Bessie Head had a traumatic life. She was born in South Africa in 1937, the illegitimate daughter of a black woman and a white man. She was put into foster care as a child. Her marriage ended in divorce; she lived as a refugee in Botswana for years and died at the young age of 49. But she put her difficult experiences to good use in her fiction and became one of Africa’s best known women writers.
The stories in this collection seem simple on the surface – the language direct and uncluttered – but when you start to think about them, you find that their meaning is complex and elusive. They tend to start and end abruptly, throwing you into and out of the characters’ lives, leaving you to make up your own mind without offering much sense of direction or resolution from the author. It feels like you’re visiting with these people and being given a glimpse of their lives, but the visit leaves you with a strong impression that we can never really know why people do the things they do.
The stories are full of tensions between men and women, tradition and modernity, communal gift economy and capitalism, and between different religious beliefs. A lot of them depict the breakdown of older communal ways of life in the face of encroaching capitalist, western values and the impact this shift has on people, especially woman. ‘Jacob: The Story of a Faith-Healing Priest’ is a particularly good example which brings out these themes and which is critical of both traditional and new ways of living. ‘Witchcraft’ and ‘Snapshots of a Wedding’ are other stories that offer a perspective on this conflict. ‘The Wind and a Boy’ is a profoundly sad story in which the senseless death of a boy at the hands of a member of the new rich civil servant class symbolises the death of a whole way of being and relating.
You can imagine that Head based her work on stories that she heard from local people in Botswana. The tragic tale ‘Looking for the Rain God’ feels like a semi-mythical story that comes out of a community’s real experience. Figures like Galethebege, the devout Christian woman who marries a man who adheres to Setswana religious tradition, and Mma-Moompati, the ‘village saint’, who finally undoes herself by mistreating her daughter-in-law also feel like they have their roots in real village characters. And one of Head’s strengths as a writer is her creation of vivid characters.
My favourite is the title story, ‘The Collector of Treasures’, which is about a woman who has a difficult life and murders her husband, but who somehow always manages to find moments of happiness (treasures) in the pain. The story seems to sum up the attitude of compassion, the (not always happy) sense of acceptance of life as it is, and of people as they are in all their complexity, that characterises Head’s work.
I’ll be interested to read one of her novels.