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This Thing Called The Future

"Between 1946 and 1991, the white minority government of South Africa subjugated the black majority through a system known as apartheid. The laws of apartheid identified blacks as members of arbitrarily assigned 'tribal homelands,' permitted to live near cities and on white-owned farms only if they worked there, at low wages and in constant fear of firing, arrest, and deportation. Blacks living outside their 'homelands' had to carry passes and were subject to other laws that prohibited them from beaches, parks, or other public facilities. Schools and hospitals open to blacks were rigidly segregated, much like under Jim Crow in the American South, which served as a model for the architects of apartheid.
Decades of struggle, along with an expanding international boycott, led to the end of apartheid, but its legacy continues. The system of discrimination impoverished black families that were forced to accept near-starvation wages while their bosses profited from the fruits of their labor. Inferior schools and the need to quit school to support families meant that parents lacked the skills to get better jobs and to help their own children succeed educationally. Many blacks died in the battle to end apartheid, depriving their families of income and non-economic support.

Enter AIDS at the moment South African blacks attained their freedom. Poverty, lack of education, overcrowded living conditions, and a suspicion among many—borne of decades of white oppression—that the epidemic was a conspiracy, a last-gasp attempt at genocide, resulted in a particularly devastating AIDS epidemic in South Africa. Many of those who contracted AIDS were teachers, a profession that, despite paying poorly in under-resourced black schools, would have allowed their families to attain middle class status eventually. The death of these teachers further weakened schools that remained segregated despite the end of the apartheid laws.

How the struggle against apartheid gave way to the struggle against poverty and AIDS is the subject of J.L. Powers’s new novel This Thing Called the Future (Cinco Puntos Press, 2011). Growing up in a shantytown in today’s South Africa, 14-year-old Khosi Zulu rarely sees her mother, a teacher in a distant town, or her father, who lives with his mother even farther away. She is shocked, therefore, when her mother returns to the shantytown after a two-month absence, wasted and coughing blood. Although Khosi’s mother shuns traditional healing in favor of modern medicine, she refuses to visit a clinic for medicine because she doesn’t want to find out that she has AIDS. Like many people with a devastating disease that she knows is incurable (though AIDS can in fact be controlled for many years, given more resources than Khosi’s family has), this relatively educated woman is in denial.
Schooled in traditional medicine by her Gogo (grandmother) and the neighborhood healer, Khosi wants to be a healer herself, a mission reinforced by her regularly occurring dreams and visions; yet to achieve this aim, she has to stand up to a witch who has cursed her, a drunk man who harasses and beats her because she won’t let him be her 'sugar daddy,' and a neighbor who accuses Khosi’s mother of stealing her insurance money and threatens revenge. In addition, Khosi has promised her mother she will become a nurse and leave South Africa, and the act of choosing between healer (the past) and nurse (the future) means showing disrespect to at least one of her ancestors.

Powers seamlessly combines contemporary realism with the supernatural in this powerful and singular novel for readers in middle school through adult. The story is grounded in Zulu beliefs, legends, and folk traditions, giving believability to Khosi’s dreams and the interventions of her ancestors. Furthermore, the dreams are relevant to the story events, and all of the scenes, whether realistic or supernatural or morphing from one into the other, tie into the central theme of how respect for ancestors can guide a young person toward the future. While maintaining her central theme as the focus throughout, Powers builds tension and interest by raising the stakes through the three pursuers of Khosi—the witch, the drunk, and the vengeful neighbor—her mother’s physical decline, and the life-threatening purging ceremony that Khosi and her Gogo endure in hopes of saving Khosi’s mother.

Powers, who holds an advanced degree in Africana Studies from the University at Albany, spent many years in South Africa, living with a Zulu family and learning about the challenges South Africa’s majority black population has faced following the end of apartheid. Her remarkable novel shows that oppression does not end because laws get changed. People who have been robbed of their fair wages for generations, denied educational opportunities and the right to govern themselves, forced to live in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, and regarded as less than human continue to suffer. Just as Moses and his generation wandered the desert for 40 years, only to die before reaching the Promised Land, hope for a more prosperous and peaceful life following generations of legalized oppression lies with young people like Khosi, born into freedom."
- Lyn Miller-Lachmann, June 26, 2011 

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