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English 379: Bessie Head: The African Griot(te), Associate Professor of English Linda-Susan Beard

The intimate and sometimes life-changing connection a scholar feels for her subject is often replicated in the course “Bessie Head: An African Griot(te),” wherein students are not only exposed to the South African author’s oeuvre and extant critical theory about her books, but are given some access to Head’s voluminous personal correspondences. Brought to the classroom by Linda-Susan Beard, these letters represent the “literary remains” of one of Africa’s most prominent writers, who died in 1986 from hepatitis. She was 49 years old.

Reading for the course begins with Head’s fiction (written in English)—novels and short stories read in chronological order of production. Students write reaction papers about these works, which form the basis for weekly seminar discussions. Along with these primary sources, students study the burgeoning scholarship on Head, as well as other literary critics such as HE9lE8ne Cixous, Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha, who posit theories about post-colonial literature such as Head’s.

Selected Works by Bessie Head

The Cardinals: with Meditations and Stories. Cape Town: David Philip, 1993 (post., c1962). Ed. by M. J. Daymond.

When Rain Clouds Gather. New York: Simon, 1968.

Maru. London: Victor Gollancz, 1971.

A Question of Power. London: Davis-Poynter, 1973.

A Bewitched Crossroad: An African Saga. New York: Paragon House Pub., 1986 (post., c1984).

Tales of Tenderness and Power. Johannesburg; London: Ad. Donker; Heinemann, 1989 (post.).

Other writing
Serowe: Village of the Rainwind. London: Heinemann, 1981.

A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings. London: Heinemann, 1990. Ed. by Craig Mackenzie (post.).

A Gesture of Belonging: Letters From Bessie Head, 1965-1979. London; Johannesburg: SA Writers Witwatersrand UP, 1991. Ed. by Randolph Vigue (post.)

But students’ understanding and analyses of these “readings” of Head are deepened by their contact with her letters—sometimes to the extent that students find the theorists awry in their summations.

“My students have some access to the 2000-item extant Bessie Head correspondence that I’m editing for publication,” says Beard. “One important question raised by the availability of this material is how it colors and shapes the students’ reading. We’ll be able to test the importance of access to what constitutes unmediated autobiographical writing.

“One of the fascinating things for me this semester,” says Beard, “was that the students were reading lots and lots of articles about Bessie Head, but often critiquing the critics when those critics made assumptions that were problematic or faulty, or when the students had a better sense of what was going on with Bessie’s work because they had read her correspondence. They’d say, ‘this is a powerful misreading.’

“Most Head scholars have not read the letters,” Beard continues. “In fact, there are only 35 people who have seen them. So my students constitute one-sixth of the people who have read them. That makes them a very elite group.”

Head lived and wrote in poverty in Botswana, her adopted home. Born in South Africa in 1937 to a white mother and black father, Head was taken from her mother and raised by foster parents until she turned 13 and attended missionary school, eventually becoming a teacher. She abandoned that, though, after a few years, and began writing articles for the Golden City Post. By 1964, the oppressions and weight of apartheid for this mixed-race woman finally pushed her to apply for and accept a one-way visa to Botswana. She was never to return to South Africa, though her fiction is lush with the political, emotional and psychological traumas of life under apartheid.

From left: Muska Nassery '06, Emily J. Madsen '06, and Associate Professor Linds-Susan Beard in the course The African Griot(te) at English House. The term "griot" or "griotte" comes from Francophone Africa, and refers to the chroniclers of a village, the keepers and disseminators of a tribe's history.

Head was able to build and maintain contact with a vast community of writers, publishers and readers through her diligent correspondences. When she died, her friend and curator of the Khama II Memorial Museum in Serowe, Ruth Forchhammer, convened a committee to set about preserving all the documents Head had created, which were in her house in the village of Serowe. The documents—drafts and recipes and other personal writing—reside in the museum, but access is limited to those with a PhD who must make lengthy application to the Office of the President of Botswana. Beard shipped photocopies of more than 2,000 of the letters back to Bryn Mawr because she wanted to give readers, and her students, the unmediated experience of Head’s writing. The letters are being combed through by a select group of students and Beard for inclusion in her forthcoming book, Shifting Sandscapes. Each of the students, Laine Edwards ’06, Holly Gaiman ’07, Emily J. Madsen ’06, Muska Nassery ’06, Kate Stein ’07, and Kim Wells ’06, and Katharine Barnes Lafois ’98, will contribute an essay to Beard’s second book project, A Cloud of Witnesses. “It’s a privilege to work with such smart, eager, insightful, reflective, earnest young scholars,” Beard says. “And I need them because I have no distance from Bessie, and they know it.”

For the course, which Beard has taught for several semesters but only recently been able to add the correspondence component, students write a 20-25 page seminar essay. Will their work become part of the body of Head scholarship?

“Absolutely,” says Beard.

                                   —Robin Parks

For more about the Head correspondence project, visit news/2005-01-20/head.shtml.    

So far away

At the end of every semester, Associate Professor of English Linda-Susan Beard makes the 14-hour drive home to her monastic community in a “village” in Michigan, the Emmaus Monastery and Retreat Center of Vestaburg, which Beard founded with a colleague in 1984. Though Beard had originally hoped to become a cloistered Carmelite nun, she was instead counseled to establish a Roman Catholic community that embraced a unique apostolate of “contemplation in action.” For Beard, this means continued work to bring South Africa’s premier woman writer, Bessie Head, to an American audience and to expand the scholarship on Head so that the world recognizes the twin gifts of political analyses and literary beauty found in Head’s fiction and other writings.

Beard first met Head in 1977 on the written page as a student at Bennington. She was reading Doris Lessing, a white Northern Rhodesian who wrote about the political and ideological impact of apartheid.

“I began to ask, what might Lessing have in common with folks on the other side of those rules?” says Beard. Her attention turned toward Head, and by the time she was a doctoral candidate at Cornell, Beard had already given papers on Lessing and Head, and then eventually solely on Head. “I thought of it as sort of a hobby,” she says. Beard’s advisor finally suggested she switch from the Thomas Hardy dissertation she had been working on to focus on Lessing, which Beard did, graduating in 1979. She took a teaching position at Notre Dame, but “I was talking to my students about a culture I didn’t really know. I kept asking myself, can I be authentically a scholar in South African literature without every having been to South Africa?”

Beard left the classroom and made the long journey to Africa to interview writers whose work was banned or considered dangerous. She had written to Head but received a response that colleagues convinced her was lukewarm, so meeting the author she so loved was not to happen until 1982, when, as part of a Rockefeller Humanities Fellowship Project titled “The Human Cost of Apartheid,” Beard traveled to Botswana to interview Head, who died four years later.

“It’s a 16-hour flight to Johannesburg,” says Beard, “where you wait for a 1-hour flight to Gabs [Gabarone, the capital of Botswana]. I drove a stick-shift five hours from Gabs to Serowe, Bessie’s village, through military checkpoints and the Kalahari desert, only to find out Bessie was in the capital giving a speech. So I drove all the way back.”

As they sat in Head’s hotel room, Head described to Beard what her life had been like for the 27 years she spent in South Africa: “the poverty-stricken slum dweller, the feeling that there was no way in which you could look around and breathe and feel the air. ... it was so stressed, so stressed.” This fueled Head’s desire to find “a society where the African experience is continuous and unbroken.” She found such a place as an exile in the Botswanan village of Serowe. “Village life,” she says, “is particularly enchanting.”

As Beard heads back to her monastic village for the summer, her plans include a side trip to King’s College of Wilkes-Barre to receive an honorary doctor of humane letters degree, conferred upon Beard for “the integration of the contemplative and the intellectual.”

“The heart of contemplation,” says Beard, “is listening. I ask my students to approach texts contemplatively, to listen. I left Bessie’s room with a sense of awe about her, about who she was, all the suffering of her past. She was trying to bond with Botswana and support her son. The village dubbed her ‘the Cape Gooseberry.’ Cape gooseberries flourish anywhere and are easily transplantable. And they are not sweet.”

For more about Beard’s honorary degree and monastic life, visit



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