To Have Seven Thousand Vaginas and None at All: Bessie Head’s Radical Visions of Sex and Gender

bessie_head_-_picture_credit_-_george_hallettThe next seminar in our African Feminisms series will be a paper entitled “To Have Seven Thousand Vaginas and None at All: Bessie Head’s Radical Visions of Sex and Gender” to be delivered by Elinor Rooks on 23 March 2017 at 5pm in the LHRI Seminar Room 1.

The seminar will be chaired by Prof Jane Plastow and it is both free and open to all.

Abstract

Bessie Head is the author of several texts which, for their interrogation of gender relations, might be taken as epitomes of African feminist writing. Head, however, repeatedly insisted that she was not a feminist and that hers were not feminist texts. “Writing is not a male/female occupation,” she explained. “I do not have to be a feminist. The world of the intellect is impersonal, sexless.” In this paper, I will explore this apparent contradiction, showing the ways in which Head’s work exposes the problems of African feminism, while anticipating later developments towards womanism and intersectional feminism.

Not only does Head move beyond the fundamentally white articulations of gender offered by feminism of the time, creating a concretely, particularly African perspective on sex and gender, she also goes much further, towards a fundamental questioning not only of gender but of sex.

In A Question of Power, Head takes the gender binary to its extremes, presenting monstrous exaggerations not only of masculinity and femininity, but also of sex: from the towering phallus to the seven thousand molten vaginas, she presents genitals as almost disembodied grotesques. Meanwhile, Elizabeth is said not to have a vagina at all. It is in this context, I will argue, that we can glimpse the truly radical and queer implications of Head’s “sexless” writing. Exploring both the homophobia and queer desire within this text, I will demonstrate the ways in which Head’s writing not only drives towards an African feminism, but also gestures towards a queer and genderqueer African feminism.

About Elinor Rooks

Photo on 25-09-2015 at 13.12 #3Elinor Rooks is an indepedent researcher in African literature, history and culture. She completed her PhD at the University of Leeds with her dissertation, “Vernacular Critique, Deleuzo-Guattarian Theory and Cultural Historicism in West African and Southern African Literatures,” focussing on the novels of Bessie Head and Amos Tutuola. She is currently researching responses to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and is authoring a book on Tutuola. She also serves as the reviews editor for Red Pepper Magazine and works as a freelance editor.

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