Elizabeth, a "biracial" South African citizen, had no idea of her biological mother until she was sent to a mission school at the age of thirteen. All those years, she had loved another woman as her mother, before the unkind principal of the mission school, who naturally had a strong aversion for her, told her
"....You must be very careful. Your mother was insane. If you're not careful you'll get insane just like your mother. Your mother was a white woman. They had to lock her up, as she was having a child by the stable boy, who was a native".
And yes, Elizabeth ran mad; though, it was some years later. Prior to that, she married a gangster recently out from prison, with whom she had a son. A year later, she left him and South Africa entirely to Motabeng, Botswana where she worked as a teacher, with a no return exit.
"She did not care. She hated the country. In spite of her inability to like or to understand political ideologies, she had also lived the back-breaking life of all black people in South Africa. It was like living with permanent nervous tension, because you did not know why white people there had to go out of their way to hate you or loathe you. They were just born that way, hating people, and a black man or woman was just born to be hated. There wasn't any kind of social evolution beyond that, there wasn't any life to the heart, just this vehement vicious struggle between two sets of people with different looks".
Life in Motabeng was calm at first and then Elizabeth's descent into insanity was gradually appreciated. She had mental disorders typical of Schizophrenia (though the medical diagnosis was never mentioned), from hallucinations, delirium, delusions, moods disorder, asocial behaviour to suicidal thinking. At some point she was raving mad.
Considering Elizabeth's circumstances and surroundings: the oppression of the apartheid regime, her disturbing background (her white family never loved her because she was black and there was no idea who her black father was) no sense of belonging and identification, no ability to choose a life partner to love and to be loved in return, alone in a pitched uphill battle. In my opinion, they all contributed to her mental illness. Not just because her mother was insane. All the same, she was still an intellectual woman with a beautiful mind I strongly admire.
This is a novel I read confusingly, I was incapable of comprehending what transpired in Elizabeth's hallucinations. Although, I am wholly to blame, not the book, in that it is puissant, poetic, lyrical and thought- provoking. Again, I read somewhere that Bessie Head, whose life's trajectory was like that of Elizabeth, started writing this novel when she was admitted in a psychiatric hospital for a mental breakdown. There were a whole picture of her hallucination and delusion in writings, which were beyond me.
This review is in honour of Bessie Head and her Work hosted in Kinnareads. Bessie Head would have turned 76 on the 6th of July 2013.
She was born in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, the child of a wealthy white South African woman and a black servant when interracial relationships were illegal in South Africa.
In 2003 she was awarded the South African "Order of Ikhamanga in Gold" for her "exceptional contribution to literature and the struggle for social change, freedom and peace.
Please click here to read more about Bessie Head.