The science of winter: Bessie Head, feminist daughter of the earth, writer and philosopher


With her lotus feet. Milk, and rain clouds gathering is a vision in her indelible psyche. She is barefoot sowed to the shoreline in Port Elizabeth. I fell in love with Maru when I was 16-years-of-age. It marked a turning point in my life. She’s a lifetime ago. Never grew to be a Doris Lessing or Nadine Gordimer. 

Her mind flowed and flowed like the rivers of Babylon. Too much vibrations of forest advancing and captive in her brainwaves. There was for me a kind of inward necessity in her writing. She was like a surgeon with ice in her veins reminding me of the strangeness of my latest grief, and her unfathomable anxieties. Which was always dominant in her writing as much as the episodic loneliness of Jean Rhys in her own books and novels. Whenever I pick up Maru, reread it, I am reminded of John Steinbeck’s The Pearl. The narrative is written in a lavish style, dazzling technique, with straightforward characters in the wretched circumstances of dirt on the ground, rubbish like flowers in the streets kind of poverty-stricken alienation where pigs eat. My father is a piano. Head never grew up knowing her father. She is, was, and always will be my Basquiat. For what she could do with words, was art. Her gift to the world was her artistic vision.

She had a child. She married. She had been at one stage a journalist. I am always asked as a poet, why I am not married, and why I don’t have any children. I think of insomnia, the history of addiction, alcoholism, and suicide in my family and how it is majorly interpreted in my work as more than a human and psychological stain. I have lived like a loafer for most of my adult life. These themes over the capsule of time have informed me as a poet. I was homeless, I stayed at the Salvation Army, I lived in a home for abandoned women and children. I see Head as outcast. I see myself as interloper. Head’s personal torment is my own. Burning in the rain, I write. Living in bittersweet squalor, I write. In love, and falling out of love, I write. I stand at the gateway to hell, marked by the aftertime exploding into life like a volcano, and I write. Bessie Head taught me that the spirit is indestructible, even though the intellect might whither away, and the physical body will decay and sooner, or, later address death. Head’s books were always coming of age stories for me written in a language of a woman who knew, and survived, as much as I do, on the comfort of strangers.  Bessie Head made waves in her time. She used every intellectual opportunity she had in her writings to her full capacity. Her economy of words were land to her, her reforms were the sea to her, the development of the concepts of identity in her books were always rooted in the philosophical. On her rather wasted potential, her infitismal struggles, her mental illness it was like she was very much a seed thief, a savage wolf, and the writing was her prize. She was fragile, but I doubt that she lived with regret near the end of her life. I would go as far as to call her Jean Rhys’ South African twin.

For this is the way of the writer, to capture and express the law of waiting for the price of equilibrium, conflict and balancing out that conflict, and the process of breakthrough that comes with knowledge, divine purpose and meaning in writing about those forward-thinking advances. Head’s intellect always burns me. Both of our childhoods will forever be shrouded in secrecy in the literary community and establishment. Head’s writing illustrates the river walls of her mixed-race heritage and identity. Those walls were pretty much unbending and unyielding. My feet as a poet is to find land. To communicate what I think, and that is my philosophical response to the world, and to artists of the African Renaissance. My poet’s hands must find land and the performance of the sea, for a flower also feels the roots of it’s grief, and those wandering connections are universal. The poet is philosopher. The philosopher is poet. It is impossible to think otherwise. The land is bride and the succession of the  sea knows the difficulties of the groom. And like Moses, Head was a woman writing ahead of her time, vulnerable to decay and invisibility in the wilderness, but like a star she rose from one paradigm shift to the next, ultimately connecting with paradise. Head understood most of all the weariness of the soul, the face of human love, and she was a female writing in the climate of a revolution, an African 

Hemingway, Salinger and Fitzgerald. All poets are connected to the universe, and Bessie Head taught me that we are all philosophers. She had a voice like an arrow, the smell of flowers, opera, an artistic and holistic vision that was an achievement in itself. Now others multiply her logic, and her morale, her moral instinct has translated her work into classics. Now, beyond the looking-glass of post-apartheid South Africa poets have become nomads, and female writers warriors because of Head’s legacy as writer, journalist, feminist, thinker, intellectual and philosopher, and mother and wife. Her books are about confession, my writing too is confessional.

Abigail George
Abigail George
Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominated shortlisted and longlisted poet Abigail George is a recipient of four writing grants from the National Arts Council, the Centre for Book and ECPACC. She briefly studied film, writes for The Poet, is an editor at MMAP and Contributing Writer at African Writer. She is a blogger, essayist, writer of several short stories, novellas and has ventured out to write for film with two projects in development . She was recently interviewed for Sentinel, and the BBC.


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