Article Text

Download PDFPDF
‘Creative Ferment’: abortion and reproductive agency in Bessie Head’s Personal Choices trilogy
  1. Caitlin E Stobie
  1. School of English, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Caitlin E Stobie, School of English, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK; c.e.stobie{at}


Using original archival research from Amazwi South African Museum of Literature, this article examines representations of abortion in three novels by Bessie Head: When Rain Clouds Gather (1968), Maru (1971) and A Question of Power (1973). I argue that Bessie Head documents both changing attitudes to terminations of pregnancy and dramatic environmental, medical, and sociopolitical developments during southern Africa’s liberation struggles. Furthermore, her fictional writing queers materialism and its traditionally gender-dichotomous origins, presenting an understanding of development which exceeds temporal or national boundaries. Her treatment of human reproduction in both tangible and figurative terms disrupts teleological definitions of exile: separation and loss, rendered through literal and metaphorical abortions, are seen as inherently vital processes for gaining agency in post/colonial southern Africa. Instead of using discourse from contemporary debates about freedom and choice, which are often polarised, I use the term ‘reproductive agency’ to refer to a continuum of ethical presentness, rooted in considering women’s desires. My literary analysis explicitly concentrates on Head’s biological imagery of growth and separation and how this ruptures repronormative discourse underpinning colonial expansion in southern Africa. I refer to Head’s ethical outlook as a critical form of humanism. My understanding of critical humanism differs from humanism proper in that it relies on queer associations: both queerness as strangeness, and queerness as resistance to categorisation (much like Head’s critiques of essentialist national identities). Adapting new materialist theories with postcolonial scholarship, I coin the term ‘queer vitality’ to argue that abortion involves both tragedy and desire, and that southern African feminist fiction functions as postcolonial theory when the concept of reproductive agency is understood to encompass both individual and collective desires. In Head’s words, in her creative worlds, abortion does not signal the ending of a life, but rather a plethora of new possibilities.

  • literature and medicine
  • literary studies
  • queer theory
  • medical humanities
  • reproductive medicine

Data availability statement

Data sharing not applicable as no data sets were generated and/or analysed for this study.

Statistics from

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.

Data availability statement

Data sharing not applicable as no data sets were generated and/or analysed for this study.

View Full Text


  • Twitter @caitlinstobie

  • Contributors CES is the sole author of this research.

  • Funding Archival research at Amazwi South African Museum of Literature was undertaken with funding from the Ernest Oppenheimer Memorial Trust, Open Society Foundations, and the School of English at the University of Leeds. The funders had no involvement in the writing of this study.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient and public involvement Patients and/or the public were not involved in the design, or conduct, or reporting, or dissemination plans of this research.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.