‘Creative Ferment’: Abortion and Reproductive Agency in Bessie Head’s Personal Choices Trilogy

Article Summary by Caitlin Stobie

Using original archival research, this article examines representations of abortion in three novels by Bessie Head, an author who was born in South Africa and lived in Botswana for most of her life. I argue that Head documents both changing attitudes to terminations of pregnancy and dramatic environmental, medical, and sociopolitical developments during southern Africa’s liberation struggles. 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. 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.

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Caitlin E. Stobie PhotoCaitlin Stobie is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Leeds. Her monograph, Abortion Ecologies in Southern African Fiction: Transforming Reproductive Agency, is forthcoming with Bloomsbury Academic in 2023. 

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