Gradually Bessie Head is becoming my most read author. It all started after the Writers Project of Ghana held its twitter discussion on her book A Question of Power. I had earlier read the book (and two others: A Woman Alone and Maru), even before it was chosen and had had it reviewed on this blog. However, the discussion got me thinking about that woman, her beautiful spirit, her audacious writings, and her sense of humour even in the midst of dire adversity. Thus, I picked three of her books, including Tales of Tenderness and Power and When Rain Clouds Gather.
The Cardinals with Meditations and Short Stories (1993; 141) contains a novella and seven short stories and meditations. It is a story about the effects of racial discrimination and how it breaks down families and flings their members about to the ways of the storms of life. In The Cardinals, set in South Africa, not only are the lives of the natives battered by poverty and destroyed by lack, politics, and racial discrimination and abuse, but even within the blacks there is a class system. The semi-privileged blacks do not commingle with the pool of blacks sprawling in their polythene littered slums. They think of themselves as better, perhaps next after the white folks. Johnny a young man, who himself had to escape the negative influences which emanates from such surroundings from people struggling to make a living at all cost, finds himself fall in love with a girl of such privileged class. This relationship resulted in a pregnancy. But the girl's parents had a different life for her; she must marry within her class and the pregnancy must be hidden from Johnny and the baby given up for adoption.
Years later Mouse (or Miriam) finds herself in a newsroom as a reporter where she met Johnny. The two became close, though the relationship was an uneasy one; their conversation was filled with tension but also with love. Mouse who had moved from the slum into several foster homes and had tutored herself had developed into an extreme introvert and it is the effect of what her environment had done to her that Johnny had to contend with.
Some of stories in the meditations and short stories section are poetic in their rendering. They capture Bessie Head's feelings towards Africa; her hatred or dislike for politicians and religion. It also shows her practical approach to life, cutting through problems and difficult situations with her razor-sharp logic. They are also about her inner struggles of self-discovery, her purpose in life, and above all her unwillingness to be controlled, that is an inward search for freedom that would manifest outwardly in her freedom to exist and choose.
However, the meditations and the short stories also alluded to her loneliness and her loveless life and her brief contact with love. She yearned for something but that thing was far away from her. She wanted love and her internal conflicts. Bessie talked about her relationship with a man who himself lives a double life and who wanted their relationship to be kept secret, and though she loved this man completely, she complied. She described him as
a man who has great need of their bodies, yet being so intensely proud, he cannot bear to be a slave of the sex organs. There is in him a vicious pleasure in forming a relationship with a woman and then abruptly and ruthlessly destroying it. [Where is the Hour of the Beautiful Dancing of Birds in the Sun-wind?, 132]
The point of convergence between the novella and the meditations (or short stories) is the commonality in the traits, experiences, struggles, and expectations between Mouse (Miriam) and Bessie Head.
The writing in this is uniquely Bessie Head. It has all the metaphors and her keen sense of observation. She showed acute understanding of people and her environment. Her hatred for labels also came through. She disliked being bogged down by them. However, if there should be any label, then it should be of her making or choice.
Who am I? What am I? In past and present, the answer lies in Africa; in part it lies within the whole timeless, limitless, eternal universe. How can I discover the meaning and purpose of my country if I do not first discover the meaning and purpose of my own life? Today there are a thousand labels. One of them is 'crazy crank'. I do not mind being a 'crazy crank', as long as I am sure that I am a crank of my own making, as long as I resist environmental, societal, and political attempts to control and suppress my mind. [A Personal View of the Survival of the Unfittest, 127]
The meditations are Bessie's personal views of the world and of its issues. And any Bessie fan could include this into Bessie's works. However, I enjoyed the meditations (short stories) better than the novella. The turn of phrase is surprising and there are several beautiful lines in there. A recommended reading.