Week-end Book Review: This Thing Called the Future by J.L. Powers

Sunday, November 18th, 2012


J.L. Powers,
This Thing Called the Future
Cinco Puntos Press, 2011.

Ages: 12+

Fourteen-year old Khosi lives with her grandmother, Gogo, and five-year-old sister, Zi, in the township of Imbali, a settlement created during apartheid when blacks were not allowed to live in the nearby city of Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.  Her parents fought in the struggle to end apartheid and, while they have no regrets, they want better opportunities and education for their children who face an uncertain future. Apartheid is over, but poverty is still rampant, and so many young people are dying from “the disease of these days,” a euphemism for AIDS.

Khosi’s mother commutes each week to Greytown where she works as a schoolteacher.  Her father, who cannot afford to pay the lobolo, or bride price, to marry her mother, lives with his own mother in Durban, an hour away. Khosi loves and respects all her elders and tries her best to honor them, but that is not always possible.  Her mother “believes in the things of white men, science and God only,” while Gogo, a Christian also, still believes in the old ways of the Zulu.  This is just one of the tensions with which Khosi grapples.  She is no longer a child, but not yet an adult, which means facing new responsibilities and making choices of her own.

Khosi realizes that men have begun to notice her in a way that is both exciting and dangerous.  Her best friend, Thandi, plays up her sexuality and dates older men, a fact that worries Khosi who understands how AIDS is spread.  Khosi’s own romantic interest is Little Man, a school friend she believes she can trust, but she’s not sure how to proceed with this relationship.  She would like to discuss it with her mother, but she has been staying in Greytown even over the weekends lately and has lost a worrying amount of weight.

Meanwhile, the next door neighbor claims Khosi’s mother robbed her of her late husband’s insurance settlement.  The neighbor has joined forces with the witch Gogo has been warning Khosi to avoid ever since she could remember.  When Khosi and Gogo consult the sangoma, a traditional Zulu faith healer, Khosi feels herself drawn to the old ways though she knows her mother would disapprove. As Khosi works through the ordinary trials of adolescence while trying to balance the expectations of her elders, it becomes clear that her mother’s illness is far more serious than she had first admitted.

J.L. Powers is also known for her 2007 novel, The Confessional, which deals with racial tension and immigration on the U.S./Mexico border.  With This Thing Called the Future she has created a memorable character with whom readers will easily identify, and has thrown into relief the complexity of issues facing the young people of South Africa today.

Abigail Sawyer
November, 2012