An oldie but a goodie, Thunder Behind Her Ears by Gillian Stead Eilersen is an enchanting yet tragic account of Bessie Head’s life, and the title is inspired by one of her quotes:
‘I write best if I hear the thunder behind my ears. Not even Rain Clouds was real thunder yet. Some of my letters to friends are faint rumblings of it.’
To date, this remains the only biography of Bessie Amelia Head who was born in 1937, and died in 1986; the book does not disappoint and it is notably considerate of the sensitivities surrounding authoring the biography of someone else. Gillian has immortalised Bessie in this book, and I am often weary of reading biographies and would rather read an auto biography. I can imagine writing someone else’s life as a difficult task and Gillian took it on quite seriously.
Bessie became known as such a solitary figure for most of her life with her son, Howard, by her side so most of the information was new to me as a fan. The first of three parts of the book details her childhood and how she started writing, it then moves on to her life in Botswana and finally her travels outside of Africa.
The book was initially published in 1995 by David Phillip Publishers, and later republished in 2007 by Wits University Press. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is Bessie’s journey with publishers, detailed in chapter 11. This is my favourite part of the book and gives a lot of insights to the limits most writers face to this day.
Although, Gillian is an academic the writing is highly accessible and simplistic; she takes through Bessie’s head, emotions and actions with such ease and I can truly agree that Bessie has finally been immortalised through this book.
I bought my copy from African Flavour Books at R169, 95.
Additional Media: YouTube Video version of the article and audio reading of chapter 11 on Soundcloud