Editor’s Note: For the first several months of 2022, we’ll be celebrating some of our favorite work from the last fourteen years in a series of “From the Archives” posts.
In today’s feature, Melissa Scholes Young talks with Jacinda Townsend about her debut novel, Saint Monkey. Townsend’s new novel, Mother Country, is out with Graywolf next week. This interview was originally published on March 3, 2014.
When I met Jacinda Townsend in my MFA program at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, we talked more about babies than books. Specifically, we talked a lot about how to write books with babies on our laps. I was ten years older than every other MFA student, and I was the only one with kids. One day, during orientation, I had to sneak out to the parking lot to meet my partner who was waiting with our baby, who I needed to nurse. It was a clandestine arrangement. Academia is not always child friendly, especially for women.
So I kept my private life private until I met Jacinda, an assistant professor in Creative Writing, when she happened to stroll through the door one day holding the hand of a toddler. She became a mentor and ally because we both understood the role of urgency, the struggle for balance, and the inevitable defeat of trying to do it all at the same time. On one of our final workshop days, Jacinda pulled her manuscript, the one that became Saint Monkey (W.W. Norton and Company), from her overstuffed bags, and shared her novel, in all its messy glory, with us. The pages were covered with red edits and margin notes that only made sense to her. She was knee deep in revisions and feeling discouraged, but all I saw was a book being born.
It’s been almost three years since that workshop. Jacinda and I have both left southern Illinois, but we’ve been able to talk writing, kids, and politics often over Facebook, Skype, and email, which is where we conducted much of this interview.
Saint Monkey is a coming of age story about the lives of young girls, Audrey and Caroline, growing up in Eastern Kentucky’s Black community during segregation. Race and class are weaved together in a way that is compelling and heart breaking, yet there is hope in the end.
Townsend herself grew up in Southcentral Kentucky. She holds degrees from Harvard, Duke Law School, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She has been a Fulbright fellow to Côte d’Ivoire, a Carol Houck Smith fiction fellow at the Uversity of Wisconsin, and a Hurston-Wright Award finalist. Her work has been published in African Voices, Carve Magazine, The Maryland Review, Obsidian II, Passages North, Phoebe, and Xavier Review. She teaches at Indiana University and lives in Bloomington with her two daughters. Saint Monkey is her first novel.
Melissa Scholes Young: Your publicist mentioned that you call Saint Monkey a love letter to your past. Why this story? Why now?
Jacinda Townsend: The book was, in some ways, a love letter to a time and place and way of living that has all but disappeared. Both my grandmothers were born in 1920, within a month of each other. They both died in 2010 and 2011, within a few months of each other, at the age of ninety. They, and many others who grew up in that time and place, took with them a way of living and a culture that has all but disappeared. The world is growing more interconnected and, alas, more homogenous; there are parts of Kentucky that are indistinguishable from parts of New Jersey. My own parents are in their seventies and as their generation passes, the traditions begin to die away at light speed: the practice of hymn lining is completely gone from the Black church, and I haven’t heard anyone use the word “nary” in years. In some way, then, this was a love letter to a certain time and place that has passed without ever being properly recorded.
One of my favorite details is when Audrey describes the taking of school pictures. The scene is layered with raw vulnerability. It’s early in the novel when she says, “Everyone wants to be seen, to be acknowledge by a future they don’t even know,” but it foreshadows so much of what happens to her in Harlem. Did you intend for Audrey’s identity to be tied to this idea of wanting to matter, of wanting to be truly “seen”?
One theme that came to haunt much of the narrative was the idea that women were (and still are) constrained, regardless of the choices they make in life. Both of these girls have tons of ambition, despite the fact that, as Caroline says at one point, they weren’t “raised to be special.” Audrey takes her ambition and runs with it, yet she finds that even all those miles away from Kentucky, she is constrained by her gender. So yes, I think that her character came to me as someone who wanted, so desperately, to transcend all the ideas that the world had on her based on her race and her gender.
In this chapter there is also a shift in Audrey that foretells her future and eventual escape: “If I stay here, I’ll begin to rot from the inside out.” In my novel Flood, I’m wrestling with similar themes of leaving to save yourself. Does that have to be the only way to survive a repressive existence?
Good question. I asked myself, at some point while I was writing this, whether Audrey is really the one who most spectacularly “survives.” She leaves and she changes, but so does Caroline—as Sonnyboy says to Audrey, “Sometimes, you think you’ve gone somewhere and been to something and you’ve changed so much down in your soul, but it turns out it’s the folks what stay home and learn to live in their own skins who’s made out in the growing up department.” In some ways, I think Audrey’s is the more tragic fall, by novel’s end.
Audrey, unlike Caroline, is raised to reject the hardscrabble poverty of Eastern Kentucky as well as its vicious system of racial discrimination. She “escapes,” yet still falls prey to sexism and racism to such an extent that she has to return, and so I think her trajectory is all the more shocking to herself as well as to some of the book’s peripheral characters.
We’re both raising daughters so let’s talk about sisters. Caroline and Audrey aren’t related by blood, but the push and pull of their relationship has such sibling devotion mixed with the struggle. How is a sisterly bond different? And how does this effect your own raising of girls?
Oh, such a good question, Melissa. Audrey and Caroline struggled against racism together, and struggled against sexism together, and struggled against the poverty of Appalachia together, and were very supportive of each other right up until the moment one of their talents was actually revealed to the world. The unraveling of the friendship, I suppose, happens around this realization of ambition, and I want to think that this is different than a sisterly bond, but gosh, if I really think about it, alas, I’ve witnessed so many sisterly bonds that aren’t all that different.
I have two girls, as you know, and I have thought quite a bit about how to reduce the chances that there will be a huge rivalry in this house. I never compare my girls, for one thing—I don’t even say anything as benign as “Look, your sister ate all her broccoli.” I am also very lucky in that they are such different children, and they shine in such different ways—one is very shy and painterly, and the other is very outgoing, a class cutup who would dance twenty-four hours a day if she could—and I’m trying to cultivate their different shines. I also think that in some ways, the relationship between my two main characters plays itself out in the work world, but I am heartened to notice that in the years I’ve been in the workforce, women have developed more solidarity.
Speaking of solidarity, many of our interactions outside of workshop are about literature and laundry, and I suspect since we’re both moms trying to do both well, we write complicated moms in our stories. In Saint Monkey, one mom is a drunk and another is killed. The surrogate moms do their best, but really, Audrey and Caroline have to raise themselves. Is that a fair assessment? What do you think your novel is saying about the role of moms, especially in a violent, racist, often impoverished setting?
Indeed, that is a fair assessment. I think you were in the class where we discussed the fact that all Disney characters must have dead mothers?
I was, and we talked about the easy fear and tension it created.
I remember that the theory we came up with is that when the mother is dead, the character can most freely trot off and have an adventure. I think, subconsciously, this is what I did in the novel when I killed off one mother and disabled another. But as it relates to setting, there is a harsh truth in the proposition that neither mother can protect either girl from the racism and poverty that they will meet in the novel. It almost wouldn’t have mattered whether Audrey’s and Caroline’s mothers were more motherly—both girls still would have encountered the forces that so constrained them.
Each chapter of Saint Monkey functions as its own short story. There is a layering of first person present tense with flashbacks and alternating points of view. What decisions did you make early on about structure? Or did much of this come in revision?
Believe it or not, much of my process in writing this book subconsciously arose from my need to write in short bursts, while my children were napping. I found myself writing very short chapters that could be revisited and revised in the space of the hour or two that I had per day. The chapters in the book I’m writing now are much longer (my children are older!), but I find myself grateful for that igneous-rock style pressure that made the novel so structurally tight. The alternating points of view came more out of revision, as the central dramatic question turned into one of the rivalry between these two girls. Originally that question was more about Audrey’s ambition, and accordingly, there was much more Audrey in the book—Caroline was originally more of a window on Audrey as opposed to someone who had a world of her own. It was so much fun, adding more Caroline. She has a caustic way of looking at the world that makes me chuckle at the same time it makes me sad for her.
When you read my MFA thesis, you focused most of your feedback on the historical novella I’d written. It was set in Argentina during the Dirty War and you taught me about layering the setting with research for authenticity. How much research did you do to write Saint Monkey? How important is the nonfiction to the fiction?
Way back when the book was just a twinkle in my eye, I interviewed my grandmothers, both of whom were born in 1920, both of whom lived to be exactly ninety years old. Much of the diction for Caroline’s character, I got from them—it is kind of shocking to think that this diction has actually not survived. I then set about interviewing people who were my parents’ age, who were born in the forties, who would have been exactly the ages of these characters. The mores that these characters have was easy for me, as Kentucky is a place that has never evolved that quickly—in some sense, the mores these characters are growing up with are the same that I grew up with. But there were lots of things I learned from my interviewees about segregation and about the role of women in the late fifties.
Things like the idea that women couldn’t drive trucks because doing so would hurt their reproductive system—that was a real live avenue of thought in that era. There was tons of Internet research that I did, mostly around the record industry, and there were some fabulous books I read that gave me the history of the New York jazz scene and the southern Chitlin’ Circuit. I am lucky, too, that I am a musician surrounded by family members who are also musicians—most of the technical, immutable information about various genres, I already knew.
In workshop you also praised John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom novels. Why were they such an influence on your work?
First off, I feel that John Updike is almost unparalleled in terms of the way he writes details that are not only beautiful, but infused with social consciousness as well: I have long admired his ability to place his characters in a social context and an entire socioeconomic universe in the space of three lines. The Rabbit novels, in particular, visit with all strata of society and explore the ways in which they are interdependent, for the better and for the worse. Updike was not afraid to explore these issues. It’s something for which I myself strive. I think I fell in love with Rabbit Angstrom in particular because he’s someone I’d always seen from afar but never quite known: the aging jock, still living in the shadow of his glory days and facing a changing America with no small bit of trepidation. I ended those five novels with an understanding of people I didn’t have before, and that’s pure magic.
What other writers make that kind of magic?
Toni Morrison is a genius. I read her work and want to cry tears of joy that a human being can do that. She is one of the writers who made me want to be a writer, as are Edna O’Brien and John Cheever. I also love the magical realism of Edward P. Jones and Haruki Murakami, and I particularly admire the way both of these writers use that magic to explore sociopolitical themes.
Your next novel is about mothers, yes?
Bonsoir, Lune is set half in Morocco and half in the United States, and told, like Saint Monkey, in two different voices. The Moroccan-set chapters concern Souria, a young woman who has escaped slavery in Mauritania only to find herself stuck in Morocco with no visa, and thus no way to actually either “belong” to Moroccan society or make her way back to Mauritania. Souria is raped, mid-escape, on her way across the Sahara and ends up raising her daughter Yumni under the most impossible conditions. The domestically-set chapters concern a fun-loving, pot-smoking young woman named Lourdes who marries a very straight-laced engineer and subsequently struggles with infertility. Their stories intersect when Lourdes’ husband takes her with him on a business trip to Morocco, and she meets Yumni while she is shopping in the souq.
Was the writing of this novel different than your first?
Writing this one has been a far more emotional experience than was writing Saint Monkey. It grew out of my own experiences with postpartum depression and wondering what, exactly, makes one a good mother.
Will you let me know when you find out?
I think we’re doing just fine, Melissa.