Book Review: This Thing Called the Future (J. L. Powers)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

Writers in the Disability Studies community frequently make a distinction between impairment, which has a physical basis in an individual, and disability, which is culturally constructed. No where does this distinction become more apparent than when the focus shifts from disability in the United States to disability in other countries. Such cultural construction can either be instantiated informally in cultural concepts of normalcy or formalized in legal codes as in the ADA of the United States.

Illustrating this distinction is J. L. Powers' most recent novel This Thing Called the Future (Cinco Puntos Press, 20111). Powers' novel is the story of a fourteen year-old South African girl who attempts to negotiate her way between the ideas of a people still operating with many traditions of a tribal culture and a contemporary society based upon western values.

The basic narrative of This Thing Called the Future can be summarized fairly quickly. Khosi is a fourteen year old girl who lives with her family in a destitute town on the edge of Pietermartizburg, South Africa. With her live her young sister Zi and her Gogo (grandmother). Khosi's mother, Elizabeth, is a teacher at a school in a distant town and can come home only on weekends. Khosi's father and mother were never married because he could not afford the traditional bride price required, but Khosi does have contact with him on holidays in the distant village where he lives. Because Gogo is frail, Khosi is the de facto head of the household during the week days; she attends school and runs the family errands, threading her way through the street where men try to grope her and her next door neighbor rains curses on her family in the belief that Khosi's mother has stolen money from her.

Into this framework of her daily life comes a new problem. Khosi realizes that her mother is very sick and suspects AIDS. Khosi's mother is a believer in modern medicine but refuses to see the doctor for fear of what she will find out. Khosi, under the influence of Gogo believes that she must try to help her mother through traditional medicine. Though Powers in no way represents her novel as disability literature, two themes emerge from the book that make it very relevant to that genre. The first is the representation of AIDS. The second is the role of science in determining how a culture responds to issues of health.

As the author notes, "In South Africa, having AIDS (as opposed to HIV) is recognized as a disability. When HIV progresses to AIDS, individuals are eligible for a government disability grant, which pays for their anti-retroviral medications, as well as providing a monthly stipend for living expenses." By contrast, under the ADA in the United States, AIDS is not recognized as a disability, arguably because of the cost to a government that, to say the least, is gun-shy about national health care.

Thus, merely by setting the story in South Africa, a physical condition that would not be a disability in the United States automatically becomes one. On paper and stripped of social contest, this would seem to make South Africa the less difficult place to have to live with AIDS, but as the world knows and Powers' novel illustrates, cultural context skews the situation quite differently.

The context in which AIDS operates in South Africa is made clear on the first page of the book with the description of the family's house. Above the house the government has placed a huge billboard.

This is what it announces in bold white lettering against a black background:

THIS YEAR, 100,000 CHILDREN
WILL BE BORN WITH HIV!

Gogo, my grandmother, fretted like mad when that billboard went up. "People who can't read, they will just see that symbol for AIDS right over our house and they will say, 'Those people, they are the ones spreading it.'"

I tried to soothe her. "People know better than that. Those bill boards are everywhere." It's true, the government wants everyone to know about the disease of these days before we all die from it.

But Gogo shook her head. "You watch, we will have bad luck from these things," she predicted.

Gogo's words are prophetic, of course, and the AIDS symbol above the house becomes a kind of malocchio hanging above them.

One has only to recall the kind of paranoia surrounding AIDS in the United States during the 1980's to appreciate the way that AIDS, like leprosy, is a disability with a shadow far beyond the physical effects of the diseases itself. In one chapter of the book, called "Punishment," Powers describes the ostracism that takes place when a girl only a few years older than Khosi, who is already married with a child, attends Sunday services at church with symptoms of AIDS. Though no one knows for sure if she has it, the girl effectively becomes cut from the community, her symptoms a modern version of the scarlet letter.

At this point, perhaps, it is important to acknowledge Powers' skill as a storyteller. Though this review may make it seem otherwise, none of the information about AIDS is imparted in a didactic fashion. This may seem a rather pedestrian accomplishment - but Powers' target audience is teenage girls. She cannot afford to be as subtle as she would for an adult audience so has to make the situation as clear to her intended readers as possible while still keeping them engaged. What Powers actually accomplishes is a novel that is arresting to both adults and teenagers. While the book is marketed as a novel for young adults, it would take an adult with a bit of the literary snob in them to not become engaged in the book.

One of the things that This Thing Called the Future does extremely well is to convey the South African cultural milieu in which AIDS takes place and the devastating effect that it has on women. Despite its twenty-first century setting, the men in Khosi's South Africa are not all that far from a tribal society in which they were permitted more than one wife, and, as a result, are almost assumed, even after they are married, to be having affairs with younger women on the side. Because any way of preventing AIDS is ignored by these men, both the unmarried teenage girls these men pursue and married women who remain sexually faithful to their husbands are the real victims. Even with the latter, it is assumed that they are the ones to blame for the spread of the disease. This creates a situation in which, even though there are clinics for free medical care, women like Khosi's mother deny the symptoms when they first appear and then refuse to see a doctor when it becomes evident that they are truly sick. As in Elizabeth's case, by the time they acquiesce to going to the clinic, their diagnosis is essentially a death sentence that no medicine can commute.

In addition to AIDS, the other issue that This Thing Called the Future raises is the role of medicine in society. In a thoroughly westernized society like the United States, few people other than those with disabilities question the authority of scientific medicine. While people may have issues with health insurance or with the methods of a particular doctor, few (other than "fringe" groups like Christian Scientists) challenge the medical establishment as gatekeepers of knowledge about health. South Africa, however, presents a different and instructive situation.

Unlike the United States, South Africa has two equally robust views of medicine. The character of Khosi embodies them both. What Powers accomplishes so deftly is giving equal wait to both without prejudice. Even the book's ending (which will not be given away here) reinforces the values of both traditions. The beauty of Powers' approach is that even adult readers will come away not only with the understanding of the cultural beliefs of people other than themselves, but also a greater appreciation for the truth that the approach to health and medicine as represented by the AMA is still just one approach among others. Given the nativist political climate of our times, that's no mean accomplishment.

Two important aspects of traditional Zulu healing, as presented in This Thing Called the Future, are one's ancestors and the sangoma. A person has certain obligations to honor their ancestors, but in return ancestors have the ability to help living human beings out. The sangoma is a traditional healer who may use herbal medicines but also is an intermediary between the ancestors and the problems people experience on earth. Generally the sangoma does this either by diagnosing dreams that people seeking their help have or by being able to hear the ancestors speak to them when the person with the problem is in their presence. Khosi describes the hut of a sangoma for the reader during one of her visits.

I squat down on my haunches to crawl through the small hole near the ground.

The entire hut smells pungent, bittersweet like strong incense. A small fire smolders in the corner, belching short billows of smoke. The ceiling is black with burnt ash. Bunches of dried herbs and a beaded cow's tail hang from the ceiling, while an orange cloth sags across the wall. The floors are mud, smeared with cow dung in circular patterns.

There's a sound like the wind blowing through a field of tall grass. I look around wondering where the noise is coming from, but there's no one in the hut except me and Thandi's grandmother, the sangoma, who's sitting in the central part of the round hut her mouth closed.

"Sawuona, GogokaThandi," I greet her, bowing low to the ancestral spirits inside her.

As in many non-western cultures, illness in the South African view may have a cause that originates somewhere other than in the body. It could be the result of punishment from the ancestors or of a curse that has been put on them. Thus the muthi or medicine prescribed may target either the illness itself or curse that is put on them.

For this reason, dreams play an extremely important role in This Thing Called the Future. Khosi, who bears a great resemblance to a powerful grandfather, now an ancestor, is plagued by dreams that she senses is an attempt by ancestors to contact her. As Khosi explains:

I know that dreams are not exactly what they seem. But I also know that to dream is to see the truth at night. You may think one thing during the day, but find out it's a lie when you dream. Sangomas hear the voices of the ancestors all the time, but night is when their spirits speak to all of us, even we regular folks.

Whatever one may think of the idea of sangomas, Khosi's take on dreams does not sound all that different from Freud.

If all the talk of AIDS and non-western medicine makes the book sound like a cure for insomnia, never fear. The Internet and social media notwithstanding, novels for younger readers like the Harry Potter Series and The Hunger Games have helped to reawaken and interest in reading hard copy books,and This Thing Called the Future shares some affinities with both these novels. Like Harry Potter it flirts with magic and forms of knowledge not amenable to science. Like The Hunger Games – and perhaps to an even greater extent – it uses an engrossing narrative as a vehicle for developing an awareness of social issues. The chapters are short and each leaves the reader wondering what will happen in the next.

Ironically, by writing about a teenage girl in a culture that may initially strike the reader as being so different, Powers actually has a reasonable chance of getting teenage girls in the United States to think more about their own lives. One of the clearest examples of this occurs in about the middle of the book where Khosi, who is generally a model daughter, tells her mother that she is going to a girlfriend's house to study when in fact she is going to a party to meet a boy she likes. (Sound familiar?) On the way home from the party late at night, she finds herself alone and being chased by a drunken man who is trying to attack her. She barely escapes and pledges never to lie to her mother again. Were it set in the United States, a teenage girl might simply dismiss this episode as a morality tale by an over-worried mother, but in the strange and almost surreal context that Powers is able to create, chances are the reader's heart is pounding along with Khosi's. She is much more likely and willing to be able to imagine herself in a similar situation.

One of the few things that younger readers might initially find a bit off-putting is the frequent use of Zulu words. Here again, though, Powers has gambled that a well-written story can be used as an educational tool. All of the Zulu words that are not proper names are Italicized and, when one examines them, most are words such as sangoma or muthi for which there is no real English equivalent. Moreover, at the end of the book, the author has included a glossary of the meanings of all the Zulu words she has used. By the end of the novel, a reader is so familiar with about half a dozen of these words that she feels comfortable with them. In addition, adult readers will also be able to glimpse the amount of research that has gone into the book in the Acknowledgements note at the end.

This Thing Called the Future does not represent itself as disabilities literature, but for the person interested in that genre, Powers' novel has much to recommend it. By illuminating the disabling perceptions of AIDS in one region of South Africa, it also sheds light on how disability is constructed in the United States. Through its even-handed presentation of traditional Zulu attitudes towards healing, it helps to make elbow room for other approaches to health in this country. One can easily imagine, because of the many opportunites it presents for discussion, the novel's usein a high school classroom as a way of getting to students to explore their own cultural values. In the last anaylsis, however, one need have no designs on education or self-improvement to run out and grab this book. Suffice it to say, the story is a great read and once the reader picks it up, she'll have a very difficult time putting it down.