The whole principle of living and learning is dependent on what is going on in the mind. The mind is like a huge, living tapestry. Everything we see, hear, learn and experience gets fixed into this tapestry for good and, each day, more impressions are being imprinted on it.- Bessie Head, The Cardinals
Bessie Head’s writing really resonates with me. Since I learned a bit about Head’s own sad but inspiring life, it’s been almost impossible for me to read any of her work without thinking of how her own experiences informed her writing by changing how she viewed the world. As painful as it was for her to be an outsider, it also gave her freedom as she was often able to see what others couldn’t, and she could afford to be more honest, after all, what did she have to lose if she didn’t pledge allegiance to any group? Born during apartheid of an illegal union between a white woman and a black man, much of Head’s life was clearly about coming to terms with unbelonging, and one of the ways she did this was by ridiculing the system that deemed her an illegal person. Along with Mariama Ba, Nawal El Saadawi, and Buchi Emecheta, Head is one of the African woman writers who I feel did a lot to look closely at and critique the systems they were a part of. Like the other women mentioned, she was a keen observer of her society, and was able to point out the hypocrisies and highlight the stories that others ignore or gloss over.
This is a book of short stories, the titular one, The Cardinals, being a novella of 120 pages. It’s the one that impressed me the most, although the shorter stories at the end of the book were also really good. The Cardinals is about Miriam, later nicknamed Mouse, a young woman of uncertain paternity who is described by Johnny, the male protagonist, as having been born in a dung heap. The story calls to mind the many people who are born in environments that don’t nurture them, but somehow are able to make some sort of life for themselves and utilize their gifts. Mouse escapes from a shanty town near Cape Town and starts working for a trashy South African tabloid. Head uses her work as a reporter to illustrate the absurdities of the Immorality Rule wherein the races were not allowed to mix and have sexual relations.
The relationship that develops between Mouse and Johnny is quite unnerving. There’s a connection between them that others can’t explain, because “Mouse is only a woman and a rather dull, drab and colourless one at that…No man in his right mind would look twice at her.” With Johnny being considerably older and definitely more worldly, there’s also a power dynamic and plenty of antagonism. We see Johnny as a mentor to Mouse’s writing and Head uses him to share some of her own succinct views of life, love, and writing.
You come from the same environment that I do and there are things that happened that marked me for life. I just cannot obliterate the scars.
In writing, as in every other aspect of my life, I observe no rules or style. Just the thought of having to follow a set of rules or wedging myself into a style is enough to make my hair stand on end. Style must conform to me—my every mood, whim or fantasy.”
The funny thing about writing is that it makes you start thinking. Once you’ve started the process, you just can’t stop. It makes you articulate too. If you write and write every day you begin to feel that your brain is like a well-preserved machine churning out things that will eventually prove to be of use to someone, somewhere.
Definitely a 5 star read.