Bessie Head

Bessie Emery Head was born in South Africa in 1937. Her mother was a member of a prominent family, suffered from mental illness, and was white, while her father was a black servant in her maternal family’s household. Their relationship was illegal in South Africa at the time of Head’s birth, and she was sent into foster care as a baby. 

Head trained to become a teacher and taught for a few years, but her true passion was found in writing. Along with writing for various newspapers in Cape Town, Head developed an interest in South African politics, something that eventually led to her being arrested. 

Head’s life was constantly in a state of flux. She suffered from a depressive personality, and she often experienced financial problems. Head married her husband Harold Head in 1961, and they had a son, also named Harold, in 1962. Soon after, her marriage was on the rocks, and when she and her son were given visas for neighboring Botswana, Head left her marriage and South Africa for good to teach in Serowe. 

There, Head taught and worked on a farm, gathering information for her books. She gained citizenship fifteen years after moving to Botswana, and was considered a refugee until that point. Towards the end of her life, she began to exhibit signs of mental illness. She died in 1986 at the age of 48 as a result of hepatitis.

The Women's Prize Podcast

Tune into host Vick Hope and a line-up of incredible guests on our weekly podcast full of unmissable book recommendations.