went with it haunted her for the rest of her life.
Bessie completed secondary school and gained her teaching credentials, but she believed she had a calling to write, and so abandoned the classroom fairly quickly for the uncertain life of a journalist and writer. While in Cape Town in the early 1960s, she worked on her first two novel manuscripts, the first about a jazz musician (the manuscript is now lost) and the second about a “Coloured” female journalist, The Cardinals (1993). In 1961 she met and married the journalist Harold Head, and they had a son, Howard. The marriage was not happy, and in 1963 Bessie left with Howard and accepted permanent exile from South Africa to take up a teaching job in Serowe, Botswana.
In Botswana, Bessie met many refugees, and although she made some attempts to move on, she quickly realized that she would not be able to leave Africa. She moved around in Botswana a bit before settling permanently in Serowe.
Bessie’s first novel, When Rain Clouds Gather (1968), is based on her experiences at the Bamangwato Development Farm at Radisele. Her second novel is Maru (1971), the novel she considered her “most beautiful”. Maru deals with Batswana prejudices against San people, who had been subjugated and enslaved by the ruling Bangwato. Her third novel, A Question of Power (1974), is considered by many critics to be her masterpiece. Bessie’s fictional reworking of her personal experiences presents a very complex picture: a woman is visited by two men who exist in a world not readily accessible to anyone other than herself. While other characters discover evidence of the existence of these two men, only Elizabeth has been chosen to battle with them in order to learn about love.
Before Bessie finished her final novel, A Bewitched Crossroad (1984, about the declaration of the Bechuanaland Protectorate), she conducted interviews to write an oral history of her adopted village. Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (1981) examines three eras in Bangwato history through the impact of three prominent figures. The interviews for this book also produced a collection of short stories, The Collector of Treasures and other Botswana Village Tales (1977).
Bessie received Botswana citizenship in 1979, at around the same time she went to Iowa for the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. After this, she began to be invited abroad more often. She was contracted to write her autobiography but died at age forty-eight, before she could begin.