Reading Assignment: Chapter 3 (“Framing the Floating World: Bessie Head’s A Question of Power (1974)”) of Burton’s Artists of the Floating World: Contemporary Writers Between Cultures.
My two classmates who will be leading the class discussion tonight have sent us their questions early as a way to get us to think about them and brainstorm up some answers for class time. However, I’d also like to explore one of their questions here as my blog post for this afternoon’s reading.
“What ‘transformations’ (75) do we see throughout the novel? Specifically in the concept of ‘no-man’s land,’ and the frame that Bessie Head uses to replace the master paradigm (76)” (Shaffer and Rhine)?
One of Burton’s discussion points in this chapter is the idea that there is a tract of breaking down, dislocating, recovery, and repair of both frames and even Elizabeth’s character within this novel, a massive transformation, if you will. Section six of this chapter focuses on the breakdown and dislocation of both frames and Elizabeth herself, and this quote caught my attention:
“Above all, the barrier between mental and physical worlds is broken down in A Question of Power. The novel alternates seamlessly from one to another. If Elizabeth’s inner world lacks a framing perspective, her outer world helps ground her. In particular, the land of the farming cooperative is given value and meaning by its workers, Elizabeth included. The most ambitious project is the development of a hybrid fruit, the Cape Gooseberry. Significantly, Elizabeth’s nickname in the village is ‘Cape Gooseberry,’ a parallel whose significance is emphasized by Head toward the end of the novel: ‘The work had a melody like that–a complete stranger like Cape Gooseberry settled down and became part of the village life of Motabeng’ (153)” (Burton 75).
This point regarding Elizabeth’s work within the farming cooperative grounding her stuck out to me. From a narrative perspective, the scenes were Elizabeth is working in the gardens are moments where both the readers and Elizabeth can breathe and return to normality. In relation to the numerous aspects of religion and mythology, the garden is Elizabeth’s Eden, her paradise. She is the creator within this space, the one with all of the knowledge. An example of this seemingly all-knowing status can be seen when she first meets Tom:
“Elizabeth handed [Tom] her notebook. He sat down on the ground and bent his head in deep concentration over it. Elizabeth nearly laughed out loud with relief when he took it all quite seriously. Her version of agriculture was so poetic and fanciful, she was so liable to fill in her gaps of knowledge with self-invented agriculture. . .” (Head 112-113).
Like Elizabeth’s feelings of isolation and anxieties of being hated by her neighbors when she first moves there, the garden itself begins as nothing: a clean slate to be built up and to eventually become one with the surrounding area/community. Elizabeth herself is the one who has the talent and the vision for making the garden a thriving staple in the town’s life as crops spring up overnight under her care. Furthermore, she experiments with new crops in her own garden first, much like an inventor in her workshop, a creator of new life. This leads her to the discovery of the crop that both fully integrated both herself and the communal garden within the town and the community members: the Cape Gooseberry.
“The village women always passed by Elizabeth’s house to collect firewood in the bush. If they saw her in the yard, they stopped, laughed and said: ‘Cape Gooseberry’, to show how well they had picked up the propoganda. They did it so often that eventually Elizabeth became known as ‘Cape Gooseberry’.
The work had a melody like that — a complete stranger like the Cape Gooseberry settled down and became a part of the village life of Motabeng. It loved the hot, dry Botswana summers as they were a replica of the Mediterranean summers of its home in the Cape” (Head 153).
Once Elizabeth introduces the Cape Gooseberry and its jam into the community and its economy, the fruit and her place have been solidified. However, when Elizabeth enters the mental hospital, after not going to the garden for weeks and losing the balance in her life that she had gained through her work there, the garden begins to fail and the Cape Gooseberry, Elizabeth’s “creation,” fails along with other crops in the garden. It is only once she returns and resumes work that the garden returns to its Eden-like state once more and the Cape Gooseberry is brought back from near death, and with it, Elizabeth’s life returns to that normalcy that she had during the other sections about the garden within the text.
“[Elizabeth and Kenosi] began walking down Main Street or Broadway. Suddenly Kenosi raised her voice and said plaintively: ‘You left the garden. I don’t know how to do. . .’
That garden was hallowed ground to Kenosi. [Elizabeth] could see her over those months sitting at a table in her hut at night with a candle, frowning over all the entries she made, careful not to lose a cent. The record book looked so beautiful that Elizabeth kept quietly turning it over in her head — Ditamati, Dionions, Dispinach, Dibeans, Dicarrots — as she and Kenosi walked up and down the garden. Kenosi said they had no tomato seedlings and they ned more cabbage and she hadn’t been able to buy seed potato. She watched with pride as Elizabeth made a note of all the garden requirements. Whatever they needed, Elizabeth had always found by hook or crook. They began to think together again. Tomorrow they would plant out more carrots and beetroot; there’d be time today for seedling work. And so the mornings flew by. The world had returned to normal” (Head 203 & 204).
Ultimately, by the end of the novel, both Elizabeth and the garden have returned to their proper place in the community and a new frame in relation to both her garden and her place within Motabeng has been established: she is the woman of agriculture, the woman of creation.
Until next time, when I’ll be discussing the first 208 pages of Bharati Mukherjee’s The Holder of the World.
Burton, Rob. Artists of the Floating World: Contemporary Writers Between Cultures. 2007.
Head, Bessie. A Question of Power. Heinemann Educational Books Ltd., 1974, Oxford.