Bessie Head: Biography, Short Stories & Books

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby

Kaitlin has a BA in political science and extensive experience working in the business world as Director of Marketing and Business Development at a financial advice firm.

This lesson details the life of the African writer, Bessie Head, and her work, including her short stories and her books. Read the lesson and take the quiz!

Living in Between

Writers traditionally pull from their life experiences to produce their work. The ideas and personality of the writer are spread on the page to be interpreted by the reader. Even if the experience is painful for the writer, their personal journey is what makes the work meaningful for the reader.

In South America, Gabriel Garcia Marquez used magical realism to craft a story that would represent the unrest he grew up with. In the United States, William Faulkner utilized his experience with racial tension in the South to produce his work. Charles Dickens turned his life's work with social reformation into novels that are still read today. In the case of Bessie Head, her novels reflected a life set in Africa's racially tense culture, where she was not seen as either black or white. Her feelings about her family, adopted country, and even herself are evident in the pages of her work.


Bessie Emery Head was born in South Africa in 1937. Her mother was a member of a prominent family, suffered from mental illness, and was white, while her father was a black servant in her maternal family's household. Their relationship was illegal in South Africa at the time of Head's birth, and she was sent into foster care as a baby.

Head trained to become a teacher and taught for a few years, but her true passion was found in writing. Along with writing for various newspapers in Cape Town, Head developed an interest in South African politics, something that eventually led to her being arrested.

Head's life was constantly in a state of flux. She suffered from a depressive personality, and she often experienced financial problems. Head married her husband Harold Head in 1961, and they had a son, also named Harold, in 1962. Soon after, her marriage was on the rocks, and when she and her son were given visas for neighboring Botswana, Head left her marriage and South Africa for good to teach in Serowe.

There, Head taught and worked on a farm, gathering information for her books. She gained citizenship fifteen years after moving to Botswana, and was considered a refugee until that point. Towards the end of her life, she began to exhibit signs of mental illness. She died in 1986 at the age of 48 as a result of hepatitis.

Bessie Head
Bessie Head

Books and Short Stories

Bessie Head began a career as a journalist in 1958 after teaching for several years. This started her interest in writing as a career, and she delved deeper into politics, a contributing factor toward her leaving for Botswana in 1964.

It was in Botswana that Head found her voice, and the inspiration for her work. Her novels, including When Rain Clouds Gather, Maru, and A Question of Power, as well as her book of short stories, The Collector of Treasures, were all developed from her time spent teaching and working on a farm.

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