Woman's quest to change the world

American Jessica Powers.
American Jessica Powers.
Image: Supplied

Literary festivals and book fairs naturally attract readers and storytellers.

But in American Jessica Powers, the Midlands Literary Festival in KwaZulu-Natal and the South African Book Fair in Johannesburg have attracted someone with a strong connection to Africa.

When Powers was a teen, she visited Kenya, which was her first visit to Africa, or so she thought.

Her father told her that she was, in fact, conceived in Kenya while they were visiting some 19 years earlier.

Powers studied Zulu in one of her three Master's degrees.

She was born and raised in El Paso, a border town in Texas. Powers grew up in a multicultural environment, different to most parts of the United States.

"I grew up on the US-Mexico border, which meant that I grew up in a bi-cultural community, which was largely Latino, 80% Mexican and Mexican-American. I grew up outside the normal American culture," she said.

"When I turned 18, I dedicated a summer to working with street children and was sent to Kenya to work with street children. When I told my parents that I was going to work with street children in Nairobi, my dad had this far-away look in his eyes and asked, 'did you know that you were conceived in Kenya?'"

Powers' other two Master's degrees are in African history from New York State University and from Stanford University. It was at Stanford that she chose to study Zulu. Powers, who also speaks Zulu well, told Sowetan during an interview in Cosmo City, Johannesburg, that Stanford University was compelled to find her someone who could teach her the South African language.

This paved the way for Powers to receive a Fulbright scholarship, through which she came to SA for a year and studied Zulu at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg, and lived in Imbali township while studying.

Her third Master's degree in creative writing is from the University of Texas. She wears multiple hats in her professional and business world. She is a novelist, teacher and a publisher.

She has published nine books and owns Catalyst Press. She partnered with Lapa Uitgewers in Pretoria to enable her mission to make African history accessible.

Powers publishes South African authors in North America and in some instances, republishes books that were published by Lapa out in North America.

"I wanted to publish African writers and Africa-based books. When I went into this PhD programme at Stanford, you have to write this personal statement and on my personal statement I said: 'I want to make African history widely accessible to people because right now most African history is written for academic people'," she said.

Futhi Ntshingila is one of the South African authors who have been published in the US under Powers' Catalyst Press. Her book, We kiss them with rain,is receiving good reviews in the US.

"It [the book] has been picked up by a few newspapers that side. The recent one is Boston Review," said Ntshingila.

She said Powers' quest to publish African authors will allow more African voices to be heard.

Powers published the first South African book in the North American market in 2017. Graphic novels Shaka Rising and King Shaka by Luke Molver are among South African stories she has published in both North American and South African markets.

The Midlands Literary Festival was held at the weekend.

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