This Thing Called the Future

A young teen must make her way through post-apartheid South Africa – and past her own fear of men.

This Thing Called the Future, by J.L. Powers, Cinco Puntos Press, 208 pp.

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 Khoshi 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.

The book’s weaknesses are more or less cleared up by its end. At first meeting, some of the characters are too one-dimensional to be interesting. Men are either predators or protectors. Women are either noble or endanger their lives with careless sexual choices. But a few developments later in the book correct this, giving the characters satisfying nuances they could have lacked in the hands of a less capable author.

"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.

Aaron Couch is a Monitor contributor.

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