Today, it’s a review of This Thing Called the Future over at Books From Bleh to Basically Amazing.
This Thing Called the Future by J.L. Powers
Set in an impoverished South African shantytown where post-Apartheid freedom is overshadowed by rampant AIDS and intractable poverty, this novel takes a loving, clear-eyed look at the clash of old and new through the experience of one appealing teenager. Khosi, 14, lives in an all-female household with her sister, Zi, and frail grandmother, Gogo, subsisting on Gogo’s pension and Mama’s salary as a teacher in the city (she comes home on weekends). Everyone in Khosi’s world is poor. Where the struggle to survive is all-consuming, family loyalty trumps community. Clashes between Zulu customs and contemporary values further erode cultural ties and divide families. A scholarship student, Khosi loves science, but getting to school means dodging gangs and rapists hunting AIDS-free virgins. After a witch curses Khosi’s family and Mama falls ill, Khosi and Gogo seek aid from a traditional Zulu healer, which Mama dismisses as superstition while fear and poverty keep her from accessing modern medicine. As stresses mount, Khosi’s ancestors speak, offering her guidance. Supported by them, her family and classmate Little Man, Khosi vows to create a better future by synthesizing old and new ways, yet the obstacles she faces—some inherited, others newly acquired—are staggering. A compassionate and moving window on a harsh world. (glossary of Zulu words) (Paranormal fiction. 12 & up)
Read an interview with J.L. Powers at Through the Tollbooth!
Q: What about this novel makes you most proud?
There is absolutely nothing on the market like it! It is young adult magical realism, set in a poverty-stricken township of South Africa. It is a love story but it also deals with the clash between science and traditional medicine in Africa, and it highlights and focuses on the HIV-AIDS epidemic in the part of the world with the highest rate of HIV infections—the heart of the epidemic.
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?”
Advance review copies of This Thing Called the Future went out today and my publisher sent me a link to a YouTube video of Urban Dance Squad singing “Prayer for my Demo” at a 1990 concert….
Here it is: Urban Dance Squad-\”Prayer for my Demo\”
A few days ago, I started a new y.a. novel. I should be working on my nonfiction book on healing, South Africa, religion, science–all that jazz, the reason I went to South Africa in the first place. But so much happened to me while I was there, and I interviewed so many people, that it feels like I need a few weeks to synthesize that information, to process the new changed me.
That is, if I am changed.
Except…I know I am. I just haven’t entirely figured out how yet. I had a few epiphanies while I was gone. Some things inside of me broke, but in a good way. Some things inside of me feel calmer now. And one of the first things I did when I got back was buy an orange tree to honor my ancestors–actually, two particular ancestors, my great-grandfather on my father’s side and a child that my mother miscarried–like a sangoma that I visisted advised me to do. We planted it last week in the front yard.
I’m aware more than ever that hokey-ness has nothing to do with whether a thing is true or not. Still, I hate hokey. Which is why all we did is dig a hole and plant the tree and now we’ll watch it grow.
The story of how I visited a sangoma, an African traditional healer, and why I believed what she had to say about my life–that’s a long story, one that will surely be in the book, but one I’m not ready to tell yet. At least not here.
But I can say that I like seeing that orange tree out there in my front yard. I like knowing that it will grow tall and strong, and bear fruit for many years to come, even after I’ve moved away.
I like honoring the people who came before me, reminding myself of what they did for me–and what they might still be doing for me.
Had two fascinating conversations yesterday on the plane with the two gentlemen I was sitting next to.
The first man, an Indian who has lived in South Africa for twenty years, introduced himself by asking me if I’m French. I told him, “Non.”
“Funny,” he said, “you look French.”
His name is Varkey George and he’s the director of the Student Health and Welfare Centres Organisation. He hosts student groups that come to Cape Town to do charity work. I told him about the book I was writing, and he thought it odd that I define healing so broadly.
“Well, why not?” I asked. “People seek healing from all kinds of practitioners and I’m not sure there’s a logical correspondence between the type of illness they’re experiencing and the type of healing they’re seeking. I think people have different ideas of what healing is, so they don’t necessarily feel healed by a medical doctor even if their body is in good shape after seeing one.”
He could understand that. The question, he said, is this: “What is the wound?”
A good question to ask. What IS the wound? Even if you are physically ill, that may not be the wound you’re seeking to cure even when trying to cure your body.
I also sat next to Barnard Gardiner, who works for the Red Cross as the Manager of the HIV Global Programme, Health and Care Department. We had a long and involved conversation about AIDS, especially AIDS in South Africa, and he asked several provocative questions about how we could stop the epidemic in Africa.
First, he asked me if I knew about the theory that HIV is spread when people are engaged in simultaneous relationships, not necessarily promiscuously but one man has two relationships and both his girlfriends also have two relationships, and so on and so forth, until it creates a network where HIV is easily transmitted. Of course I was so he continued. He said that gay men were able to stop the transmission of HIV because, without coordination, they somehow figured this out and realized that they didn’t need to use condoms all the time, but they should use condoms outside of their primary relationship. So they didn’t use condoms with their primary relationship but when they slept with other people, they did.
He suggested that there are two ways to stop the epidemic—either be monogamous or use condoms all the time, something that no group has been able to do. He said that nobody realized that Africans had concurrent relationships—women as well as men—until the epidemic, so he said, “We’re asking Africans to either use condoms all the time (something nobody has been able to do) or to stop being African.”
I thought this was a disturbing way to put it. Is it African to have concurrent relationships all the time? Polygamy, yes, but to my knowledge, there is not a long history of African *women* also being involved in more than one relationship at a time. I pointed out that there was no evidence from archival materials and early European recordings of African behavior that would suggest this was a common part of African culture. And Europeans were certainly happy to exaggerate any behavior they found odd!
“It may be a common part of African culture today,” I said, “but I struggle to believe that it’s a long-standing feature of African culture, that it’s been around for centuries, because there’s no evidence of it in the record. Maybe it could have gone by unnoticed for so long but…”
It disturbed me to think that the reason the epidemic has spread in Africa is intrinsically related to something that is fundamentally African. Maybe that’s true and I just have sickly-sweet, politically correct, academic-trained-by-the-book knee-jerk reactions that are misplaced and misguided. But still…
Then I remembered a few things: thigh sex and Facing Mt. Kenya. I told him that there are African practices that indicate that women did have multiple partners when they were young, but they didn’t engage in penetrative sex. I told him how Jomo Kenyatta outlined practices that the Gikuyu engaged in, that young people were encouraged to indulge in sexual play with multiple partners as long as they didn’t go all the way. And the Zulu trained women how to have “thigh sex,” that is, how to get a man to come by rubbing his penis together with their thighs.
He got kind of excited when I mentioned that and said that this might be the answer—if Africans could re-learn some of these traditional behaviors, then maybe it could stop the epidemic.
Like any good academically-trained historian, I have knee-jerk reactions to the concept of “tradition” as well. There are always people that believe if we go back to some idyllic past, to practices that they believe have been corrupted or have disappeared from society, that we will eliminate or reduce some problem that has cropped up in modern life. But many times, our idea of what is “traditional” is based more in nostalgia and romance than in reality. And furthermore, I’m not sure it’s ever possible to resurrect old practices that way without enormous controversy.
Both interesting conversations on my way to South Africa to explore this topic!
I’m currently revising 50 pages of my novel WITCHES, HEALERS, AND THIS THING CALLED THE FUTURE for a publishing company that’s interested.
I have to laugh, because whenever I need to start revising something, I do the same thing everytime. It’s routine:
First, I have to find just the right music to listen to. Okay, good, Emily Wells. She’s perfect to write to.
Now it’s a pressing need to check if anybody has sent me messages on MySpace, my blog, or in email. Ooh, look, somebody friended me on Facebook—who IS that? Somebody I haven’t seen or heard from since ohmigod COLLEGE. How many freaking years has that been? How old am I again?
Suddenly, I need to examine my face up close—as if the flaws on my face are easier to deal with than the flaws on the page. This morning as I examine my face, I find minute traces of the chile colorado sauce I cooked last night. Obviously, forgot to wash my face last night. Must do now! Can’t wait another second!
Yep, the routine is always the same. I’ll probably through a similar process again in fifteen minutes.
It’s amazing how many blogs I post when I’m revising my novels….
I started obsessively collecting these little healing pamphlets the last week of my stay in South Africa. (That’s one reason why these two are from Cape Town, though I have a few from Pretoria. I didn’t notice these in Durban or Pietermaritzburg.) I’m sorry they don’t show up really well with this white background. However, as you will see, if you click on these to blow them up so you can see the full pamphlet and read the promises they make, all of them claim to be a “Dr.” and all promise wonderful things (penis growth, relief from bad luck, relief from witchcraft, relief from the Tokoloshe–an elf-sized-creature with an enormous penis that bewitches people, esp. women). Also notice that “Dr. Shmal” claims expertise abroad–a great example of the “nothing good can come out of Galilee” syndrome, where outsiders and expertise learned elsewhere or non-locals are offered more clout than locals.
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