Jessica Powers, an author who spent her school years in El Paso and now lives in the Bay Area, has written a new young adult novel, "This Thing Called the Future," published by El Paso's Cinco Puntos Press.
She'll be back in town between Sept. 17 and Sept. 24, speaking, teaching, reading from her book and signing copies.
Don't let the "young adult" label throw you; if you like to read, this book is for you.
"The Harry Potter phenomenon changed the way we all look at young adult literature," says John Byrd, marketing director of Cinco Puntos, adding that the local Barnes and Noble bookstore just expanded its young adult section.
"This Thing Called the Future" focuses on the life of a teenage girl, Khoshi, in a shantytown on the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.
What got Powers interested in Africa? It's in her genes, sort of.
In the 1970s her father was working for Richard Leakey, famous paleoanthropologist, in the African Rift Valley. Her mother, also American, came for a visit. Nine months later, Jessica was born.
"That's the love story, how I was conceived, and how I became fascinated with Africa," Powers says. It's literally part of her, or she's part of it.
That fascination brought Powers back to Africa, to Nairobi, Kenya at the age of 18.
"I fell in love with it, everything, even the poverty," Powers says. "Being from El Paso, living across from Juarez, poverty wasn't unknown to me."
She would return from Africa and recognize the vestiges of a similar dynamic on the U.S./Mexican border: a small minority of white settlers holding the power and wealth.
Powers was concentrating her studies on Southern Africa and Eastern Africa - former British holdings.
"After living there and being in the middle of all that, I was supposed to come back to UTEP or NMSU and read Dickens?" she says.
Over the years she made three long trips to Kenya - the first one lasting 14 weeks, the second 9 weeks, and the third 12 weeks.
"I took intensive Zulu at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and lived with a Zulu family in Imbali Township."
One paragraph into "This Thing Called the Future" you are there in the thick of it with Khoshi, and you don't leave until you put the book down.
"Setting is so important to a novel. I went back so many times to places just to check details," says Powers, explaining how critical time and place are, how people don't read amorphous novels - they want to be transported.
So where does the ‘young adult' tag fit into all this?
To Powers a big part of it is staying in teenager Khoshi's head throughout the narrative.
"A ‘young adult' novel can be extremely complex, with challenging plot structures, but the protagonist is young, and the world is seen through her eyes," Powers says.
"‘Young adult' can almost be a dismissive term, but it doesn't mean ‘teen literature,'" Byrd says. "‘Catcher In The Rye' would be in the young adult section if published today."
And man, does Powers have great things to say about El Paso's press on Texas Street.
"Cinco Puntos really knows how to publish books set in other cultures, they've truly released a beautiful book - look at the cover!" she exclaims.
The cover sports a photo, taken by a friend of Powers, of a South African girl from one of the townships, and a shot of a Zulu woman from an historic South African cigarette card.
Powers' previous book, "Confessional," was published by New York's Knopf in 2007.
‘This Thing Called the Future'
By Jessica Powers
215 pages, $16.95
El Paso appearances:
Saturday, Sept. 17, 2 p.m.
Seminar Room at the El Paso Museum of History, 510 N. Santa Fe
Talk and book signing.
Info: Sue Taylor, 351-3588 or email@example.com
Saturday Sept. 24
El Paso Community College
EPCC ASC Bldg. A (boardroom) 9050 Viscount
8 a.m.-9:30 a.m. - Young Adult Writing Workshop (open to everyone)
Workshop Facilitators: Sergio Troncoso, Jessica Powers, and Richard Yanez
10:00 a.m.-11:15 am. Readings by Jessica Powers and Sergio Troncoso