I should have posted this review yesterday for the Short Story Tuesday slot; however, I had more than a full day and so could not write the review. Instead, what I did was to swap today’s slot of poetry for yesterday and so here I am posting a review of The Woman From America, one of Bessie Head’s collection from her anthology Tales of Tenderness and Power.
To write about The Woman From America is to expound on a period in Bessie Head’s life when she went through so much hardship living in a mud hut in an enormous village, Serowe, Bechuanaland (Now Botswana). Desperately poor, she and her only son lived on help from international refugee organisations. (Introduction: P 12) However, Bessie did not allow her situation to daunt her; she retained her wits, sense of humour and her creative skill came to the fore when she wrote this short descriptive observations of a Black American woman, who hailed from somewhere near California (p 56) and who had descended on the village of Serowe like an avalanche to marry one of the villagers.
Published in 1966 by the New Statesman, The Woman From America is told in the first person narrative with the usual dry humour that is characteristic of Bessie Head’s stories. The first person narrative also gives the story its non-fiction quality as author recounted the tentative friendship between the two women which later blossomed into a closeness fueled by Bessie’s natural sense of curiosity and affection.
“It was inevitable thought that this woman and I should be friends. I have an overwhelming curiosity that I cannot keep within bounds.” p 57
Through the friendship, Bessie Head gained a wealth of knowledge documented in short hand written notes all over her small mud hut. She kept these because,
“they are a statement of human generosity, and the wide carefree laugh of a woman who is as busy as women the world over, about things women always entangle themselves in – man, children, a home” (p 57)
The poor writer living on the dredges of life and the woman from America come down because of love, bonded in ways that defied the understanding of the villagers who could not comprehend how and why a beautiful woman could leave America to marry a man living in a dirt-filled village where all one ate was ground millet and a little piece of meat. They thus viewed her with some sort of fear, fascination and yes, envy.
“The terrible thing is that those who fear are always in the majority. This woman and her husband and children have to be sufficient to themselves because everything they do is not the way people here do it. Most terrible of all is the fact that they really love each other and the husband effortlessly and naturally keeps his eye on his wife alone. In this achievement, he is 70 years ahead of all the men here.” P 56
Bessie Head did not belabour the point of interracial marriage in this story. Her concerns were with the wealth of knowledge she gained through her friendship with this nameless woman; from mundane ailments of children; DPT, (Diphtheria, pertussis, Tetanus) to industrial use of electronics, atomic energy, automation and the Scientific Revolution within a blend of two cultures. “Here’s C P Snow. Read him, dammit! And dispel a bit of that fog in thy cranium.” P 59. She also drew a comparison between Black Americans who came to Africa out of a genuine love for the people and who easily assimilated, and the Black Americans from the State Department who though sociable and jovial clamped up at the most innocent questions with such mutterings as “we can’t talk about the government, that is politics.” P 59. The author seemed to question why they bothered to come at all if they were afraid of what the American government would think about their utterances. To her that was a waste of the resources of the State Department and travesty of the touting of freedom and democracy by the American government.
What amazed me about this story is its length. Only five (5) pages short, and yet the narrative was excellently packed with so much food for thought. Once again I recommend the anthology Tales of Tenderness and Power to all lovers of African literature, especially celebrating female writers.
The author died tragically early, in 1986, leaving behind her a fine collection of literary works. Tales of Tenderness and Power was the first of her works to be published in 1989 posthumously.