review: This thing called the future

Way back in November, I had the pleasure of meeting J. L. Powers. We talked for a while and she made sure to give me a signed copy of her (then) newly released book, This thing called the future. I wanted to read it; I really did! But, life got in the way as it often does and it took me months to pick it up. There may have been a moment when she wondered if I was ever going to review her book, but given the facts that

I doubt she ever gave me a second thought.

There’s something about that freedom to move on, to explore options that she and I both have that her characters in This thing called the future ddn’t. I don’t know if we often realize how immensely blessed we are.

ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults, 20122011 Social Justice in Children’s/YA Reading ListKirkus Best Teen Books 2011

title: This thing called the future

author: J. L. Powers

date: Cinco Puntos Press; 2011

main character: Khosi Zulu

“The tongue of an angry woman brings nothing but evil,” Gogo says.

Well beyond the midpoint of reading This thing called the future, I wondered where the hope was. After all, hope is a hallmark of YA lit and I supposed it would be in this well regarded book. When the title line appeared in the narrative, I realized it was there all the time. I realized that things, people situations can take our hope and outsiders can often judge actions, or inaction as nothing short of ignorance. Well, unless that outsider herself has some sort of gift.

Khosi presents as a young girl who is just afraid of everything. Her gogo (grandmother) fills her with so much superstition that she can’t help but be afraid of most things in the natural world. The men who used to protect all parts of society, now prey upon young girls making it impossible for them to even walk to the store. We meet Khosi and her family as they are going to yet another funeral, another death from the disease of the day. Khosi is stopped by a witch who threatens Khosi by saying that she will get her one day. No sooner does she leave this scene is the young girl plagued by an old man in the village who attacks her every time he sees her. And then, there is the neighbor lady who seems like a madwoman yelling and screaming outside Khosi’s home about something she says Khosi’s mother has done. These events feel almost benign and you wonder why they persist; why can’t someone just stop these little things from happening. It’s not a lack of knowledge, rather a lack of power from which oppressed people all over the world suffer when members of another group continue to dominate.

The oppression in South Africa goes way back, but Khosi’s family tells of it in most recent times when black South Africans fought themselves as well as their white oppressors in the townships. For economic reasons, families were divided and even though apartheid ended, families still found no way to afford to live in one home thus creating conditions ripe for the spread of AIDS.

I wondered where the hope was in the book because Khosi had expressed no dreams. OK, she was beginning to like this boy, Little Man, and dreamed of being with him, but she was so beat down by situations around her that there was no room for big dreams! Conflicts abounded as Khosi’s mother (the only person on the novel with a western name) resented traditional practices and things of the past while her mother and daughter did not. Through Khosi, the spirits of the ancestors fought with witches.

Powers’ telling of Khosi’s life fully incorporates traditional practices in ways that pretty much require readers to suspend belief and realize there may be more in our world than we realize. In doing so, she doesn’t force any particular belief system on us, doesn’t ask us to condemn forces that create oppression but she does make us aware not only in these powers around us, but in the powers of anger, love and community that are within each of us.

Setting, plot character? Powers was in that sweet spot. Bits of the Zulu language are infused in the text as well as myths and daily practices that transport us to South Africa. She didn’t paint the story of natives in huts, rather she let us know these people have cell phones, televisions and can party right along with the rest of us!

I liked Khosi, wanted her to toughen up and I loved her gogo, wanted to relieve all her aches and pains! Little Man may have been a bit too perfect, but Khosi needed that little bit of perfection, a touchstone, if you will.  I’d like to chat with you about how incredibly well she wrote Elizabeth, but I’d ruin the story so, just go get the book, read it and then get back with me.

This is a story of hope because Khosi does indeed have this thing called the future. We soft living Americans may think there is little hope without paved streets, department stores and fast food chains. But, Khosi had options and in my world, a girl just needs to have options. That’s what the future should be all about!

I think lost hope, history, oppression are things that students reading This thing called the future ought to consider. Pull them into this story with Sarafina and asked what happened, what changed in South African from the time of the Soweto Riots when Khosi’s parents were teens to 2011 when Khosi was a teen. What would they predict for Khosi’s teenage daughter?