Since 1967, the International Writing Program (IWP) at the University of Iowa has brought together writers from more than 140 different countries to be in residence for a semester at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. During the fall residency each year, the University of Iowa hosts events for the writers in residence, who read work from their recent novels, short stories, poetry collections, drama, and books of creative non-fiction. To be eligible for residency in the IWP, writers must have at least one book published, and they must have sufficient English-language skills. In 1977, Bessie Head traveled from Botswana to the United States as one of the IWP’s fiction writers in residence.
Bessie Head’s Life in Southern Africa
Born in South Africa in 1937, Bessie Amelia Emery Head experienced firsthand the racial violence of apartheid in South Africa as a child with a white mother and a black father. She was raised largely by foster parents and spent years of her early life in an orphanage. While living in South Africa during the years of apartheid, Head taught primary school and later worked as a journalist. She lived in both Johannesburg and Cape Town before immigrating to a village in rural Botswana to escape the constant harms of the National Party government.
Aside from a few trips outside Southern Africa, Head spent the remainder of her adult life in Serowe, Botswana, a farming community north of the capital city, Gaborone. It was in Serowe that Head became particularly prolific, writing novels for which she has become known internationally, such as When Rain Clouds Gather (1968), Maru (1971), and A Question of Power (1973). The same year that she attended the IWP as a writer in residence, she published her first collection of short stories, The Collector of Treasures: And Other Botswana Village Tales (1977). Her growing international acclaim was what led, in part, to her semester-long experience in Iowa City. Yet in recollection, Head felt uncomfortable at the University of Iowa, and at times, she believed the environment to be a hostile.
Traveling to Iowa City from Serowe
When Bessie Head traveled to Iowa in 1977, it was the first time she had been outside of Southern Africa—the first time she had traveled beyond Botswana and South Africa. In a biography written by Gillian Stead Eilersen, Thunder Behind Her Ears (1995), Eilersen described Head’s experiences in Iowa as seemingly unpleasant from the start: “There were introductory meetings where the participants sized each other up. Bessie felt strange and confused. None of them knew her writing but, to be honest, neither did she know theirs.”
Much of Eilersen’s information about Head’s experience in Iowa City came from letters exchanged between Head and those outside the IWP. The letters emphasized Head’s feeling of isolation in Iowa. For instance, in a letter written to Betty Sleath, who Head described as a “devoted fan” in acknowledgments to The Collector of Treasures, Head explained, “Life is mostly quiet for me here. My friends are outside the programme.”
Since Head’s death in 1986, writers associated with the IWP and those who had interactions with Head have speculated about the reasons for her negative reaction to the program. Although there may not be sufficient information to draw firm conclusions about Head’s experience, we can continue to read her work and to think through its import in contemporary matters of race, gender, and national belonging.