Landscape in Bessie Head's "Collector of Treasures"

In this essay I will explore the construction of spatial discourses as they inform endured, racial and other ideologically policed senses of cultural identity. The prescribed statement; “The questions of home, land, language and cultural expression are central to the constitution of identity, much as awareness of issues of gender, race, class and national identity are integral to the creative construction of liberating postcolonial subjects” will be investigated through four stories from her short story collection, The Collector of Treasures (1992).

The stories that will be looked at are The Deep River: A Story of Ancient Tribal Migration, Jacob: The Story of a Faith-Healing Priest, Life and The Wind and a Boy.

Each story will be looked at in terms of societal changes; character displacement and exile themes; the clash between encroaching modernism and capitalism (brought about by colonialism – and arguably – neocolonialism) and tribal traditionalism; and dualities which reveal this clash of value as well as centers relating to control and gender.

Because of the nature of her personal life and the themes with which she deals, each story will also be looked at in terms of borders: symbolic, topographic and temporal. Borders, by definition, keep things in as ell as keep things out, and so these raise the questions of space, place and belonging. For this reason, it becomes a postcolonial concern to envisage Head’s fictional stories as textual landscapes by which she and the reader are allowed to navigate the potholes of gender, society, and the construction of identity.

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Bessie Head had a much-varied life while living in South Africa. She lived as a foster child until she was thirteen years old, studied at a mission school, trained as a teacher, and after a few years teaching, worked as a journalist for a DRIED publication, Golden City post. Head left South Africa and moved to Botswana, where she lived as a refugee for fifteen years (Head 1992:I). The Botswana government refused to grant her citizenship, fearing South African intervention should the exile community expand, and so she was forced to report weekly to the police (Nixon 1996:244). Ender Apartheid she had been the product of an illegal union between a black man and a white woman, and so her sense of cultural identity was pushed to the periphery. Her move to Botswana was not simply promoted by the search for freedom from racial oppression, but for a search of belonging. She had been rootless in South Africa, and unlike other African writers in exile, did not pursue the literary roots to the Northern Hemisphere, but moved to Botswana, “one door away from South Africa” (Head, cited in Nixon 1996: 243).

And so, Head’s move to neighboring Botswana reveals in her a belief which permeates her writing, that in being African there exists some essential connection across borders. It was a “search as an African for a sense Of historical continuity, a sense of roots… ” (Head cited in Sample 1991: 312). Head gained citizenship in 1 979, only two years after The Collector of Treasures was published.

At the time of writing, Head was located firmly in an ambiguous space: not really a citizen of either country, and not really belonging to any particular (or at least recognized) racial grouping. Her concerns are visible in the readings of the short stories to be discussed hereafter. They tell the tales of movement, of a search for identity in the self and in the community. The characters in the stories take “space” and color for themselves an ideal place using ‘the various modes through which a person knows and constructs a reality’ (Tuna cited in Sample 1991: 311).

Her belief in the “continuity’ of people is revealed, as she says: The least I can say for myself is that I forcefully created for myself under extremely hostile conditions, my ideal life. I took an obscure and almost unknown village in the Southern African bush and made it my own hallowed ground. Here, in the steadiness and peace of my own world, I could dream a little ahead of the somewhat vicious clamor of revolution and the horrible stench of social systems.

My work was always tentative because it was always so completely new: it created a new world out of nothing; it brought all minds of people, both literate and semi-literate together, and it did not really qualify who was who – everyone had a place in my world (Head cited in Sample 1991:312). Fittingly, the first short story I will deal with is also the first in the collection, and, interestingly, seems to offer some foreshadowing insights into some of the problems that would become a part of later society in post-Nine-/colonial rule and are dealt with in the stories later in the collection.

The Deep River: A Story of Ancient Tribal Migration tells the story of a tribe, “the people of Monoplane, whose kingdom was somewhere in the central part of Africa” Head 1977:1 The ambiguous centrality of the tribe?s location lends itself to the idea that the problems faced by the tribe belonged to – or would belong to, in this analysis – all the people of Africa, and not simply those of a particular nation or region whose existence was delimited by external and constructed powers of control; borders which, in all reality, created different nations out of the same people.

There are a number of themes at play in this story; the ‘ideal’ community whose subjects really lived identity-less lives under the unquestionable rule of dictated authority, the corruptive power of authority, gender determinism, and finally, the search for ‘home’ in new lands. “Long ago, when the land was only cattle tracks and footpaths, the people lived together like a deep river’ (1). In the very first sentence, two motifs are introduced: movement and water.

The “footpaths” might refer to a pre- industrial era, one of relative simplicity and free of capitalist influences, but it also might speak to the pattern of migrant and migrant labor forced upon the African people during the period of colonialism, a pattern which would remain one of the most central paradigms of socio-economic living even long after the continent was decolonize. But for now, it could make reference to the central theme of all the stories in this collection and Head’s own state of traditionalism: the search for a ‘home’ in which identity might manifest itself, individually and communally.

Water is also an important motif in Head’s stories. It comes to represent healing and well-being. In The Deep River the depth and nourishing power of the river is synonymous with the peace and calm of the people, who live together “unruffled by conflict or movement forward” (1 The tribe is, like the river, a wealth of tradition that returns a kind of stagnation. The river is deep, and not fast, and, like the people, “unruffled by… Movement forward. ” Immediately this allows the tribe to be imagined as stuck in its specific ways. This notion is confirmed when the manner in which they live is examined.

The people “lived without faces, except for their chief, “whose face was the face of all the people” (1). The people were community orientated, but also without individual identities. The people “accepted this regimental leveling down of their individual souls” and followed the laws of the land, which were really Monoplane’s laws. They could not plough, harvest, pound, boil or ferment the corn without permission, and so their own chief rigidly policed the people’s relationship with the land. This community was in actual fact, less than ideal, a top down power structure that quieted the popular democratic.

This dynamic would be one that would become a corrosive and pervasive issue later in history, as colonial forces policed the people and their relationship with the land even more unjustly. The people of Monoplane are citizens who do not assert their democratic rights, are not allowed to assert their democratic rights. This is an important understanding to come to when read against Head’s own experiences as a racial outlier in South Africa and a refugee in Botswana. This atmosphere of inertia in their own home is heightened when considering the topographic, symbolic and temporal borders as outlined by Johan Shamanism (2007).

As a topographic element the river separates the tribe of Monoplane from “other hostile tribes or great dangers”, and so removes the possibility of harm. Because the location of the tribe is undisclosed (as this story is an entirely fictionally account of the Bootlace tribes history, as explained by Head) it takes on a generalized quality of nation state borderlines. It becomes a symbolic border when considering the fact that without external contact there is no possibility of progression; the only things that could possibly be pictured outside of their own village is the great possibility of danger.

Fear becomes an monopolizing factor and prevents any purport unity for development. The calm of the river and of the people is upset when Sublease’s right to chieftain comes into question. He admits to having conceived a son with Ranking, his late father’s wife, and takes her and the child as his own. His brothers, Animate and Moslems, are terrified that Sublease’s child would displace them in seniority and thus get to rule as chief before them, and they urge their brother to renounce both son and wife.

When Seeable refuses to do so, they keep on him, and tacitly force him to leave the village. And so from this the corruptive power of authority can be read. Greedily, the brothers would rather force their own brother from his home than be outranked by a baby. Like its spatial positioning in this textual landscape, its temporarily becomes an intrinsic property. It outlines the passage from ‘then’ into ‘now’, from the mime of unquestioning subjectivity under Monoplane to Sublease’s splinter group’s experience later in the land of the Bandwagon people.

It is important to note that the only time territory is reckon sized by name and location is here, when the splinter group have relocated and have come into contact with “many other tribes like the Phalange, Bake and Boatswains”. The reader is then allowed to attribute this very fable-like history to a particular people in a particular place and thus understand the power of landscape mapping; our eyes follow the footprints in the text until something s made familiar. The temporal borders in this story convey something about the erosive ability of time, as well as the static and discriminatory notions with regards to gender. The old men there keep on giving confused and contradictory accounts of their origins, but they say they lost their place of birth over a woman”. The people cannot even remember their own history, and remain resentful that they lost their ‘home’, even though the splinter group who decided to leave did so voluntarily. The splinter group, before deciding to join Seeable had already decided that “Animate and Moslems [were] at the OTTOMH of all this trouble”, and yet “to this day’, the men maintain that it was a woman who had done it.

This unequivocally shows that women remain the scapegoats of history; that the universal ‘she’ had somehow poisoned the well from which the would-be mighty ruler had drunk. “In a world where women were of no account”, Seeable is admonished for taking his relationship with his new wife, Ranking, seriously. Ranking, the only female in the story to be mentioned by name, is compared to a child, and, if taken advice from, would negate the legitimacy of Seibel?s rule. Even Rawness’s father tries to convince her that her feelings are simply a passing fancy, that “women never know their own minds”.

This is problematic for it implies that women operate on a lower consciousness level than men, if any at all. She responds by asserting “other women may not know their minds… “, showing strength of character and will, but is interrupted by her fathers impersonal hand, pointing towards a new husband for her. Ranking, however, decides to leave her new partner and join Seeable on his journey to new lands. Head gives Ranking a voice where there women are denied it, and creates a metaphoric landscape in which women might be able to make themselves heard and exercise control over their own lives (Sample 1992: 311).

In my opinion, Ranking becomes the predicate upon which the intrepid women figures later in the collection are drawn from. Much later in their ‘history, the tribe has relocated to the land of the Bandwagon, “and the name Teetotal was all they were to retain of their identity as the people of the kingdom of Monoplane” (Head 1992: 6). In the language spoken by the tribe of Monoplane, “Teetotal” meant, “all right, you an go”. The language of their tribe became an integral part of their identity as a community in their new land.

The new tribe literally referred to themselves as a dismissal, the notion of ‘the journey a congenital layer in their new make-up. The people have become transnational themselves, with a historical sense of continuity. They are at once still the people of Monoplane, as well as the new people of the Teetotal. The next story in the collection is Jacob: The Story of a Faith-Healing Priest. In this story the reader becomes very aware of Head’s preoccupation with the elites of human nature, of a split between good and bad.

This duality manifests itself in the landscape and in the characters and is a representation of the clash of values between encroaching modernism and traditional life. As Head says in The Collector of Treasures “there were really only two kinds of men in society’. Believe this refers literally to her pattern of juxtaposing good and bad men where here, Jacob is set up against Lebanon. Also believe that it may refer to a more universal tendency to refer to society as ‘mankind’, where people contain within themselves a fundamental split.

In Jacob, Jacob is “beautiful and simple and deeply sincere”and engages in a life of meagerness. He lives in a simple hut, provides spiritual counsel to the people, takes no donations and places his trust and faith into his children followers, associating him with innocence and child-like goodness. In stark contrast to this, Lebanon is a selfish, greedy man who exploits his followers, lives in a mansion and is believed to indulge in witchcraft, or black magic. This juxtaposition is represented in the landscape where each man lives on a different side of Mangle, Jacob on the sunrise side, and Lebanon on the unset side.

Clear images of good and bad, light and dark are set up, and so the split in the town illustrates the split between characters – both external and internal. It is the topographic and symbolic border of the text. This binary also characterizes the temporal border of the text; Jacobs passage from a “man as Prophet Lebanon” into his final and biblical form of goodness. Jacob had owned a beer brewing business, had a beautiful but materialistic wife and two attractive daughters. One night he is robbed and left with only a few hundred rand, when he hears the voice of God, bidding him to do his DOD work.

Jacob had heard this voice before, on the night of his parents’ death. His father was a German man and had married a Montanan woman, and here it is clear that Head inserts some of her ova,JNI ambiguity into Jacob, rendering the split in him as intrinsic. Head’s water motif comes into play here again, and its dualities are evident. She spends a page and a half describing the lush landscape of the village, and makes it clear that for Head, Botswana was a place of restorative powers and healing possibilities. The village of Mangle received “its yearly quota of twenty-two inches of rain… List the rest of the country was smitten by drought”. A river also borders Mangle, marking the village as a fountain of good fortune and spiritual well-being – it is home to two prophets. Drought in Head’s stories comes to represent a spiritual barrenness, but this will be discussed later. However, water is also what killed Jacobs parents – their car skidded into the river during a heavy downpour. It is also believed that “Lebanon could even make rain”, tainting the spirituality of Mangle’s supposed good fortune with the evil of Lebanon’s black magic.

Though it may notation both good and bad properties, it could be argued that if it were not for the death of Jacobs’ parents, he may never have heard the voice of God, and therefore would not have been pushed into the spiritual journey that resulted in him becoming the good and faithful man he did. This temporal border, Jacobs spiritual journey into selflessness, is also represented by his transition between two kinds of women. His first wife is selfish, greedy and materialistic and leaves him when he invites her to join in God’s work with him.

Johanna, his second wife, is a single mother with children and presents the important conventions of traditional life. Just as Ranking is the only woman mentioned by name, so too is Johanna. She is strong willed, driven, and recognized as “a real woman”. And so, on a basic level, Jacobs first wife represents a capitalist society, whilst Johanna represents a traditional one. These values clash and cannot live together inside Jacob, just as Jacob and Lebanon cannot both live in the village.

Lebanon becomes a victim of his own villainy and is caught performing a ritual murder. He is sentenced to death and “[p]people say the OLL of Lebanon returned from the grave… To tell the people whom he awoke at night – his fellow ritual murderers – to desist from taking the lives of people because of the agony he was suffering now”. This may serve as a warning against the consequences of a lifestyle of capitalist greed and selfish indulgence. In her characterization and landscape, Head sets up dualities and borders across which people must travel.

Though there is minimal physical movement in the story (Jacob travels into Mangle, as do his followers from other villages, including Johanna), the journeys undertaken by the characters come spiritual ones. They are the quests to find meaning and happiness in a traditional society ravaged by exploited capitalist economic infrastructures. This is the search for a cultural identity that is pursued by reconstructing reality through modes Of knowing; a search projected onto the landscape Of the text as characters attempt to cross external and personal borders and thus become actively involved in shaping their own worlds.

In Life, an ironic title as the story culminates in the protagonists death, the clash of values between modern and traditional lifestyles are explored, as ell as the gender specific roles and expectations assigned to women. The story opens up with a socio-historical account of the relationship between South Africa and Botswana – the borders were first set up between the two countries in 1963 and forced all Botswana citizens back to their country of birth. Head goes on to summarize a heavy flow of foot-traffic between the two countries, as migrant labor was a booming industry.

From the first page, Head turns her personal traditionalism into a literary vision to convey a powerful sense of the endless border crossings, of continuation and linkages twine people (Nixon 1996: 244). In the story, Life is one of these people. Having left her village of birth at ten years old, she returns from Johannesburg seventeen years later (Head 1 992: 37). She is therefore a dislocated woman, having lived in the village but having been formed as an individual in the big city. Hers is the story and history of the continent; of forced displacement and the struggle to remained identity.

The landscape of this story is not so much a physical one; descriptions of the physical terrain (as in the previous two) hold less symbolic importance than o the landscape of personal spheres of existence and clashing centers. Upon her return to the village, Life is shown to her family yard in the center of the village. With her vitality, extravagance and penchant for a luxurious and free lifestyle, people flock to Life’s center like moths to a flame; She is going to bring us a little light,’ the women said among themselves” .

Life picked up her old profession of prostitution and soon ‘the din and riot of a Johannesburg township was duplicated… A transistor radio blared the day long. Men and women reeled around drunk”. Life conceptualizes her new laity through the reconstructive modes of familiarity; by transporting the center of Johannesburg (that which she knows) into the heart of the village she creates in herself and her surrounds a sense of belonging. Life’s identity and life is intimately linked to the preservation of this center of vitality. SEG, the wealthy cattleman, occupies another center of village life, one that represents a new kind of male in the colonial era. He is simultaneously emblematic of the cultural mores and values of traditional village life as well a willing and opportunistic recipient of all things brought to African life by alongside, and enforced by neo-colonialism. As Life acknowledges in him (after he walks into the same bar that she conducts her business of selling herself); “[h]e was the nearest thing she had seen for a long time to the Johannesburg gangsters she had associated with… He same power and control” (41). With a silent command he orders Life to his end of the bar, she adheres, and so their spheres come into contact. Sample (1991) suggests that Life’s downfall was due to the fact that Life moved her center into Lessee’s sphere. I don think that this rings completely true. Life’s center of existence had always revolved around power, money and extravagance, and just like the gangsters she had associated with in Johannesburg Lessee represented these values He was invited into her sphere so that they might control the center together.

Life did not have to go home with Lessee that night, but she did so voluntarily. And had Lessee not in fact been at the same time, two kinds of men – both traditional and modern – Life’s fate may have been different. Life’s movement from her end of the bar to Lessee’s that night (41 ) delineates the temporal and symbolic borders of the landscape in this story. It suggests the moving of people into different spheres of life (symbolic), as well as Life’s passage into destruction (temporal). When Lessee arrived that night, “death walked quietly into the bar (41 ).

Life’s center thus becomes one of male control and dominance; “He took control of all the money. She had to ask him for it and state what it was to be used for. Then he didn’t like the transistor radio blaring the whole day long’ (41 In Life we see the emergence of a new kind of woman as well, equally influenced by the economic and power opportunities brought about by modernity. The beer-brewing women are a prime example of this. Surrounded but not ruled by the village ethos of simplicity and domestic obedience, they refuse to subscribe to these ideologies; “Boyfriends, yes.

Husbands, uh, uh, no. Do this! Do that! We want to rule ourselves” (39). They are able to differentiate between romantic relationships and self- empowerment, stating that “[l]eve is love and money is money” (40). For this reason, Life becomes their ‘queen’. Michael Faculty writes about space being linked to power, and one can see this in these brave women, who flex the boundaries Of traditional life and create for themselves a world in which they re in control. Life, for a brief time, lives by her husband’s rules, but becomes bored by the banality and repetition of daily life.

Her vivacious spirit cannot be quieted, and in an act of final rebellion, she coordinates the event that will ultimately result in her death. “[A] wild anger was driving her to break out of a way of life that was like death to her, and so she makes an appointment with a man at six o’clock, even though she knows her husband is at home. She knows the consequences of her action as Lessee warned her at the beginning of their marriage that “[I]f oh [Life] go with those men again I’ll [Lessee] kill you”.

It seems as though Life wants to be caught, as though she would rather be killed physically than slowly die the spiritual death of a village wife. Alerted to Life’s actions in the yard Of a neighbor, and true to his word, Lessee kills Life with a large knife that “he used for slaughtering cattle”. In this sentence alone the value of women as a commodity to be consumed or destroyed is highlighted. She is no better than a cow, one that might earlier have been the prize of his herd, but now must be destroyed and swallowed whole without a thought.

Speaking to Lessee’s position as a new colonial male and the unfair gender balance is Lessee’s sentence. The judge was “a white man, and therefore not involved in Tsarina custom and its debates”, and reacted sympathetically to Lessee who remained calm and diplomatic during his trial. Undoubtedly the judge was able to identify with these characteristics, which must have marked Lessee as a man of a new era. Lessee received only five years imprisonment.

Head’s comment on the gender imbalance is elucidated when compared to Diesel’s situation in The Collector of Treasures; she received a life sentence for committing the same crime. Once again Head’s tacit monomania for dualities and the split self becomes clear. Contrasts are drawn between Life and the other village women. Even the beer-brewers, who admire her, remain somewhat removed, as “they hadn’t fallen that low yet” (40). These clashes of values can be seen in a light similar to the clash between Jacob and Lebanon.

Just as the two men could not both live in the village, neither could Life nor Lessee. He is a man split by down the middle by traditional village predicates and the greed of modern life, while she is a fire that eventually burns herself out rather than be tamed. The space Head creates in the textual landscape of this narrative is one of contested places of power, belonging and identity. Life and Lessee want to, at the same time, inhabit their individual spheres as well as share one together. Fee compromises while Lessee does not. Although physically they share the same space, they have each ascribed to it a different notion of life, happiness and identity. Their centers fight for control, and, as commented by Lessee’s friend at the end of the story, “rivers never cross here”. If we take into account Head’s motif of water as life and healing, then both Life and Lessee re their own rivers, determining the health and direction of their own lives.

They can never meet and remain individual rivers, because the current of one will always be stronger than the other. Head’s experience as a transnational, attempting to create an ‘ideal’ life in new spaces is illuminated in this tale of migration and of crossed borders.

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Landscape in Bessie Head's "Collector of Treasures". (2018, Apr 07). Retrieved from

Landscape in Bessie Head's "Collector of Treasures"
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