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Our thanks to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for funding the Madness and Literature Network. Each year the AHRC provides funding from the Government to support research and postgraduate study in the arts and humanities, from archaeology and English literature to design and dance. The range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK. Further information on the AHRC is available on their website.

This project builds on a current project with The Leverhulme Trust on the representation of madness in post-war British and American Fiction. Membership to the Madness and Literature Network is free - Please register under ‘New User Registration’. Benefits of membership include the possibility of attending our invitation-only seminars, being kept fully informed of developments in the broad field of Health Humanities here at Nottingham, and the opportunity to submit fully peer-reviewed book reviews to our database, which will be accredited to the submitting reviewer.

Please note, you are welcome to use these resources and the website for teaching or other purposes, however please do drop us a line and let us know how you are finding the site, or any suggestions you may have for improvements. Thank you.

Bibliography of First-Person Narratives of Madness in English (5th edition)

The 5th edition of the Bibliography of First-Person Narratives of Madness in English is available for download (PDF)

1st International Health Humanities Conference: Madness and Literature was held at Nottingham 6th - 8th August 2010

1st International Health Humanities Conference: Madness and Literature was held at Nottingham 6th - 8th August 2010. See 'Seminars and Conference' for further details.

1st International Health Humanities Conference: Madness and Literature - Conference Programme

Revealing Read

A Question of Power

By Bessie Head



Bessie Head’s A Question of Power has been read as “Mariner’s Guide to Paranoia” (Evasdaughter 1989), Lacanian psychosis (Hogan 1994) and an example of ancestral communication (Bhana 2004). Regardless of the interpretative framework we employ to understand the madness it depicts, it offers a raw and powerful account of a painful subjection to powers beyond the protagonist’s and the reader’s control. Despite its emphasis on growth and gardening as counterforces to madness, A Question of Power lingers in the reader’s mind as a narrative of pain.  




Bessie Head (1937-1986) was born in a mental hospital in South Africa to a white mother. Her father was, presumably, a black stable hand. A Question of Power narrates a story of Elizabeth, with similar background. After a series of foster homes and receiving a colonial education in a missionary school, Elizabeth like Head in her time, takes an exit visa to Botswana to escape a bad relationship and the Apartheid-ridden South Africa. In A Question of Power the single mother migrant’s efforts to settle in a new country and community are interwoven with in experience of intense poverty and a mental breakdown.


Elizabeth experiences two breakdowns that have different functions in the story: while the first one makes her lose her position as a teacher, it initiates her integration in a development project that eventually leads to her becoming a village gardener and a valuable member of the community. The second, longer madness, leads to her hospitalization and marks a rupture in her integration: she is removed from the context of her everyday life, her son and meaningful activities. The two phases of Elizabeth’s madness are marked by her becoming a victim of two hallucinatory male perpetrators, Sello and Dan who torture her in her own home. The two parts of the book are named after them. Sello subjects her atrocities of human history; Dan subjects her to sexual violence and harassment.


In A Question of Power mental turmoil is seen as a journey to knowledge. What holds Elizabeth together throughout her madness is her conviction that her victim position grants her knowledge of the functions and mechanisms of power. Paradoxically, this conviction also paralyses her agency at the face of her perpetrators. Throughout her madness Elizabeth is somewhat capable of mothering her son whose presence is depicted as an important counterforce to madness. What hold her together are kindness, work and friendship, acting as a mistress of her own home and caring for others - also at the times when “demons rampage within.”





Bhana, Hershini (2004) ”Reading Ghostly Desire: Writing the Edges of Bessie Head’s A Question of Power.” in Emerging Perspactives on Bessie Head. Ibrahim, Huma (ed.) Trenton, Eritrea: Africa World Press.


Evasdaughter, Eva (1989) “Bessie Head’s A Question of Power Read as a Mariner’s Guide to Paranoia.” In Research in African Literature, (20)1.


Hogan, Patrick Colm (1994) “”Bessie Head’s A Question of Power: a Lacanian Psychosis” in Mosaic 27 (2), 95-112.


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The School of English Studies
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MA in Health Communication
(by web-based distance learning)

Meeting the challenges of communication - The MA programme in Health Communication provides a unique opportunity to investigate language and communication in various health care contexts. The course gives students a thorough grounding in the concepts, theories and research methods used in this area.

MA in Health Communication PDF Leaflet


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