Born without a name

Morris, Cornelia
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I chose Bessie Head’s work not only because her life is poignantly expressed in her writing, but also to endeavour as far as possible to fill the lacunae in her novella The Cardinals. Much of my inspiration is derived from the semi-autobiographical elements in her narrative and the way it culminates in the characters Johnny, Ruby and Mouse. Exploration of this unusual triumvirate provides many challenges and I will strive to do it justice. Writing a sequel to The Cardinals is also my personal contribution towards a process of postcolonial healing and a tribute to the literary legacy so generously left to us by a woman who rose from her adverse origins to become a legend in her own time. In my view Bessie Head invents the protagonist Johnny in The Cardinals in representation of the father she never knew. In writing the sequel I give this mythical man a pedigree and political recognition. By recreating the male protagonist in the sequel, I pay special tribute to Bessie Head as a fiction writer and as a courageous woman who battled with demons throughout her life. Adversity did not sway her from her determination to write. She was alienated by her mother’s family who failed to offer her moral support, let alone anything else. The sequel explores the inner and outer dimensions of the lives of the protagonists and recollects the injustices from South Africa’s political past. It is impossible for any story based in that time not to be political, or as political as I am able to make it within the limitations of my personal observations and experience. I give Johnny a family name. I chose the name of De Meillon to provide him with an authentic history. In researching family names of early Cape settlers I came across a Henry De Meillon, who lived in the Cape from 1823 where he farmed, and where, in his leisure time he produced memorable works of art, which are on display in a Cape gallery. I thought he would be an ideal ancestor for the fictional character, Johnny. The original Henry De Meillon married a Dutch woman called Johanna and in the text I suggest that Johnny’s given name is derived from this source. To limit the sequel to eight chapters I do not make mention of the slave families who toiled in the De Meillon vineyards to cultivate selected vines and perhaps interbred with the De Meillons and took the name as their own, some of them possibly entitled to it as direct De Meillon descendents, and some not. Although they are excluded from the text, I submit a family tree to help assemble a family history that is entirely fictional except for the original De Meillon couple. Any events thereafter are invented and bear no truth to any De Meillon descendants that may be alive at this time. The sequel’s main focus is on a child secretly born of mixed parentage in a colour conscious South Africa of the late 1930s, coinciding with Bessie Head’s own birth. The sequel expands on the communist phobia that gripped an apartheid society of the 1960s, borrowing from the communist family in The Cardinals who befriended Charlotte Smith and accepted her into their home. It provided her with opportunities to expand her knowledge and develop a social conscience (Head 1993: p 11). The story is about Coloured people, but I prefer to write about them as people and not as members of a specific race group. The notion that Ruby was white is subverted by the following sentence that appears in The Cardinals: “He looked at the two dark wings of her eyebrows and the smooth stillness of her dark brown face, ‘Where did you grow up?’ he asked” (Head 1993: p 52). She said she grew up on a farm and Johnny tells her that he grew up in a slum. Ruby’s frantic plea when she encounters Johnny on the lonely stretch of beach is: “Love me! Love me! Love me!” (Head 1993: p 52). I interpret this as Bessie Head’s plea for love and acceptance and the desire for family. I see it as a feverish search for a true identity. I also see it as her intense wish for the insecurities of her life to be swept away by a black knight on a white horse, the black knight being ‘Johnny’ who represents not only the father, but the white/black in juxtaposition with Bessie Head’s own hybrid heritage. In writing a sequel to the novella, I give the characters the recognition and the social status that Bessie Head herself deserved. She died too soon and in her short lifetime she was deprived of the benefits her writing started generating towards the end of her life. I hope to give insight into that era of the novella from the perspective of someone born of mixed parentage and the poverty and hardships suffered in the ‘African’ context. I also want the characters to transcend Africa and move abroad into an environment other than South Africa to escape the persecution of the apartheid conditioning. I would like to ensure that they enjoy the sense of freedom that was their birthright in the country of their forebears. I regard the writing of the sequel as bringing finality to a story that seems incomplete. There is scope for setting the protagonists on the path to fulfilling what I see as Bessie Head’s secret dreams of a life she perhaps wanted for herself and her son. Eilersen and MacKenzie’s biographies of her hint that she preferred a simple uncomplicated rural life. It could be that she wanted everything and settled for nothing, the primitive conditions of her home in Botswana being evidence of this. She lived simply without modern conveniences, placing herself on an equal footing with the living conditions of thousands of families who live in Africa. In writing a sequel to her novella, I hope to peel away the surface layers of a woman whose written words went beyond the ordinary and to reveal within the unfathomable depths of her psyche the clever, loving, seething, beautiful, frightened, but angered human being whose hatred could be fierce and whose love overwhelming. In the sequel these aspects emerge in certain characteristics present in Johnny and Mouse. It culminates in their incestuously-spawned daughter, the Ruby doppelganger: Jewel. Margaret Daymond in her introduction to The Cardinals argues that the novella “is not only expressive of complex fears and angers” but that there is a haunting beauty in its many love stories; in addition there is treachery and deception in Mouse’s orders to find a wheel chair for an old lady in desperate need of one (1993: p xiv). It projects newspaper reporting of noble deeds as deception that promotes the newspaper’s image through a fabricated tale. In her role as a reporter Bessie Head may have come face to face with contrived acts of compassion that were falsely represented. In view of the semiautobiographical nature of The Cardinals it is quite possible that Bessie Head herself experienced this kind of false reporting. The subject of incest in the novella could be a representation of Bessie Head’s disregard for the laws of a rigid Calvinist government. The possibility of forbidden love may have haunted her throughout her life, but especially so at the age of twenty-five when she wrote The Cardinals. Daymond maintains that Bessie Head gives the impression that her protagonists, although they were unwittingly blood-related, had a right to pursue their love. The boundaries of a blood-tie relationship was so deeply embedded in Bessie Head’s instincts that they emerged in her writing of The Cardinals in the intimacies of an older man and a young girl in representation of Bessie Head herself. She could have become entangled in a relationship with someone who was actually her father, and she would not have known. There is much speculation in literary circles as to who her father may have been. The assumption that he was a race-horse stable hand has not been proven. I am convinced that Bessie Head researchers will eventually uncover all the hidden facts of her life.
Student Number : 0418258G - MA dissertation - School of Literature and Language Studies - Faculty of Humanities
Bessie Head, injustices, South Africa, political