Under Water is the sequel to J.L Powers’ 2012 novel This Thing Called the Future. Despite the six-year interval between episodes, I hadn’t forgotten Khosi; her little sister Zi; and Little Man, childhood friend and blossoming love interest of Khosi’s. Within the first few pages of the book, I had been brought right back into their lives, immediately following the death of Khosi’s mother and then grandmother. This Thing Called the Future endeared me to the no-nonsense Khosi and the hard choices she was faced with making in her life, as well as the realities of how she knew—or didn’t know—those closest to her. Under Water moves seamlessly from that first piece of South African life into this continuation, which is just as relentlessly hard-edged and heartfelt.
True to the form of novel sequels, Powers drops narrative hints to remind readers of the first work as well as provide enough backstory clues for those who may not have read the previous book. As with good sequel writing, you don’t have to have read the preceding book to become wholly engaged in this one, but you also get a sense of ‘what you missed’ and will want to go back and read it.
For one, there is the ‘neighbor woman,’ who was strangely cruel to Koshi in the first book, until we all realized, Khosi included, that Khosi’s mother had stolen money from the neighbor. In Under Water, Khosi is still coming to terms with that fact, and the shame of it, still living next door to the victim, who has now become a kindly neighbor, looking out for Khosi and Zi. At only seventeen years old, Khosi’s father out of the picture, her mother and grandmother recently deceased, and with no supportive extended family, Khosi has had to make the decision to drop out of school. There is only enough money to send one of them, so Khosi forfeits her goal to become a nurse so that Zi can continue attending. Instead, Khosi, having completed her training as a sangoma, or traditional Zulu healer, will start her own business in an effort to make enough money to support them.
Cultural tensions and how the characters respond to them are what carry this story, and cultural meaning everything from domestic conflict within love relationships and families, to clashes between traditional and contemporary culture, to power struggles among local businesses, and global cultural issues manifest at the local level.
In her neighborhood, a local “tuck shop” (our equivalent to a corner store) was sold to a Somali family who, Khosi notes, do not live in the neighborhood: “I’m sure they live far from here, probably because they worry all the time that they will be attacked.” It’s one of the many subtle changes Khosi sees happening in her hometown of Imbali, and one not welcome by the locals.
I don’t blame this man for putting up bullet proof sliding where he takes the money, or keeping himself locked in all the time. It wasn’t so long ago that people dragged Somalis through the streets in Durban, killing them for no other reason than that they run the tuck shops so, according to the people, they must be taking away jobs from South Africans.
The xenophobia is palpable, and a little too close to home with our own situations here in the U.S., which makes for good content for young readers to explore. Khosi’s reactions to this cultural tension impact her interactions with the shop owner in much the same way as it does for those of us who are trying to present ourselves as “safe” in tumultuous times: “I greet the man in Zulu, ‘Sawubona, Ahmed, nina ninjani?’ then in Arabic, ‘As-salaam ‘alaykum.’ I want him to know he has nothing to fear from me.”
Khosi’s relationship with the shop owner is strained by her role as a sangoma, as someone who can sense or foretell that there will be trouble. Her efforts to protect others is limited, and the progression of tensions between people in her community show that each person’s control over others is limited. Individuals make their own decisions, and the impact of those on others is what Powers explores in this work.
Khosi’s relationship with Little Man develops in this sequel from friendship to boyfriend/girlfriend to lovers. The tensions Khosi has with this revolve around her promise to Gogo, her grandmother, that she would put her education first and stave off any serious relationship commitments until after having achieved that goal. Khosi repeatedly addresses her ancestors, and Gogo in particular, lamenting that, had Gogo not died and left Khosi and Zi all alone, then maybe she could have made different choices. Better choices. She repeatedly asks Gogo for advice, “Tell me Gogo. Did I make just that one wrong decision and ruin my future plans forever?” and when going further in her relationship commitment to Little Man “Gogo, please . . . I want to be able to say yes . . . please let me tell Little Man yes.”
But her role as a sangoma who speaks with the ancestors isn’t what others think, creating its own tensions throughout the story:
I forget, sometimes, that I’m not just a neighborhood granddaughter anymore. Now I’m a link to the other world. I’m supposed to know things. If I’m calm, everything must be all-right. If I’m worried, then I must know something. Even if the truth is that I worry because I’m human, just like they do—not because the ancestors have warned me that something bad is about to happen.
It makes me want to scream sometimes that my gift doesn’t work like that. It is not as through I know everything.
As far as the amadlozi goes, it’s a one-way line of communication. I can ask ask ask ask ask and they can choose to be silent. But if they want something? They will not shut up, not for a second, not until I do what they say.
There is some light humor in this relationship Khosi has with the amadlozi, but the responsibility being a sangoma places on her is a heavy burden she is still learning to manage. The storyline slips into this cultural tradition and at times into what our Western literary genre categorization might label as magical realism or fantasy. But for Khosi, her existence is one in which she goes between worlds of the concrete reality, the dreamtime, and the voices and visions that come to her from her Zulu ancestors.
Her relationship with Little Man is strained when he becomes involved in the taxi wars—a violent and bloody turf battle between competing taxi companies. Little Man left school to work for one of the companies, helping Khosi and Zi financially, but when he becomes embroiled in the fights, Khosi cannot support his choice to stay loyal to his employer. As Little Man moves out of her life, a new romantic interest moves in, further causing emotional conflict for Khosi, just as it would to any young girl.
Khosi’s outspokenness in attempting to protect her neighborhood Somali tuck shop owner puts her own safety at risk, and eventually, she and Zi must flee their home. In doing so, Khosi embarks on the darkest events in her young life: encountering umthakathi, the witch, who in the first novel attempted to bring Khosi to the dark arts of Zulu medicine—though now Khosi realizes they are related through their ancestors; she and Zi being kidnapped by two men who are strangers to them; and Khosi’s ultimate escape—using the river and submerging herself and Zi under water to get away, until they come to the ocean.
There is a great deal more to the story than can be revealed succinctly here, but which adds to the complexity of the characters’ lives, as it does in each and every one of our lives. On the surface, what we see in others and what others see in us can seem, indeed, calm and collected. But, underneath, under the surface of that body of water, there are undertows and swirling eddies of complex relationships, emotions, choices and decisions.
I can honestly say: I hate the way Under Water ends. And yet, it ends exactly as it should. It is not a Disneyfied version of life for a young girl in a South African community, but a true-to-life examination of adolescence, cultural complexities, and global issues. For young adult readers, this is a book that will not sugar coat and will provoke thoughtful conversation about many difficult topics.
Powers’s educational background in African history goes beyond the two master’s degrees she earned, having spent years of her life living in South Africa, “welcomed into South Africa homes from a diverse range of local cultures as a granddaughter, daughter, sister, auntie and good friend.” She acknowledges, “It’s a big responsibility to write a book set in a culture that is not your own. It is not a responsibility I take lightly.” In her treatment of the subject matter, culture, and characters, Powers proves that she is committed to a respectfully accurate representation.