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Penguin African Writers Series Releases Titles by Bessie Head and Ben Okri

Penguin Books South Africa has added two new titles to its African Writers Series, A Question of Power by Bessie Head and Dangerous Love by Ben Okri:

In this semi-autobiographical novel, Head tracks the protagonist, Elizabeth’s, struggle to emerge from the oppressive social situation in which she finds herself, and from the nightmares and hallucinations that torment her.

Elizabeth, like the author, was conceived in an out-of wedlock A Question of Powerunion between a black man and a white woman of social standing – a union outlawed by her country of birth, South Africa. Elizabeth leaves South Africa with her young son to live in Botswana, a country that has escaped some of the worst evils of colonial domination. But in rural Botswana she is once again faced with a constricting social system as the villagers are suspicious of her urban ways and frown upon her individualistic behaviour. They also bear her ill will on racial grounds because she is light skinned like the ‘Bushmen’ who are a despised tribe there.

Elizabeth suffers not only social isolation, but intellectual deprivation as well. One of the few people with whom she can converse as an intellectual equal is the American Peace Corps volunteer, Tom. During the four years in which Elizabeth is plagued by mental, social and economic challenges, it is Tom, and her own love for, and obligation to, her young son that help her to survive this ordeal.

About the author

Bessie Head was born of mixed parentage in 1937 in South Africa. She lived with foster parents until she was 13 and then attended a mission school until she was 18, before working as a teacher and a journalist for Drum magazine. An unsuccessful marriage, together with involvement in the trial of a friend, led her to apply for a teaching post in Botswana.

Her first novel, When Rain Clouds Gather (1969), grew out of her experience living as a refugee in Botswana, and was followed by Maru (1971) and A Question of Power (1974). In 1977 she published The Collector of Treasures, a book of short stories exploring the position of women in Africa. In 1981, Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind was published, a portrait of a village brought together from notes and interviews spanning a hundred years.

Bessie Head died in Serowe, Botswana in 1986, aged only 49.

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Dangerous LoveSet in post-civil war Nigeria, Dangerous Love tells the story of a young man, Omovo, an office-worker and artist, who lives at home with his father and his father’s second wife.

In the communal world of the compound in which he lives, Omovo has many friends and some enemies, but most important of all, there is Ifeyiwa, a beautiful young married woman who he loves with an almost hopeless passion – not because she doesn’t return his love, but because they can never be together.

Okri builds a vivid picture of Nigerian life: of the compound with its complete lack of privacy, the gossip, the good times, the street life, the complex nature of family relationships and the kindness and treachery of friends. Overshadowing everything is the image of a nation struggling to come to terms with the atrocity of the recent civil war, the echoes of which presage the story’s tragic tale.

About the author:

Ben Okri is a Nigerian poet and novelist. Having spent his early childhood in London, he and his family returned to Nigeria in 1968. He later came back to England, embarking on studies at the University of Essex. He has received Honorary Doctorates from the University of Westminster and the University of Essex, and was awarded an OBE in 2001. Since he published his first novel, Flowers and Shadows, Okri has risen to international acclaim, and he is often described as one of Africa’s greatest writers. His best known work, The Famished Road, was awarded the 1991 Booker Prize.

He also won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Africa, the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction, and a Crystal Award by the World Economic Forum. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and lives in London.

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Chinua Achebe on the Penguin African Writers Series:

The Penguin African Writers Series will bring a new energy to the publication of African literature. Penguin Books (South Africa) is committed to publishing both established and new voices from all over the African continent to ensure African stories reach a wider global audience.

This is really what I personally want to see – writers from all over Africa contributing to a definition of themselves, writing ourselves and our stories into history. One of the greatest things literature does is allow us to imagine; to identify with situations and people who live in completely different circumstances, in countries all over the world. Through this series, the creative exploration of those issues and experiences that are unique to the African consciousness will be given a platform, not only throughout Africa, but also to the world beyond its shores.

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