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The Trauma of Exile, the World Elsewhere: Bessie Head and the Southern African Experience in When Rain Clouds Gather, Maru and A Question of Power

posted on 2023-09-01, 14:43 authored by Joshua Agbo
The study aims to explore the black-on-black hostility, which is an important but critically neglected aspect of Bessie Head’s fiction. For example, while there are numerous scholarly studies on feminism, post-coloniality, and exile in Head’s novels, there has been a reluctance to address the sensitive issue of relations between different non-white ethnic groups in the post-colonial society she writes about. The study examines the nature of identity politics, migration, inter-ethnic power relations, and trauma in Bessie Head’s novels When Rain Clouds Gather (1969), Maru (1971), and A Question of Power (1973), with the main research questions being: 1. How does Head address identity politics, power/gender relations, migration and exile in relation to black-on-black tribal prejudice in post-colonial Africa? 2. How do the novels portray the shifting dynamics of home and belonging in both South Africa and Botswana? By drawing on my concept of exilic compromise, this study explores the way Makhaya in When Rain Clouds Gather and Elizabeth in A Question of Power are ironically forced to learn to live with a version of what they flee from in South Africa. Margaret in Maru, the victim of black-on-black tribal prejudice against the San (Bushmen), is not literally an exile, but makes her own hopeful journey to “a world elsewhere” at the end of the novel, though we are not shown the kind of compromises she might have to make in the future. The study uses primary and secondary sources to gather different responses to the issues under investigation. An examination of different critical views on the topics summarised above provides some understanding of different theories of exile, particularly within the larger South African context. The experience of the racial prejudice and violence in both apartheid South Africa and Botswana is psychologically difficult for most of Head’s characters to handle and, in the case of Elizabeth in A Question of Power, leads to the trauma of actual mental breakdown. The study comes to the conclusion that Head’s characters are in constant search of a home in a world elsewhere, and never end up where they began. This suggests a heavy sense of loss, particularly the loss of homeland. However, her characters are more focused on the possibilities of progress in Botswana than on the home they leave behind, so the trauma of exile is not the end-point of her novels and the black-on-black tribal prejudices, which she courageously documents, are not seen as inevitable and eternal.



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