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A Question of Power by Bessie Head
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A Question of Power (1974)

by Bessie Head

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Bessie Head (1937-1986) was born in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, the product of a relationship between a wealthy white woman and an unknown black man, who was believed to be a farm hand on the family ranch where her mother, Bessie Amelia ("Toby") Emery, lived. Toby was committed to a local mental hospital after her parents learned of her pregnancy, which was taboo in that segregated country. She gave birth to Bessie in this hospital, and as she was deemed to be too mentally ill to raise the child Bessie was sent to live with a white family, who subsequently disowned her after they discovered that she was a "Coloured" (mixed race) girl. Her mother committed suicide after Bessie was taken away from her, so she was placed in a foster care with a black family until she was 13, and then sent to live in a mission orphanage in Durban.

After she earned a teaching certificate she left the orphanage and taught briefly in Durban before she moved to Johannesburg to become a journalist. Her career was marred by racism and sexism, as she was the only female journalist for the publication she worked for. However, her career allowed her to meet members of the Pan Africanist Congress in the early 1960s, who sought the removal of the apartheid system in South Africa and a return to self government by black Africans. She was introduced to her future husband, Harold Head, an anti-apartheid activist, who she married in 1961 and subsequently divorced three years later. She joined the Pan Africanist Congress, and her activities led to her arrest and imprisonment. She sought asylum and left South Africa for neighboring Botswana with her son in 1964. She was accepted as an alien refugee there, on the condition that she would never attempt to return to her home country.

Bessie Head taught and became an agricultural worker in Botswana, but was very lonely and was ostracized in her new surroundings, which led to a nervous breakdown and hospitalization in a mental health facility. She began to write after her release from hospital and slowly gained recognition for her short stories and novels, which allowed her to escape crushing poverty that resulted from her loss of work. Just as she was becoming an acclaimed writer she contracted hepatitis, which led to her premature death at the age of 48.

A Question of Power, which was published in 1973, is a semi-autobiographical novel whose protagonist, Elizabeth, is a mixed race South African who fled to the Botswanan village of Motabeng, where she became a schoolteacher. Elizabeth, like her creator, struggled to fit into Botswanan society, and slowly descended into madness. The narrative features her unusual relationship with two mysterious men, who may or may not be real, and her hallucinatory fantasies are interspersed with her brief lucid periods. The novel can also be viewed as a metaphor for the disturbed state of apartheid South Africa, as well as the effects that this system had on its Black and Coloured residents.

A Question of Power was a disturbing and difficult book to read, as I had a hard time following Elizabeth's schizophrenic thoughts. It is a powerful and inspired work of literature, though, and I do intend to read more of Bessie Head's books, particularly her autobiography A Woman Alone, in the near future. ( )
3 vote kidzdoc | Jan 16, 2017 |
This is a very disturbing book. The narrator is suffering from mental illness, and her narration, obviously, conflates "reality" with her hallucinations (not sure that is the proper medical term). I found quite a bit of the symbolism of her dreams/delusions hard to sort out. However, the narrator, Elizabeth, is a mixed race woman from South Africa who has moved to a village in Botswana. She feels alienated and alone due to her racial and ethnic differences from the local people, many of whom ignore her. In addition, she feels gender oppression as well. It is a difficult book, but certain passages clearly express the frustration of a person without a means of communicating with people around her. One clearly feels her fear and sense of disorientation. ( )
  kaitanya64 | Jan 3, 2017 |
A Question of Power Bessie Head
★★★

Like the author the main character in this book, Elizabeth, is the daughter of a rich white woman and a black stable boy due to this relationship her mother has been committed to a mental institute leaving the mixed race daughter to be raised by a black family in South Africa, the daughter is initially unaware of her true heritage until she starts a new school where the teachers are advised to watch her for signs of mental disturbance like her mother.

Elizabeth marries a man she believes she loves and they have a son together however when he begins to mistreat and cheat on her she decides to take the boy and begin a new life in Botswana, its when she makes this move and becomes a complete outsider that her own mental break down occurs.

The book is split into two sections each section named after a man who will torment Elizabeth mentally, Sello who at first appears to be a good monk but who later is shown to possess evil qualities as well and Dan who is obsessed with sex and with showing Elizabeth how inferior she is by parading an almost unending sequence of other women through her bed.

For me the most interesting sections were the ones where Elizabeth is working towards the community making a vegetable garden and getting a variety of unusual seeds to grow, the break down sections are harrowing and personally I have to confess that images of giant vaginas and penises can really put me off a novel, I understand that sexuality was an important part of her break down however I really don't need the images to be so graphic.
( )
  BookWormM | Jan 15, 2016 |
This is the story of Elizabeth, a biracial South African who immigrates with her young son to post-colonial Botswana, where she never quite fits in with the locals. Displaying obvious signs of mental illness, Elizabeth soon loses her job as a secondary school teacher and devotes herself to a community gardening project. By day, she gardens, and by night, she descends into the depths of madness, via terrifying hallucinatory dream sequences. The hallucinations include a large cast of recurring characters and are directed by two very different figures: Sello, a monk-like character and Dan, a sex-crazed seemingly conscienceless man who Elizabeth initially finds attractive. From what I understand, the events of the novel somewhat mirror Bessie Head's own life experiences.

The hallucinations make up a large chunk of the narrative and Head packs a lot into them. Unfortunately, I don't feel like I quite grasped all of the references. Initially I thought that in addition to representing the personal struggles of a woman grappling with how she fits into her society, as well as dealing with the scars of Apartheid, it also works as some sort of metaphor for the direction that post-colonial African governments were taking at the time and the different power relationships between leaders and the people. Then I got to the end, and was terribly confused again, so I really have no idea. And now I'm so exhausted by this novel that I give up trying to figure it out. Perhaps I'll go read some journal articles.

I do know that it disappoints me somewhat. While I appreciate what I think the author is trying to do, I'm just not sure it's wildly successful. I've read some outstanding insanity/mental breakdown narratives in recent years - namely, Faces in the Water, In the Heart of the Country, and The Salt Eaters - and A Question of Power lacks the effortless flow of those three novels, where in them I feel whisked away on a crazy head journey where, while I'm not precisely sure what is going on, I'm left with unforgettable and undeniable impressions. So, this is certainly not bad, but I don't enthusiastically recommended it either. And, of course, it could just be me not quite grasping the thing. I don't know. ( )
1 vote DorsVenabili | Aug 1, 2014 |
A frightening dive into insanity, The reader is invited into her mind where the fight between good and evil is played out on a grand scale and the line between reality and imagination blurs. It's not a comfortable book but seemed a true depiction and was well written. ( )
  snash | Mar 5, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
Bessie Head (1937-1986) was born in a mental hospital in South Africa to a white mother. Her father was, presumably, a black stable hand. A Question of Power narrates a story of Elizabeth, with similar background. After a series of foster homes and receiving a colonial education in a missionary school, Elizabeth like Head in her time, takes an exit visa to Botswana to escape a bad relationship and the Apartheid-ridden South Africa. In A Question of Power the single mother migrant’s efforts to settle in a new country and community are interwoven with in experience of intense poverty and a mental breakdown.
 
This remarkable book, written by an important and interesting African woman writer who left her native South Africa in 1964 on an "exit visa" (no return possible) and who was stateless for most of the rest of her life (it was 15 years before Botswana granted her citizenship) can be read on at least two levels. On the one hand, it is an insider description of the mind of a suffering, delusional person. On the other hand, it is an exploration of power relations and political-social evil. By conflating these two levels, Head demonstrates that social evil inflicted on individuals can lead quite literally to madness.
 
This amazing novel was written by South African Bessie Head in 1974. Like the novel's protagonist, Elizabeth, Head was a schoolteacher with a failed marriage who eventually made her home in Botswana. A Question of Power picks up Elizabeth's story as she moves to Botswana and begins a four-year battle with undiagnosed schizophrenia.
 

» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Bessie Headprimary authorall editionscalculated
Visser, LoesTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
Only man can fall from God

Only man.

That awful and sickening endless, sinking

sinking through the slow, corruptive

levels of disintegrative knowledge...

the awful katabolism into the abyss!


D.H. Lawrence: From a poem: 'God'
Dedication
For Randolph Vigne and Christine Hawes, Ken and Myrna Mackenzie, and for Bosele Sianana, with love
First words
It seemed almost incidental that he was African.
Quotations
'We have a full docket on you. You must be very careful. Your mother was insane. If you're not careful you'll get insane just like your mother. Your mother was a white woman. They had to lock her up, as she was having a child by the stable boy, who was a native.'
She wasn't sure if it applied elsewhere, but she was essentially a product of the slums and hovels of South Africa. People there had an unwritten law. They hated any black person among them who was 'important'. They would say, behind the person's back: 'Oh, he thinks he's important', with awful scorn. She has seen too many people despised for self-importance, and it was something drilled into her: be the same as others in heart; just be a person.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0435907204, Paperback)

It is never clear to Elizabeth whether the mission school principal's cruel revelation of her origins is at the bottom of her mental breakdown. She has left South Africa with her son and is living in the village of Motabeng, the place of sand, in Botswana where there are no street lights at night.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:08 -0400)

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