The Cardinals: With Meditations and Short Stories (African Writers Series)
Intense personal experience of South Africa’s brutal social system, a sense of stifled creativity, and a distaste for politics made Bessie Head leave for Botswana on an exit permit at the age of 27. There, in her chosen rural haven of Serowe, and despite a severe mental breakdown, she wrote novels and stories that earned her international recognition as one of Africa’s most remarkable and individual writers.
The publication at last of The Cardinals–thought to be the first long piece of fiction Head produced and the only one she ever set in South Africa–is an exciting literary event.
After a childhood of poverty and abuse in the slums of Cape Town, the protagonist unexpectedly lands a job as a reporter in the offices of African Beat. She is too withdrawn to flourish in her new world and struggles to find her identity as a woman and a writer against the muckraking demanded by her editors and the sexism of the newsroom. Johnny believes in her, but his faith carries its own dangers. Questions of origins, identity, sexuality, writing, love, revenge, and politics unite to propel the characters to joy while disaster waits.
The seven short pieces of fiction included in this volume come from the years immediately after Bessie Head went to Botswana. Among them is “Earth Love,” which she called the “goddam best bit of writing I ever did.”
Bessie Emery Head (6 July 1937 – 17 April 1986), though born in South Africa, is usually considered Botswana's most influential writer.
Bessie Emery Head 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. It was claimed that her mother was mentally ill so that she could be sent to a quiet location to give birth to Bessie without the neighbours knowing. However, the exact circumstances are disputed, and some of Bessie Head's comments, though often quoted as straight autobiography, are in fact from fictionalized settings.
In the 1950s and '60s she was a teacher, then a journalist for the South African magazine Drum. In 1964 she moved to Botswana (then still the Bechuanaland Protectorate) as a refugee, having been peripherally involved with Pan-African politics. It would take 15 years for Head to obtain Botswana citizenship. Head settled in Serowe, the largest of Botswana's "villages" (i.e. traditional settlements as opposed to settler towns). Serowe was famous both for its historical importance, as capital of the Bamangwato people, and for the experimental Swaneng school of Patrick van Rensburg. The deposed chief of the Bamangwato, Seretse Khama, was soon to become the first President of independent Botswana.
Her early death in 1986 (aged 48) from Hepatitis came just at the point where she was starting to achieve recognition as a writer and was no longer so desperately poor.