Guest Post: J.L. Powers on Writing a Foreign Culture: Research for This Thing Called the Future

By J.L. Powers

My just-released young adult novel, This Thing Called the Future, a coming-of-age story set in South Africa (Cinco Puntos, 2011)(excerpt), dives deep into African culture, including traditional healing through the spirits of the ancestors. It deals with the HIV-AIDS epidemic rampant among young Zulus.

It takes place in a world utterly foreign to 90% of the people who will likely read it.

Here are just a handful of the things I did while researching it:

• Camped out for three days and nights on a mountainside with 5000 Zulus, all converts to a healing cult.
• Got dog sick on that mountain. There were no latrines to take care of my problem privately. Learned humility.
• Traveled with HIV-AIDS activists to clinics where they taught newly diagnosed HIV-positive individuals how to take their medicine.
• Took hundreds of photos of a variety of condom boxes and HIV-AIDS billboards for a NGO that needed my help—or maybe just my camera.
• Sat through several sessions with Zulu sangomas (traditional healers), including one who talked to her ancestors for/about me. What she said they said made the hair on the backs of my arms stand up.
• Stayed with families of all socio-economic and cultural backgrounds.
• Learned how to clean the floor by smearing it with cow dung.
• Got robbed, unfortunately by the son of a close friend.
• Learned fear.

If going to a foreign country or a strange place to research your novel seems daunting, here are a few things I found helpful to get me started and to keep me going.

Leocardia pictured in white, Jessica in pink.

1) Find out everything you can about the subject and the place in the United States. The public library is usually inadequate. Try to obtain access to a major university library.

2) Before traveling, contact everybody you knew remotely connected to the country, every academic whose research touches on your topic, and the directors of non-profit organizations based there. Because I did this, I never lacked for people to talk to and interview while I was in South Africa.

3) Jump on every opportunity you have to do something local. I didn’t stay in hotels—I stayed with local families, usually ones I met through friends and friends of friends. If I got invited to do something, even something mundane, I went. It was all about experiencing as much as possible, even if it didn’t make it into the book, or didn’t seem to relate directly to the book.

South Africa has the reputation for crime and violence. This reputation is deserved. But in my multiple, lengthy trips there, I discovered a country rich with hospitable people who welcomed me and made me feel like I was home. It was an adventure.

Likewise, if you’re interested in writing a book that takes place somewhere else, especially somewhere outside of the comfort zone of the western world, you’ll find the same kind people no matter where you go. I promise.

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