Today, TeachingBooks.net welcomes author J.L. Powers as she stops by on her blog tour.
The seed for my newest young adult novel, This Thing Called the Future (Cinco Puntos, 2011), was planted five years ago when I was studying the Zulu language at a university in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. The Zulu family I stayed with had two young teenage girls who were incredibly hard-working girls and always respectful of their elders. Yet one of the girls, the 13-year-old, got in trouble while I was there because she was caught kissing her boyfriend at church. Her boyfriend was a man in his thirties.
I’d stumbled onto the sugar daddy problem in South Africa: older men courting sexual favors from young girls, often giving them small gifts (cell phone air time, costume jewelry) in exchange.
Another young South African friend of mine, 17 at the time, told me what it was like to leave school and to see an older man waiting to pick up one of her classmates in his Mercedes.
“And you’re sure it wasn’t her father?” I asked.
“No father kisses his daughter like that,” she scoffed.
My first trip to South Africa was filled with many more thought-provoking experiences.
For example, when I was at a rural health clinic, the nurses told me that based on the number of HIV tests that came back positive, they believed that the HIV-positive rate for young women of child-bearing age hovered around 80% in that area.
At a virginity testing ceremony, I watched as several hundred young women danced and sang about the virtues of purity—then fell all over themselves over a tall, handsome African-American young man who was part of my group. When he was introduced, they hooted and ululated in admiration. One of them breathlessly ran up to him and draped jewelry around his neck. Three young women asked for his hand in marriage.
I remember when I was a teenager, it seems like I had crushes on every young man I knew. And if I didn’t already have a crush, I’d inevitably become infatuated the moment a young man paid attention to me. What would it have been like to be a teenager, flush with youth and romance, and to carry with me the knowledge that love carried so many potential dangers?
And so I started writing This Thing Called the Future, a coming-of-age story set in post-apartheid South Africa. It was important to me that what I wrote was authentic, so I did a ton of research. I read dozens of books and articles about Zulu culture. I returned to South Africa for lengthy research trips in 2008 and 2009.
And the more I delved into Zulu culture, the more my book became an alternative fantasy. I had to plunge headfirst into the world of magical realism. But just like Luis Alberto Urrea said about his books set in Mexico, it isn’t “magical realism”—this is just the way life is there. For many young people in South Africa today, the spiritual world of the ancestors, witches, curses, tokoloshes and other spiritual creatures is as real as the physical world that surrounds us. There is no dividing line between the two like there is in western culture. (Indeed, many of us in western culture dismiss the very idea of the spiritual world at all.)
Photo by Abby Neely, 2009
A traditional Zulu healer, known as a Sangoma
This doesn’t mean that all young people in South Africa live in a superstitious, fearful world. Instead, they balance what they understand as the spiritual world with the scientific knowledge they gain about the natural world. As a result, the way they live in the world and the way they see the world turns out to be incredibly complex and incredibly interesting—in my opinion, far more interesting than the culture of shopping malls and video games that seem to dominate life in the U.S.
In 1994, when South Africa abolished the racist system of apartheid, the country did not believe it had a problem with AIDS. Ten years later, it had become the country with the worst problem. Today, in 2011, South Africa seems to be turning the problem around at last. Knowledge about the disease is prevalent and people are taking steps to prevent transmission. The government offers the anti-retroviral medicine for free so that HIV-positive people can live normal lives. Still, like many things in life, the hard work is yet to come.
I hope my book can be part of introducing Americans to the world of one South African teenager, whose life is mysterious, otherworldly, and yet very very real.
Photo by J.L. Powers, 2009
This photograph shows a South African grandmother, a Gogo, dressed in traditional dress in a very modern mall. I love this image because it captures the essence of South Africa today, where the modern and traditional worlds overlap.
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