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This Thing Called The Future

Kirkus Reviews
"This novel takes a loving, clear-eyed look at the clash of old and new through the experience of one appealing teenager… A compassionate and moving window on a harsh world."
"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)"
- April 15, 2011 
Publishers Weekly
"… a compelling, often harrowing portrait of a struggling country, where old beliefs and rituals still have power, but can’t erase the problems of the present. Readers will be fully invested in Khosi’s efforts to secure a better future."
"For 14-year-old Khosi, life has become far more complicated than she would like. She lives with her mother, her grandmother 'Gogo,' and her younger sister, Zi, in a Zulu shantytown in South Africa, where conditions are dismal: no one has money, and there are weekly funerals for AIDS victims. On top of everything, a neighbor accuses her mother (who becomes violently ill) of stealing, and Khosi’s developing body is drawing unwanted attention, particularly from a drunken neighborhood man who attacks Khosi on multiple occasions. Despite her circumstances, Khosi is resilient; her passions are science and her unshakable connection to the spirit world. 'Science is important,' she reflects. 'So are the old ways. But because they are so stubborn, it makes it really difficult to navigate a path between them to be my own person.' Through the eyes of a conflicted teenager, Powers (The Confessional) composes a compelling, often harrowing portrait of a struggling country, where old beliefs and rituals still have power, but can’t erase the problems of the present. Readers will be fully invested in Khosi’s efforts to secure a better future. Ages 13–17. "
- March 21, 2011  Visit Website
The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books 5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars
"This is a fascinating glimpse into a worldview that, while foreign to many readers, is made plausible through Khosi’s practical and conflicted perspective."
"In a tiny house on the poverty-stricken outskirts of Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, fourteen-year-old Khosi lives between two worlds: the world of science, progress, and formal education that her mother wants for her, and the world of traditional Zulu medicine and magic that Gogo (her grandmother) believes in. She excels in science at school, but her dreams warn her of a malevolent witch who means her and her family harm, and she is plagued by a drunken man whom no one has ever seen before but who has singled her out for abuse. When her mother falls ill of “the disease of the day” (AIDS) and refuses to go to the doctor, Khosi is frantic to learn what has caused this terrible fate to befall her family. She and Gogo undergo a traditional purification ritual that reveals to Khosi not only the truth behind her mother’s illness but also her own calling to become a sangoma, a traditional healer. This is a fascinating glimpse into a worldview that, while foreign to many readers, is made plausible through Khosi’s practical and conflicted perspective. As much as she wants to please both her mother and Gogo, she ultimately learns to rely on her own experience, even when it is called into question by the boy she wants to please most of all, Little Man. Her common-sense approach to acknowledging the value of both old and new ways of thinking convince Little Man (and readers) not to be narrow-minded and dismissive of things that don’t fit neatly into a scientific paradigm and that emotions, particularly anger, are powerful forces that must be acknowledged in order to set things right. Ultimately, Khosi’s strength and self-reliance serve as a strong example that heading toward the future doesn’t mean turning one’s back on the past."
The Horn Book Magazine
"Despite pervasive HIV and the specter of rape, as well as the restrictions on girls’ freedom that are her society’s only response, Khosi manages to find her power, refuse to be a victim, and carve out a future for herself that embraces both the modern and the traditional."
"Khosi Zulu is fourteen, living in a township in South Africa. Every day, it seems, another of her neighbors dies of 'the disease of these days,' AIDS. When a witch curses Khosi and a shiftless man begins stalking her, Khosi feels torn between her mother’s scientific rationalism and her grandmother’s belief in the power of the ancestors to protect her. Then Khosi’s mother comes down with a wasting disease. Is it AIDS? Tuberculosis? The witch’s curse? Khosi feels that only a sangoma, a traditional healer, can help her. With extensive research into life in South Africa, author Powers delivers a first-person narrative from a South African girl that has many hallmarks of authenticity..... But as Khosi’s mother gets sicker and Khosi’s belief in the witch’s curse strengthens, fantastical elements enter the otherwise realistic story, quickening both narrative pace and interest. South African dialect and turns of phrase enrich the language throughout. Despite pervasive HIV and the specter of rape, as well as the restrictions on girls’ freedom that are her society’s only response, Khosi manages to find her power, refuse to be a victim, and carve out a future for herself that embraces both the modern and the traditional."
- Anita L. Burkam, 
School Library Journal
"This is a powerfully gripping, eye-opening novel that doesn’t pull any punches, and readers will long remember Khosi and the trials and tribulations facing South Africans as they venture forth into the modern world while desperately holding onto their heritage."
"Khosi, a 14-year-old living in post-apartheid South Africa, is torn between her grandmother’s superstitious beliefs in witches and sangomas (healers) and her mother’s Western belief in science and medicine. She lives in a shantytown in Pietermaritzburg with Gogo and her younger sister while their mother works in another city and comes home on the weekends. At school, Khosi earns top marks in biology, but she wonders how she can balance science, Zulu ancestral beliefs, and religion (the family is Catholic) when they seem to contradict one another. Everywhere Khosi looks, from billboards to the frequent local funerals, she sees evidence of 'the disease of these days' (HIV/AIDS). When her mother returns home ill, Khosi is torn between shame brought upon her family and trying to figure out what is wrong with her. Has the neighbor put a curse on her family? Does her mother have the disease, and, if so, does that mean Khosi’s distant father gave it to her? Khosi’s dreams torment her and seem to turn into reality, causing her to question her possible future as a sangoma. The stark reality facing South Africa’s population is delineated with heart-wrenching honesty. This is a powerfully gripping, eye-opening novel that doesn’t pull any punches, and readers will long remember Khosi and the trials and tribulations facing South Africans as they venture forth into the modern world while desperately holding onto their heritage."
- Michele Shaw, May 1, 2011 
Booklist
"....the tense story builds skillfully to an anguished revelation readers will want to discuss."
"Apartheid may be over, but for Khosi Zulu, 14, growing up in a slum near Pietermaritzburg, the daily
struggle continues with poverty, crime, and the spreading plague of HIV/AIDS. She has a scholarship to a good school and a nice boyfriend, who is a fellow classmate, but a drunk man is stalking her in the dark streets, and a furious neighbor accuses Khosi’s mother of theft, even while Mama lies dying. Grandmother (Gogo) tells Khosi to listen to the ancestors who speak to her in her dreams. But Mama wants her daughter to be a modern Zulu girl; science and Christianity are the answer,not 'superstition.' Can Khosi reconcile it all? Powers, who has spent a lot of time in South Africa and speaks Zulu, captures the local conflicts as well as the universal coming-of-age themes. Teens will sympathize with Khosi’s weariness at hearing about her parents’ heroic role in the past 'struggle,' and the tense story builds skillfully to an anguished revelation readers will want to discuss."
- Hazel Rochman, June 1, 2011 
VOYA Magazine
"Magic and science are woven together in this often stark story of AIDS and unrelenting poverty."
"Magic and science are woven together in this often stark story of AIDS and unrelenting poverty. Khosi, a fourteen-year-old South African girl, matures as the result of the strife she faces on a daily basis. She lives with her younger sister and grandmother while her mother works far away as a teacher. More than once during the day, the bells toll to announce another death, most often from AIDS. Walking to the store is treacherous because of a drunken man trying to grab and rape her; virgins are prime targets because they do not carry the disease. Khosi is frightened of many things but especially what is making her mother cough up blood. Her education and love of science tells her that her mother should see a modern doctor. Her culturally-engrained beliefs in witches, curses, dreams, and a traditional Zulu healer vie with this view. This is realistic fiction with a twist of the supernatural. Khosi is grounded in Zulu legends and folk traditions, making the intervention of her ancestors through her dreams believable. The tensions between respecting tradition and honoring one's ancestors and listening to the more modern world and its teachings keep the reader engrossed throughout the novel. Descriptive writing paints the picture of abject poverty, rampant disease, and little hope for a future; yet the reader feels that Khosi will have that elusive future. The scenes of the drunken man attempting capture Khosi to rape her are graphic, and perhaps not for the youngest middle school students."
- Susan Allen, August 10, 2011 
El Paso Scene
This Thing Called the Future is an excellent introduction to another culture and the hardships faced by young people growing up amid poverty, disease and ignorance."
"Powers’ first novel The Confessional was set close to home (she grew up in Vinton, Texas), centering on the lives of students at a thinly-veiled version of Cathedral High School in El Paso. Her second novel aimed at young adults, although taking place in South Africa, is even closer to home for this author. Powers admits in her 'Acknowledgments' that the central character, Khosi, 'has many of the same needs, desires, and fears that I had at fourteen.'

Khosi lives with her younger sister and grandmother in a South African shantytown, surrounded by poverty, AIDS, witchcraft and sexual abuse of women. All these dark forces swirl around her as she tries to find a right way - fending off a drunk sexual predator, reconciling her school studies with ancient ways, falling in love with a schoolmate, longing for a mother who must work in a far-away town and returns HIV-positive, coping with a vindictive neighbor and caring for her sister, Zi.

As the title suggests, hope is the theme throughout the book. Khosi perseveres because she sees the choices others make and believes she can make different choices with a different outcome. She manages to embrace all that is good in her life - her loving grandmother Gogo, the earnest boyfriend Little Man, even the syncretistic spirituality that includes guidance from ancestors and medicine from folk healers all mixed with Christian religion.

Powers brings to this story not only her own sensibilities from her adolescence, but years of studying African history and culture. Her first novel was published as she began a doctoral program in African Studies at Stanford University. She ultimately opted to pursue her writing career instead, although she continued some postgraduate studies at Stanford and studied Zulu in South Africa on a Fulbright-Hayes grant.

This Thing Called the Future is an excellent introduction to another culture and the hardships faced by young people growing up amid poverty, disease and ignorance. It’s written with enough depth and style that parents and teachers will find it a worthwhile read as well, especially so that they can discuss these issues with young adult readers."
- Randy Limbird, 
timesunion.com
"Powers seamlessly combines contemporary realism with the supernatural in this powerful and singular novel."
"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 
Children's Literature
"This is a poignant story about a young woman struggling to ensure her family's security although many factors are working against them."
"At fourteen, Khosi is becoming more aware of the joys and tensions of her life in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Even though her mother constantly tells her that the world is wide open to her and that education is the key out of the poverty in which they live, Khosi is conflicted. Looking around her world, she tries to reconcile her education with the religious and cultural attitudes and superstitions of her community. In addition, Khosi's mother has been very ill. Has she been cursed by an angry neighbor, or could she have AIDS? This is a poignant story about a young woman struggling to ensure her family's security although many factors are working against them. It is not quite as strong or as accessible as Stratten's Chanda's Secret, but it still a solid book for teen readers, most likely girls who are looking for a strong female main character."
- Jean Boreen, August 10, 2011 
Out Smart Magazine
"Khosi’s story is not only an everywoman story of a girl growing up, it is an allegory of all the many challenges facing South Africa and its people."
"This latest offering in young-adult fiction by J.L. Powers makes the personal political as the author details the coming of age of Khosi, a young girl living in one of the townships. Khosi lives with her beloved grandmother, who adheres to the traditional ways. Her mother, who works in another city, is sure the only thing that will save her girls is an education in the new ways of the new world. This struggle between the old and the new is part of daily life. The next-door neighbor believes Khosi’s mother, under the guise of helping an ignorant woman navigate this brave new world, has stolen the cash life insurance due her after her husband’s death. She engages a witch to exact revenge. It is easy to believe in the power of witches, someone is dying every day. Is it witchcraft or AIDS, the disease everyone is warned about every day everywhere they look? Khosi’s mother begins to waste away, coughing up blood and refusing to see a doctor. Daughter and grandmother collude to see a traditional healer in hopes of lifting the curse. Life goes on through all of this. Khosi finds herself first being verbally harassed, then physically harassed, then assaulted by a strange old man who is not quite human. Is he a dream or is he real? Khosi is determined to remain 'pure' for her future husband, finish school, and become a nurse, a wife, and a mother. She finds simple compassion and strength in her developing relationship with the traditional healer. Once her mother dies, Khosi realizes her mother did indeed steal the money. After a long internal struggle, she returns the money to the neighbor, decides to apprentice herself to the healer and train later in Western medicine. She and her young man will figure out how to have the life they want. Khosi’s story is not only an everywoman story of a girl growing up, it is an allegory of all the many challenges facing South Africa and its people."
- Angel Curtis, August 10, 2011 
Christian Science Monitor
"This Thing Called the Future may deal with bleak topics, but there is hope and triumph, too. As Khosi looks toward that mysterious thing called the future, she believes she can make hers beautiful despite the sorrow around her."
"Khosi is a girl caught between two worlds. Her grandmother believes in the old ways of Africa, a world where witches exist and dead ancestors guard the living. Her mother puts faith in western science and the modern world. Khosi believes in both.

Written for young adults, This Thing Called the Future, is set in post-apartheid South Africa, where people have just overcome one societal plague and now face another: HIV. Fourteen-year-old Khosi lives in a world where sexual assault is rampant and can lead to infection, where a partner’s infidelity can be a death sentence.

The novel is intended for young adults and has several staples of that genre. There’s Khosi’s excitement over her first serious crush and her first menstruation, as well as her doubt that she will ever be as strong or as beautiful as some of the other women in her life.

But her worries go beyond what are typical for characters of the genre. Her best friend is having an affair with an older man, who may be infected. Khosi is routinely harassed by the town drunk, and even then, rape is not her biggest concern. When the man attacks her, she thinks, 'If he rapes me, God, please don’t let him have HIV! I don’t want to die!'

There are good men in Khosi’s world, but they are absent. Her father and uncle live in a different city. The bright spot in Khosi’s world is Little Man, a kind classmate and sometimes protector. She sees the other men in her world as crocodiles, predators who seek young girls.

'In the past, it was always the men who protected the community. And now, they are the ones we must fear,' Khosi’s grandmother, Gogo, remarks.

Though author J.L. Powers is an American, she has taught African history at a number of colleges and universities and knows some Zulu, the language of the book’s characters. She sprinkles the book with Zulu words, and appends a handy glossary of words for readers. The richness of those words adds to the environment as much as the descriptions of Khosi’s town and its characters.

This Thing Called the Future may deal with bleak topics, but there is hope and triumph, too. As Khosi looks toward that mysterious thing called the future, she believes she can make hers beautiful despite the sorrow around her."
- September 2, 2011 
Chicago Tribune
"This novel offers an intimate glimpse into the challenges of being a contemporary teenage girl in South Africa."
- September 28, 2011  Visit Website
Stanford Alumni Magazine
"Bright and responsible, Khosi is growing up with her mother, grandmother and younger sister in a community devastated by AIDS and gangsters. She's torn between traditional beliefs and modern ambitions—and Powers, writing her second novel, makes it clear that Khosi's circumstances permit no facile answers."
Ann Angel, author of Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing
"Khosi's heartbreaking and redemptive coming-of-age story compels us to face the demons within cultural superstitions and choose a future that can be changed."
Emily Wing Smith, author of The Way He Lived and Back When You Were Easier to Love
"In a literary landscape cluttered with the imagined powers of the paranormal, This Thing Called the Future introduces us to the reality that supernatural strength exists here and now. Gripping, honest, and eye-opening, this book will change the way you see the world."
Sarah Ellis, author of Odd Man Out and The Several Lives of Orphan Jack
"J.L. Powers takes the challenges and sorrows of contemporary South Africa and renders them powerfully immediate in the character of Khosi, a girl negotiating coming of age in her post-apartheid, AIDS-ravaged country. Provocative, unvarnished, loving."
William Beinart, Author of Twentieth-Century South Africa
"Basing her story on detailed research, Powers gets into the shoes of her imagined protagonist and sensitively explores her perceptions. This is a wonderful book with which to think about contemporary South Africa - about the trials of everyday life, about dreams, witchcraft, physical danger, adolescent love, and not least about ambition."
"J.L. Powers has written a fascinating novel about life from the vantage point of a teenage girl in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Her life is full of difficult challenges: poverty, the demanding tasks of getting to school; lecherous old men; girlfriends succumbing to sugar-daddies; and not least, a mother dying of AIDS. Basing her story on detailed research, Powers gets into the shoes of her imagined protagonist and sensitively explores her perceptions. This is a wonderful book with which to think about contemporary South Africa - about the trials of everyday life, about dreams, witchcraft, physical danger, adolescent love, and not least about ambition. By its end you can not only feel for, but feel with, Khosi. It is a work of fiction, in which the dramatic anxieties of witchcraft and dreams sometimes outweigh the ordinary. Yet this novel is also an essay in social realism that has within it a sympathetic, powerful critique of contemporary South Africa."
The 4:00 Book Hook
"A fascinating look at life in a shanty town in present day South Africa."
- February 6, 2012 
Teen Voices
"...the research J.L. Powers did is evident in every detail.This book offers a daunting, sincere, and profoundly human view of what’s happening on the other side of the globe."
- May 22, 2012 

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