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HIV-AIDS in Africa, rape and sexual violence in South Africa, and Becoming a Mother Writer: an interview with J.L. Powers

Tania Pryputniewicz, poetry editor of The Fertile Source, talks with J.L. Powers about HIV-AIDS in Africa, South Africa’s problems with sexual violence, and what it’s like to be a new mama and a writer.

 Set in modern-day South Africa, This Thing Called the Future (forthcoming from Cinco Puntos Press  in May) follows Khosi, a 14-year-old girl faced with a slew of extraordinary circumstances: from a supernatural stalking to losing a loved one to AIDS. “A great achievement by J.L. Powers.”—Deborah Ellis, The Breadwinner.  Read the first five chapters here.  

Pre-order This Thing Called the Future by J.L. Powers


 This Thing Called the Future strikes me as a love story on many levels, love between family members, the community, love burgeoning in a harsh set of circumstances, a coming of age story, which requires the main character, young Khosi, to grapple firsthand with the realities of the AIDS crisis as she faces her coming of age in the lull between her elders’ optimism (the wave of those fighting for rights, freedom from white control) and the devastating wake of poverty and illness still wracking her people. What was your trajectory to this project, and can you talk about how you arrived at your characters?

 It’s funny you say that. On an invisible level, this is also a love story between me and South Africa!

 I fell in love with South Africa—or at least, the idea of it—over a decade ago, when I first took an African history class and wrote a research paper on the history of missionaries to Africa. I was in my early twenties and I had literally no knowledge about that country. I became intrigued by the missionaries’ good deeds tainted with racism, and from there, I started to learn about Nelson Mandela and apartheid, and from there, I went on to write a master’s thesis on the liberation war in Zimbabwe, which blacks waged against white minority rule in that country. I was fascinated, but it wasn’t until I visited and met South Africans of all kinds—white folks descended from the Dutch and the British, Zulus and Xhosas and Penda, and “Coloured” (mixed race)—that I realized how they were the “salt of the earth.” And they are salty and earthy and lovely, all of them, and the good people are mixed in with the bad people, like you find anywhere, and I fell in love big time. I’ve probably never stayed long enough to get over the honeymoon aspect, though I have experienced loneliness and fear there.

 When I went first in 2006, and stayed with a Zulu family for a time while studying the Zulu language, I knew I wanted to write something. I started to wonder what it would be like to be young, to fall in love, and to be surrounded by a fatal sexually transmitted disease like HIV-AIDS. That was the seed for this novel.

Khosi, my main character, came to me in stages. I first constructed a young woman who was hard-working, respectful to her mother and grandmother, invested in her identity as a “good Zulu girl.” She reminded me of the young women I met while I was there. But as I dug deeper, I knew I was making her too passive, and she needed to be a more active agent of her own destiny and also of the solution to her family’s problems. So Khosi evolved in layers to become more complicated—a little rebellious, a good girl yet willing to stir the waters if need be, smart and courageous and fearful—just like any person is in real life.

The way you’ve positioned your main character in This Thing Called the Future is lovely. Khosi is on the boundary of two ways of life—a child of two generations, like all children I suppose—the one behind her and the one looming before her: the Sangoma tradition and the medical model. She’s pulled one way by her grandmother who takes her often to the Sangoma and recognizes an early gift and propensity for that healing tradition, and pulled another way by her mother, who places more value on the medical model. Can you talk about the Sangoma tradition and the medical model clash as they apply to the AIDS epidemic?

Western medicine is usually not a fan of older, traditional forms of medicine. In most places, when westerners are in power, western medicine seeks to stamp out and destroy the other forms of medicine. Sometimes this happens like it did on the American frontier, by outlawing itinerant, un-credentialed doctors and requiring official degrees from medical schools. Eventually, western medicine trumped all others until recently, when there’s been a revival of so-called “alternative medicine”—e.g., acupuncture.

In colonized countries like South Africa, there was sometimes a varied approach to how this worked. On the one hand, missionaries forbade converts from visiting traditional healers; sometimes laws made these practices illegal; contrarily other laws, and even cultural practices, encouraged it; at the same time, sometimes western medicine was coercive. For example, there were some black women in South Africa in the 1970s that had IUDs inserted against their will and without their knowledge.

Throughout much of the 20th century, practicing as a sangoma (a healer who speaks with her ancestors) was illegal. But practicing as an herbalist (inyanga) was sometimes encouraged in some places, and an Afrikaner once told me that it was partly to be able to point out all the weird practices of Africans to help confirm that they were “inferior.” But at the same time, Afrikaners (white Africans, the descendents of Dutch settlers) who had spent several generations on the frontier away from medical doctors had developed their own herbal & alcoholic remedies to illnesses.

So South Africa is a huge mish-mash of different ideas related to medicine. And you see that everywhere you go. There are all kinds of healers (and charlatans, too, by the way) proliferating in both urban and rural areas. The fascinating thing is that you meet many people in South Africa willing to try non-western medical cures for various ailments. They seem more open to the idea that there is value in different kinds of medical practices.

As far as the clash between medicine and traditional healing: There are doctors absolutely opposed to traditional healing and there are doctors who are working with sangomas and inyangas to treat HIV-AIDS patients. Also, there are academic researchers looking at the medicinal properties of herbal remedies offered by traditional healers, such as the study of sutherlandia by the University of Missouri. Sangomas use this herb to treat wasting in both cancer and AIDS patients, and apparently it has some value.

 Though western medicine at times recognizes value in herbal remedies, there is also anger from traditional healers when their remedies are “stolen”—in effect, when pharmaceutical companies make chemical varieties and reap enormous profits, while the traditional healers don’t benefit at all. It’s a complicated problem because often times, the herbal remedies developed over hundreds of years so no one healer can legitimately patent it. 

To be honest, it’s all a huge mess. But an interesting one.

What was your process of accessing an insider understanding of the reality of South Africa’s dilemmas from the culture’s dreams to terrifying details such as necklacing?

I’ve been reading about and doing research on South Africa for over a decade, from my first African history class with Charles Ambler at the University of Texas at El Paso in 1998, then on to two master’s degrees in African History, first studying under Iris Berger at the University of Albany and then Richard Roberts at Stanford. So I have a strong background in South African history.

 Then I took 3 years of intensive Zulu language study, which included a Fulbright-Hayes to study Zulu in South Africa. During that time, I spent some time with a family in Imbali township, where my story is set. The family I stayed with had two teenage daughters, age 13 & 14, who spent their evenings sitting on my bed and telling me their secrets. That’s how the sugar daddy problem became real to me—when I realized my 13-year-old Zulu sister was dating a man in his thirties, I became very very worried about her.

I returned again in 2008 and in 2009 to do additional research. I spent time with ordinary people and sangomas and aid workers and medical doctors and HIV-AIDS activists. Whoever would talk to me, I’d talk to them. And I tried to understand how things might look for a young girl, 14 years old, growing up in that world.

But I will say that some of those details aren’t insider information—they’re widely known. For example, necklacing (tying a tire around a person’s neck, dousing it in gasoline, then setting it on fire) was a notorious technique used by blacks on all sides during the struggle against apartheid. It was used to punish those who were suspected of being “sell-outs,” that is, blacks who sided with the apartheid government.

Where is the AIDS epidemic heading? How effective do you think attempts to help have been? What is your hope for this book and its reach?

It’s easy to feel hopeless when you consider the enormity of the epidemic and how much money it takes just to give people the anti-retroviral medicines they need. But I have hope. Let’s put it this way. In 2006, my 13 and 14 year old Zulu sisters didn’t want to discuss HIV. When I returned in 2008, I saw that Zilu, the 7-year-old, was marking up her grammar in the backyard and part of the grammar lesson involved facts related to HIV-AIDS. In just 2 years, there was a huge difference in just one family’s apparent willingness to discuss it. I want my book to be part of that.

I’m struck by the way you manage to portray the particulars of sexual violence, pointing to the binding forces of poverty specifically—the impact of dowry costs…families living in separate cities. Are those statistics current, that 1 in 4 men admit to raping a woman? Is there hope for a shift on the horizon with these issues? Where do you see the key to women’s empowerment resting (and for the family as a whole)?

Whoo, hit me with some hard ones. The history of South Africa  has some complicated threads that have led directly to the current situation and I’m not sure it’s possible to explain all those threads in one novel, let alone in one interview. But let’s give it a whirl.

Okay. Deep breath.

First of all, the statistic of 1 in 4 men admitting to raping a woman came out in 2009 . So that is current. Why are so many men choosing to force themselves on women? I’m not sure but I suspect it’s because they feel disempowered and rape gives them the opportunity to have some control over somebody who is even more powerless than they are. And so the cycle of violence goes on.

Disempowerment of black men and women has been systematic for the past 300 plus years in South Africa. And under apartheid, which began in 1948, the government attempted to wrest complete and total control out of the hands of blacks. The educational system, the police system, and governmental systems were all geared towards creating a black underclass that served the white minority in power.

As far as the issues of migrant labor (family members living apart from each other), that is an unfortunate legacy of colonialism (migrant labor, where tax laws were enacted to force black men to leave their families to work in the gold & diamond mines) and then of apartheid (where black families that tried to live together were impoverished and/or harshly penalized, imprisoned, and forced into hard labor). These systems created over the course of 300 years don’t magically disappear when a new government comes into power.

 Nevertheless, things have changed dramatically under democracy—it is now possible for blacks to go to university, to become part of the wealthy elite, to go into politics, etc. But for the vast majority of black South Africans, those goals are still out of their reach.

I think empowerment for black women is still a long time coming, and may only be reached when black men as a general rule feel like they have control of their own lives. But at the same time, I think there are lots of promising signs. For example, last week (March 15, 2011), Women’s Net reported that women in South Africa represented almost 57% of voters, while men represented just over 43%. That suggests women’s voices will be heard in future elections. Women’s Net also reported this month that there’s been an increase of almost 30% in the police force—maybe now they can turn their attention towards sexual violence.

Is there anything you see as part of our web of responsibility, as westerners, to the Khosis of the world?

You know, it turns out, that is a complicated question and a complicated response that I’m not at all sure I can do justice here. Briefly, without getting too much into particulars, I think anybody with power and wealth has enormous responsibility to be kind and generous to people who lack power and wealth. But having said that, I’m concerned about the number of charities who simply perpetuate their own existence long after need has been met, a fact aptly described by Dambisa Moyo in her book Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa. I believe in independence, not dependency. Westerners have a long and sordid history of blundering in somewhere to “help,” only to make problems worse. I think we have to be very very careful. But at the same time, yes, it’s important that we extend a hand to help those in need. How to balance all of that is where it gets really complicated. 

You’ll find in many African communities that people there naturally do what they can to help their neighbors in need. What I’d like to see is more support for African-driven charities that mushroom organically from the places in need, and which operate in a sustainable and culturally relevant fashion.

Have you had a response from your South African readers?

The book’s not out until May. But I asked four friends from South Africa to read it and they all loved it. I’m hoping to get a South African publisher for a South African edition.

 Will you return to South Africa?

Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes!!!!!! I heart heart heart South Africa. If I could tear my husband away from his job and life here in the U.S., I would move there. For years. Maybe for the rest of our lives. For now, I’ll be satisfied with longish research trips of several weeks to several months.

 For now, I’m hoping to go back in 2012 with my husband and child for at least a month or two.

 How long from start did it take you to finish the draft the novel?

 I started this novel in the summer of 2007 and I was finishing final edits in January 2011 right before Cinco Puntos Press, my publishers, went to print! It’s true that I had other projects during that time—for example, I finished a workable draft of another novel during that same time frame, and I worked on lots of shorter pieces—but I was constantly gnawing on This Thing Called the Future throughout the past 3 ½ years.

Any inspirational writers or mentors you encountered along the way to completing this project?

I met some incredibly fascinating people in South Africa that kept me going. Sometimes it seems that everybody I meet in South Africa is invested in making their community a better place. Now I know that’s partly because of the types of people I’m trying to meet—I’m interviewing people who are involved in non-profit work, sangomas, medical doctors, etc. Nevertheless, it struck me how many people there really, truly, deeply care, just ordinary people who start doing something because they see a need.

For example, S’the Ndlovu. She lives in Imbali township. By any western standards, she is poor. A few years ago, she noticed all the child-headed households in her neighborhood. These children were now taking care of their younger brothers and sisters because their parents had died, often because of AIDS. They were hungry, so on S’the’s limited salary as an HIV-AIDS counselor, she started giving them two meals a day—breakfast and dinner. She did this for years until the number of orphans she was feeding was probably forty or fifty kids. A Harvard-based non-profit helped her secure some funding, so now she isn’t paying for it out of her own very limited salary. When I met S’the, I asked her to tell me the story. She is a Christian and she said she had always prayed that her house could be a house of healing. When she saw this need, the hunger of the children in her community, she knew what she had to do. And she did it. I think S’the is a heroine. If you’re interested, the name of her organization is Izimbali Zesizwe (Flowers of the Nation) and if you’re interested in giving, you can do so through an organization in Boston known as Sibusiso.

How far along were you in the writing process when your firstborn came along?

Actually, I had long since finished all the major revisions by the time I was a couple months pregnant. But I did do some longish copyedits after my son was born last September.

Can you talk about book promotion with a nursing infant?

OhmyGod, it is both so hard and so much fun! Nesta (born Sept 30, 2010) has been coming with me on book promotion events. Fortunately, he’s an easy-going baby, and even more fortunately, my publishers are willing accomplices to the entire situation. Librarians, teachers, and other writers all seem to love or at least tolerate babies, so it’s been a win-win situation so far. I hope it continues. But at some point, I may have to mark down all the places I’ve nursed him—certainly some weird ones.

At the ALA’s mid-winter conference, I was nursing him in a bathroom stall when a woman came into the stall next to mine and started crying. She sobbed, heart-broken, for probably twenty minutes, while I wondered whether I should speak up or just leave her alone. I left her alone. I thought somebody had died or maybe her husband was divorcing her or something. But we came out at the same time, and while we were washing our hands, she cooed at my baby, and I smiled sympathetically and said, “Hard day?” And she gazed at my baby and kept playing with his fingers and didn’t look at me once while she told me that her cat had died and her teenage daughter was struggling at home because she’d known that cat all her life and all she wanted was to go home, now, and be with her daughter and sob her heart out but instead she had to be in a booth and smile at strangers and pretend that she wasn’t heartbroken while she tried to convince librarians to buy her books. “Seeing the baby helps,” she said.

 I have pets and I know how they’re family members—but I was still relieved that it wasn’t something like her husband cheating on her!

 So there you go! People love babies! He’s an open door wherever I go.

 How do you balance writing and motherhood?

 Ask me in ten years.

 Seriously, though, I’ve been thinking about writing a book about balancing the professional life with full-time motherhood. I am at home with my son full-time, but I’m also a full-time writer and I teach 3 college classes (online) and I do freelance work and I run a small literary press (Catalyst Book Press). It’s hard. I don’t have many models for doing what I’m trying to do. Actually, I have none. I know there are women out there doing what I’m doing, or trying to do, but I haven’t met them. If you’re out there and reading this, please contact me!

When my mother was visiting me, I asked her, “Do you think I’m balancing everything okay and giving my son everything I need?” She told me that we could never be perfect as mothers. When she was a young mother, she used to come into our bedrooms and pray what she called the “gap prayer.” “There is a huge gap between the patience that I have and the patience that Erik (my brother) needs,” she would pray. “And there is a huge gap between the wisdom that I need and the wisdom that Jessica needs. God, please fill in the gaps.”

That is simply beautiful to me. So now I need to start praying the gap prayer. I frankly can’t balance it all. I am not perfect. I am not Superwoman, Supermama, Superwriter. But God can help fill in the gaps.

I’ve become attached to Khosi–I’m so curious to see what she does next and how she’ll navigate the rest of her future. Any plans to write a sequel?

Actually, I do want to write a sequel. But let’s see how this book does first…..

  J.L. Powers is the author of This Thing Called the Future, forthcoming in May from Cinco Puntos Press. She has a master’s degree in African history from Stanford University and won a Fulbright-Hayes to study Zulu in South Africa. She lives in the Bay Area, California.

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