Reading through “Sello” in Bessie Head’s A Question of Power I was struck by how many different power dynamics and struggles existed, particularly with the use of religious and mythological figures, race/color, and female/male.
The first one, and, for me, the most in your face one, is the amount of times powerful and mythological religious figures come up. We get multiple mentions of God, the gods, Buddha, Medusa, Mahamaya, Perseus, Isis, Osiris, etc. The reason I include mythology with religion is because there is a strong overlap. When talking about Medusa, the text states, “Hadn’t they a name for her in India – Mahamaya, the Weaver of Illusions, the kind that trapped men in their own passions?” (98). Medusa seems to be a controlling force in this book. After doing a bit of research on Mahamaya, I discovered that she was Buddha’s mom. Although I am not as familiar with Buddhism as I am with Christianity (epic fail from that minor I was a class away from in religious studies), I couldn’t help but see a God/Buddha Medusa/Mahamaya dynamic. There’s a really poignant scene where Sello tells Elizabeth that even though he has God in him she doesn’t, but she argues saying that she is. I almost wonder if the Medusa figure was a sense of control for Sello if he felt that Elizabeth was controlling him. It adds this interesting power struggle, too, because then there is a ruler of God when in many Western faiths, God is seen as the divine ruler. Medusa disappearing at the end of this section was Elizabeth letting go of power.
One scene that ties in with religion, but also with the male/female dynamic is the scene where Sello cuts a woman’s hair. They describe him cutting a lock of her hair with scissors as an “image of holiness” (37). Even though it is a gender role reversal, I couldn’t help think about Samson and Delilah. Since the woman’s hair was cut, she could never be holy, which contradicts her as an image of holiness. Also, it illustrates a male/female power dynamic because since he cut her hair, he’s keeping her away from holiness.
Then, it is important to talk about race, especially the differences between South Africa and Montabeng. Elizabeth doesn’t belong in either place. In South Africa, she is rejected for being too dark, while in Montabeng she is rejected for being too light. She is a mix of black and white, and a coming together of the power dynamics of these forces. What is also interesting here is the amount of times that the colors black and white come up throughout the novel aside from race. At one point, the text states “Human relationships with her were starkly black and white” (77). It was interesting that the relationships were described this way. Although, on the surface, we can take it to mean that it has no gray and unknown areas, I think it can be looked at as a blending of cultures as well.
Her floating between cultures and races is similar to Ono floating between two worlds, but different in the sense that she has never really belong to either. I will be curious to see where this book goes in the next section, “Dan.”