Book Review Wednesday: This Thing Called the Future

Happy belated book birthday to Jessica (J.L.) Powers whose book, This Thing Called the Future, was officially launched on May 1st.
Jessica was in my Picture Book Certificate class at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

From our beloved professor, Sarah Ellis, this summary:
“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.” –Sarah Ellis, professor in the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and reviewer for The Horn Book and the New York Times.

J.L. Powers was conceived in northern Kenya, grew up in the big bad border town of El Paso, Texas, and eats jalapeños on everything—but that doesn’t mean she was able to stomach the fiery pepper of Mozambique known as the piri-piri! About ten years ago, she became so obsessed with South Africa that she got not one but two master’s degrees in African history. She’s so confused by now that when she tries to speak Spanish, she ends up speaking Zulu instead. This Thing Called the Future is her second young adult novel.

Because I’m a little late coming to the party, there has already been a flurry of postings regarding the book on the kidlitosphere. Hooray for buzz! I’ll keep my questions to a minimum and hope that you’ll check out these wonderful posts.

The book has already been listed on this children’s booklist for Social Justice:
Here is an interview with Jessica on Through the Tollbooth that focusses on her path to publication:
A write up and interview with a contest:
And an interview that deals with the weighty issues that the book deals with at:

Here are a couple of questions that are craft related and one gender-based questions to get us thinking critically about subject. Enjoy!

As a fellow student of writing I found most interesting the issues and choices involved with bringing the South African culture and Zulu language, that you know so much about, to an audience that knows so little. It must be difficult not to switch into professor mode and to become didactic. Did you have these impulses? How do you walk the line between telling a good story and explaining the culture?

This was actually really hard to do. In earlier drafts, I included a lot more history and readers told me it seemed didactic. It was a painful process of excising scenes that didn’t move the story along but which I’d added to give "background," then somehow figuring out how I could give that same background in just one to two sentences in another scene somewhere else–a scene that was essential. I easily wrote fifteen drafts of this novel. All the time, my editor would be asking me questions. For example: "Why is this drunk man following Khosi (my 14-year-old protagonist) around all the time? Why doesn’t anybody do anything about it?" I had to somehow figure out how to make it obvious that drunk men are a perpetual feature of the South African township landscape or how normal it is for Khosi to believe that her dead relatives–her ancestors–are protecting her and speaking into her life without writing encyclopedic-style entries about it. I will also say that it’s important to consider audience when thinking about how much information you put in and how much you leave out. It’s conceivable that a young Zulu girl, reading this book, might think I’d included too much information. But since I was writing for an American audience, I had to figure out how to balance what an American audience would need to know to understand the culture vs. writing a compelling story. I hope I erred always on the side of compelling story! William Beinert, a preeminent South African historian who teaches at Oxford, read my novel and told me it was "quite anthropological," meaning that I dug deep and tried to present a coherent understanding of African belief systems here…all within a story that I hope people will want to read.

Khosi uses many Zulu words and phrases. You tend to present them in context which usually is enough but you also include an extensive glossary. Was there ever any questions about how much Zulu or the inclusion of a glossary in the editorial process?

In early drafts, I had a LOT more Zulu. Honestly, I was probably showing off. It was good that one of my writing friends told me to get rid of most of it. I also didn’t want to do the whole clunky thing of using Zulu and then providing the translation for it within the dialogue, e.g., "Sawubona! Hello!" or "Angazi…I don’t know." That seems really affected. So I tried to make it obvious what the Zulu words meant within the context of the sentence, with minimal, non-intrusive explanations at times, as needed. But I always felt the glossary was necessary. Some of the definitions are really quite detailed/specific, pertaining to the culture, and you can’t provide that within the narrative.

There were a number of instances in the book where women are pitted against women: when the female victim is blamed for rape for example. I see it on a much smaller level in my middle school classroom. Why do you think this culture of woman against woman persists?

Women are always competing against each other. As often as there is a warm, compassionate, supporting relationship between two women, there is a relationship where two women tear each other down. That’s true everywhere, unfortunately. In South Africa, it is usually women who are the traditional healers, the sangomas. They are the ones who try to minimize and dispel conflict in communities. It is also primarily women who practice witchcraft. The purpose of witchcraft, in South African society, is to sow discord and disceit, steal wealth from a relative, or kill somebody that you hate or who has something you want. The very basis of witchcraft is this problem of competition between women for scarce resources–men, money, work. In the U.S. we have the same problem, we just deal with it more subtly–yet just as wickedly. I had a baby seven months ago. I can see how young mothers compete with each other rather than supporting each other. It makes me sad.