Head was the child of a wealthy white South African woman and a Black servant when interracial relationships were illegal in South Africa. Her mother was sent to a mental hospital as punishment, where the baby was born, and the baby was fostered or adopted (sources differ) until she was 13 by a mixed race ("colored") South African family and then sent to an orphanage, although she had contact with her mother's family, who paid for her education.
She became a teacher, then a journalist for Drum in the 1950s and '60s. She moved to Botswana in 1964 and became naturalized there after her South African citizenship was revoked.
Her books (novels, stories, autobiography, essays and letters) include the partly autobiographical A Question of Power (1973), When Rain Clouds Gather (1968), The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales (1977), Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (1981) and A Bewitched Crossroad: An African Saga (1984), Tales of Tenderness and Power (1989), A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings (1990), A Gesture of Belonging: Letters from Bessie Head, 1965-1979 (1991) and The Cardinals (1993).
Her later life was characterized by a series of mental breakdowns, financial hardship, alcohol dependence, alienation from her community and Botswana in general, and included a period in Lobatse Mental Hospital.
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