Brief Biography of Bessie Head
Considered today one of Botswana’s most accomplished authors, Bessie Head was actually born in South Africa (just south of Botswana), where she lived until 1964 when she immigrated to Botswana. Her parents were of different races during a time when all South Africans were officially classified by race and interracial marriage was illegal. Initially herself thought to be white, Head was placed with white foster parents since her mother was mentally ill and unable to keep her. Discovered to be mixed-race, Head was later placed with a mixed-race family who she thought was her biological family. She was later separated from them by government authorities, causing her great emotional pain. She trained and worked for a time as a teacher but left that profession to work as a writer for various publications in Cape Town and Johannesburg. In the early 1960s, she became involved with the Pan-Africanist Congress and embroiled in political protests and controversy that harmed her emotional health, leading to depression, drinking, and attempted suicide. She met and married Harold Head in 1961. They had one child, but later separated. In 1964, Head took a job in nearby Bechuanaland Protectorate (which became Botswana after independence from Britain) where she lived for the rest of her life, doing most of the writing for which she is known. Her status as expatriate led her to explore themes of community, alienation, and exile. She died at 48 from hepatitis. In 2007, a trust was established in her name, and the library in her birthplace was renamed in her honor.
Historical Context of The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses
“The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses” describes what life was like for a group of incarcerated political prisoners and narrates their small-scale subversion of the prison system. Beginning after the institution of apartheid in South Africa, the system encountered so much political resistance that the government instituted repressive laws to curb it, leading to incarceration of political dissidents as portrayed in the story. The Suppression of Communism Act empowered the Minister of Justice to imprison suspect individuals without trial or right of appeal, and even without being informed of their alleged crime. Dissident groups could also be banned by being labeled Communist. Black South African leader and advocate of passive resistance Albert Luthuli won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1960 but was kept under house arrest until his death in 1966. Political dissident Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison and served 27 years of this sentence before his release and election as the nation’s first post-apartheid president.
Other Books Related to The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses
Head wrote a number of other novels and shorts stories dealing with life in Africa and racial issues. Her novel Maru
(1971) describes what it is like to be deemed racially inferior, and the novel When Rain Clouds Gather
(1968) describing the lives of political refugees is based on her own experience as a refugee living on a farm in Botswana. Other literary works portraying South Africa during the time of apartheid include Gordimer’s The Conservationist
, Coetzee’s Disgrace
, Fugard’s "Master Harold" … and the Boys
, and Courtenay’s The Power of One
Key Facts about The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses
Full Title: “The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses”
When Written: Late 1960s
Where Written: Serowe, Botswana
When Published: 1973
Literary Period: Postcolonial
Genre: Short Story
Setting: A prison camp in South Africa in the 1960s
Climax: Brille blackmails Hannetjie, forcing him to treat the prisoners better.
Antagonist: Warder Hannetjie
Point of View: Third Person
Extra Credit for The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses