Living in Subalternity: The Becoming of the Subaltern in Bessie Head’s A Woman Alone, A Gesture of Belonging, and When Rain Clouds Gather

Document Type


Publication Date

Winter 2013




If I had to write one day I would just like to say people is people and not damn white, damn black ... Make them real. Make you love them not because of the color of their skin but because they are important as human beings. – Bessie Head South African writer Bessie Head’s (1937–1986) desire to write about “real” people— the racially and economically marginalized and disenfranchised subaltern populations of South Africa and Botswana—directs us to the primary contention of Subaltern Studies, namely, can we represent without silencing the subaltern? Whether it is the marginalized Lodha tribe from India, the women and children in the sweatshops of Bangladesh who fall outside the international division of labor, and/or the Mayan guerillas in Guatemala, anyone claiming to represent them authentically is suspect of speaking over and as such erasing the subaltern. Since the publication of Gayatri Spivak’s ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ in 1985, Subaltern Studies have always cautioned against representations that reduce the subaltern to nothing more than “an idealized shadow” – a romanticized and falsified other that functions to intensify the imaginary of the self (Drucilla, “Ethical Affirmation” 103). In context of Spivak’s claim and recent debates around the politics of subaltern representation (which I discuss below), this paper will illustrate Head’s praxis of representing the subaltern through “un-coercive rearrangement of subaltern desires” does not put subalternity in crisis.1 I argue that Head’s unique position as a writer who occupies the marginal space of subalternity allows her to articulate subaltern experiences from the locus of the subaltern. Her claim to write on subalternity thus stems from her practice to describe and not inscribe the subaltern in mainstream desires.