Dogs, Disease, Poisons, Potions, South Africa, and my new novel!

I feed my dogs first thing each morning, otherwise, life would be miserable for all of us. Then I try–*try* being the operative word here—to make them wait until 4:30 before I feed them again.

 Around 3:30, they start pushing their noses into my hands to interrupt my typing. “C’mon, we’re hungry!” Petting doesn’t satiate their voracious appetite. Telling them, “It’s not time yet,” doesn’t work either (no matter how exasperated I feel!). Their noses get ever more insistent. “C’mon, Jessica, we are not playin’ around!”

 That’s a little bit how I feel as I wait for my second novel, This Thing Called the Future, to be released on May 1. I feel like I’ve been waiting a looooooooong time for this one to come out!

 I started writing This Thing Called the Future in the summer of 2007, just after my first y.a. novel, The Confessional, was released. I’d taken a leave of absence from my Ph.D. program in African History at Stanford to promote the book and I was already thinking I wouldn’t go back. The scariest thing about leaving the Ph.D. program was the realization that it meant saying goodbye to my easy access to South Africa. Stanford was paying for my Zulu language study…summer travel…etc. But I was miserable trying to be both an academic and a writer and I knew I had to make a choice.

 So I left the Ph.D. program and I started writing this book. It was a way of feeding my voracious appetite for all things South African. And it was one of those books you feel like you *have* to write, anyway. I’d felt that way ever since the day my two Zulu sisters—thirteen and fourteen years old—crawled onto my bed one night before I went to sleep and giggled out stories of sugar daddies and secret boyfriends, men in their thirties.

 “How do you meet these men?” I asked. All I’d ever seen was two very responsible young women, largely in charge of the household because Mama worked in another city as a teacher and only came home on the weekends. Gogo, the grandmother, was the adult in charge but she was tired and slow, with weak knees and swollen ankles.

 They eyed each other. Then the13-year-old volunteered, “We sneak out to go to parities sometimes.” 

 “We are the V.I.P.’s at those parties,” my 14-year-old sister said.

 “Does Gogo know?”

 “No! Well…She caught me kissing my boyfriend at church last Sunday,” the 13-year-old said. “So I’m not allowed to go to church by myself anymore.”

 “Are you guys, like, protecting yourselves?” This was my vague question, unsure how, exactly, to broach the topic of condoms or abstinence with girls so young, possibly having sex with men so old. And I was a guest in their home. I was pretty sure Gogo wouldn’t be pleased if I took the liberty to provide sex education, American-style.

 Yet I was worried. The official HIV-positive rate is 30% among Zulu women ages 15-35. (Not to mention, it’s never good when a 13-year-old is dating a man in his 30s, certainly a case for the police in the U.S.)

 So that sparked the novel I started to write in the summer of 2007. What would it be like, I asked myself, to be 14 and to start liking the opposite sex when HIV is running rampant in the community and people you know—close people, members of your family—are dying? Would you become afraid of love? What would your attitude towards sex be? What would you think of the older men seeking your attention? Would you find it flattering or scary?

 Meanwhile, I was following this sexy little thread of research I’d uncovered—news reports about the killings of suspected witches all over South Africa in the late 90s and early 2000s. Why were so many people killing witches? Were these so-called witches actually practicing witchcraft or were they entirely innocent? And what did witchcraft mean in South Africa anyway, especially to this imagined young woman of 14 years old? Scholar Adam Ashforth described modern South Africans as experiencing a great deal of “spiritual insecurity” and the killings of suspected witches is only one example of it.

 I soon discovered that practicing witchcraft in an African context looks only a little different than the western concept of a woman chanting hexes over a cauldron at midnight in a deserted forest. A Zulu who practices witchcraft is actually trying to send illness or death to a neighbor or family member.  Usually, they purchase a poison or potion, which they then sprinkle in somebody’s yard or give to them in their food. The curse can bring all sorts of bad luck and/or illness. People told me that many of these illnesses mimic Western diseases—hypertension, for example, or arthritis, or some kind of STD—but they can’t be cured with Western medicine. That is how you know it is witchcraft.

 In the context of HIV-AIDS, when enormous numbers of young people are dropping dead from terrible diseases, the temptation to attribute it to witchcraft is enormous. But most South Africans understand HIV as a virus, communicated through the transmission of blood or bodily fluids. Writer Jonny Steinberg has suggested that Africans have readily accepted the biological explanation; to believe it is caused by witchcraft is too terrible for most people to contemplate. The epidemic is so widespread that if it was witchcraft, it would mean possibly hundreds of thousands of neighbors and family members engaging in wholesale murder—and the insecurity that would engender would be too terrible to imagine.

 I was curious to explore all these threads—the young woman falling in love, surrounded by people dying of AIDS, living in a community experiencing great spiritual insecurity. And it took me years to layer it all into one cohesive novel, one that depicts the realistic and magical and loving and scary world that a young urban Zulu girl occupies in 2011.

 Here it is….3 ½ years later, on the cusp of being released to the reading public and my friends and my family. It’s a nerve-racking and exciting business.

 I can’t wait until May 1 when it’s available. Which is why I’ll be releasing an excerpt next month on my website, a little snack of what’s to come.

Back to the dogs:  Yesterday, I fed them at 3:45. When they started bugging me, I thought, “What the hell? Why make ‘em wait when they don’t have to?”

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