By Bessie Head

Heinemann. 144 pp. $7.95 paperback


Autobiographical Writings

By Bessie Head

Heinemann. 107 pp. $7.95 paperback

BESSIE HEAD'S achievement at the time of her death in 1986 was honorific: black Africa's preeminent female writer of fiction, a title that can only be taken ironically. Classified as Coloured in the country of her birth (South Africa), she fled to Botswana in 1964. The safe haven she had expected to find there became the terrain for her subsequent mental breakdown. Stateless and suicidal as an exile in an unfamiliar environment, she nevertheless came to be regarded by the people of her adopted country as their most famous writer. Yet if the inner peace Bessie Head had sought all her life was largely illusory, she wrote stories (at least in the final years of her life) that were not only humane but genuinely hopeful about the human condition.

However, that humanity is nowhere reflected in the autobiographical overview she gives of her life at the beginning of A Woman Alone. Instead, this brief transcript reads like a horror tale, filled not only with the most appalling acts of inhumanity but also with one of the most agonizing accounts of loneliness one is likely to encounter. Statements at the beginning of the three-page document read as follows:

"The circumstances of my birth seemed to make it necessary to obliterate all traces of a family history.

"I have not a single known relative on earth, no long and ancient family tree to refer to, no links with heredity or a sense of having inherited a temperament, a certain emotional instability or the shape of a fingernail from a grandmother or great-grandmother.

"I have always been just me, with no frame of reference to anything beyond myself.

"I was born on July 6, 1937, in the Pietermaritzburg mental hospital. The reason for my birthplace was that my mother was white and my father black."

Oddly, except for her masterpiece, A Question of Power, 1973, the realities of Head's early life did not spill over into her writing. The loneliness of Botswana (where she had gone to teach) quickly found expression in her two early novels: When Rain Clouds Gather (1967) and Maru (1971). In part, she was successful because she happened to be at the right place at the right time. Her earlier journalism in South Africa led to the contract on the first of these novels. Quickly thereafter, she gained the following of a number of sympathetic editors in the United States and England. With modest royalties and an even more meagre income from her vegetable garden in Serowe, she managed a precarious survival -- in spite of the periods of mental instability and the pressures of raising her son.

The contents of these two posthumously published volumes reveal Bessie Head both at her best and at her weakest. As a group, the stories in Tales of Tenderness and Power are not as finished as those in an earlier collection called The Collector of Treasures (1977). Still, three stories are particularly distinguished. In the first of these, called "The Lovers," Head addresses the African concept of community as the traditional force which inhibits individual action. An adolescent girl who questions arranged marriages is warned by her mother, "If you question life you will upset it." The power of the feminist perspective is elevated to a new dimension at the end of the tale when the reader discovers that the story is not contemporary but set more than a hundred years ago. AS IF to demonstrate that much of Head's writing was not autobiographical, two stories in the volume take us far away from the author's immediate world. "The General" satirizes political abuse by African leaders: "A man's enemies have a way of snowballing: especially when there are heaps of bodies in detention camps." However, no other story that Head wrote equals the vision of unity depicted in "The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses." In six terse pages, she brilliantly describes the subtle and shifting relationship between a political prisoner and a warden in a South African jail. The subtext is quite clear: Apartheid is tantamount to incarceration, yet a system of survival may in time be worked out because of the superior patience of the detainee over the detainer. The story is also one of Bessie Head's few overt presentations of conditions in South Africa under the apartheid she had experienced until her flight into exile.

In many ways, the material in A Woman Alone reflects poor judgment on the part of Craig MacKenzie, the editor of the volume. First, about a third of the material collected here also appears in Tales of Tenderness and Power, where it more appropriately belongs. Second, there are too many selections in this volume that in no way belong under the rubric of the volume's subtitle: "Autobiographical Writings." Curiously, the introduction to Tales of Tenderness and Power, by Gillian Stead Eilersen, informs us that at the time of her death, Bessie Head was working on her autobiography. Shouldn't portions of that work have been included in A Woman Alone? Couldn't MacKenzie have included the texts of interviews with the author while she was still alive? (One thinks immediately of Lee Nichols's provocative interview for the Voice of America.)

The most revealing selection is the essay that concludes both volumes, and in which Bessie Head indirectly describes herself as a "dreamer and storyteller," as someone "drunk with the magical enchantment of human relationships." In this essay Head articulates her final sense of acceptance, of connectedness to her adopted home in Botswana:

"Every oppressed man has this suppressed violence, as though silently awaiting the time to set right the wrongs that afflict him. I have never forgotten it, even though, for the purposes of my trade, I borrowed the clothes of a country like Botswana . . .

"Possibly too, Southern Africa might one day become the home of the storyteller and dreamer, who did not hurt others but only introduced new dreams that filled the heart with wonder." Charles R. Larson is professor of literature at American University and author of "The Emergence of African Fiction."