Since author Jacinda Townsend’s latest novel, Mother Country (Graywolf, 2022), is concerned with fate, it’s fitting to start with how Jacinda nearly stood in the way of her own destiny. Although she fell in love with writing during a creative writing class at Harvard University, continued writing classes during her time at Duke Law School, and had her very first story immediately published, she remained noncommittal. Eschewing fate in favor of wide-eyed agency likely seemed the wisest move for a Kentucky native who left home determined to prove she hadn’t left too soon. For Jacinda, getting into Harvard at 16 was more a sign of brilliance than predestination. After earning her law degree at Duke, she spent years as a broadcast journalist and, then, an antitrust lawyer. Finding no abatement in her desire to write, she finally embraced her fate and pursued an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. There, Jacinda was reborn as a writer. During her Fulbright fellowship in Côte d’Ivoire, a layover in Morocco further shaped her future: she fell in love with the country and returned to the region again, and again. But her encounters with modern-day slavery in nearby Mauritania, and conversations with female escapees and anti-slavery activists, angered her. This fury incited her to tell their stories. Their collective voices form the tapestry of Mother Country, an excavation of poverty, human trafficking, and colorism. The collision between the two women at the novel’s center, an undocumented Mauritanian immigrant and a Black American tourist, redefines motherhood through the lens of intergenerational trauma and American privilege. Remarkably, it’s as funny as it is heartbreaking.
Jacinda and I met at Lighthouse Writers Workshop during the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. We both abandoned law careers, felt the early calling to write, and bonded as mothers. Jacinda, who shares my admiration (nay, worship) of Toni Morrison, truly honors the late writer’s sentiment that “the best art is political and you ought to be able to make it unquestionably political and irrefutably beautiful at the same time.” Jacinda’s novels are beautiful and sociopolitical works of art that bear witness. Her luminous debut, Saint Monkey (Norton, 2014), won the 2015 Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for Fiction, the Society of American Historians Prize for Historical Fiction, and was the 2015 Honor Book of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. Booklist describes Mother Country as an “intense exploration of gender, race and class,” and Kirkus Reviews praises its “gorgeous prose,” for how it “highlights the precarious state of Black women and girls.”
Jacinda met with me over Zoom (in the midst of recovering from Covid) to discuss the tribe of motherhood, kidnapping, hijacking, and how we all are truly capable of anything—although Mary Poppins and Lando Calrissian aren’t coming to save us.
Lolita Pierce: It’s fantastic to see you again. At Lighthouse, we connected over our children, the difficulties they were facing at the time, and our worries over whether we were doing enough to support them. Afterwards, I was thinking, here we are in this writing space, bonding not over writing but over motherhood. I am curious as to why there is this centeredness for writers who are mothers that just isn’t there for writers who are fathers. It’s a natural pull, but I also feel like it’s put on us as well. What do you think about that?
Jacinda Townsend: I feel that you’re absolutely right. It’s put on us. When I first started teaching, people would tell me: “Don’t talk about your kids. Don’t say you’re a mom.” On the one hand, that instinct is correct because, as a mother, even when you’re teaching in the college classroom, there’s a lot of discrimination that even as a woman you don’t face. It’s very unique to you being a mother. On the other hand, I felt like there were a lot of reasons I needed to not follow that advice. Some of those reasons were political. I actually took my kids to class with me if they were sick. There are countries where that’s normalized; women are at work with their kids and it’s just sort of integrated. But in the United States, we’re not going to give you family leave, but we’re also going to frown upon you for having to have your parenthood accommodated in the workplace.
LP: Also, there’s the ideal that we’re supposed to be mothers.
JT: Yes! So, I’ve always felt like when I’m working with other writers in the classroom, or otherwise, that there are so many younger women who haven’t even had kids yet, looking at us, and wondering: is this possible? Can you be a writer and a mom? I felt like it always behooved me to show them that, yes, in fact, you can integrate it.
Motherhood is a thing like no other, in that it becomes your tribe. I’ve had all these identities in life: girl, and then woman, Black person, whatever, but there is no tribe like that mother tribe. As writers, there’s this push-pull where people will tell you that you don’t want to be ghettoized as a woman who only writes about motherhood. And I’m like, well, what else am I supposed to be writing about? Because that’s the thing that’s most important to me, and that’s the thing that, for me, is full of all kinds of intense drama.
LP: I also think that there’s intersectionality within the tribe of motherhood in terms of how we view motherhood, and what motherhood experiences get reflected back to us. Saint Monkey and Mother Country have many different representations of motherhood. What mothering looks like is different for every mother you write about. How were you able to translate that experience from another country?
JT: It’s interesting. You know I hadn’t thought about what you just said: all the versions of motherhood and how it’s presented so differently within the two novels. When I wrote the first, I was kind of operating under the very Disney thing that the mother must die, or be gone, in order for the child to go off and have an adventure—and that’s kind of what I did. The alcoholic mother in that book was so damaging and the other mother was dead. I killed the dad, too. But by the time I wrote the second book, I had been a mother for much longer. One thing I thought about in writing it, was this idea that there’s this sainthood that we want to bestow on mothers, on female characters, in general. You’re not allowed to write an unlikeable female character. You’re not allowed to write an imperfect mother. And I’ll tell you, the cover to the book [of a woman smoking], I’m so happy and proud about it because it was actually my idea.
LP: I love it.
JT: I told them if we’re gonna call it Mother Country, then I want that woman smoking on the cover because it’s about how gritty motherhood really is. [both laugh] I have no desire to be June Cleaver, and I don’t know anybody who does. That’s not the reality, you know? To take that trope and explode it, and make that woman real, make motherhood real, was something I’d aimed to do.
LP: You did. And Shannon, the main character, hijacks motherhood so it makes sense. I was thinking how we all kind of hijack motherhood, to a certain extent. If our mothers were present in our lives then we hijack the good parts of them. But Shannon doesn’t have a strong attachment to her mother and so she’s just trying to figure out what being a mother looks like by getting this child—
JT: Yes, yes.
LP: You create complicated mothers. The chapters where the characters were the hardest to access, emotionally, were written with such intensity and beauty. I even connected with Audrey’s alcoholic mother in Saint Monkey, who was grieving and unable to parent through that grief. In Mother Country, Shannon’s mother was emotionally detached. Shannon was depressed and suicidal, and somehow thought that becoming a mother would heal her. I applaud your writing these women, and wonder whether your complexity as a writer has grown as your complexity as a mother has grown?
JT: Thank you! That’s a good question. Souria’s character was a composite. I went to Mauritania in 2013 and I met this woman who had escaped slavery. Her story, and some other harrowing stories of modern-day slavery, became the backbone of Souria’s story. Shannon’s story came to me in a much more intense and personal way. I had bought into this whole cosmology that I was going to have a natural birth. Both of mine were C-sections and it took me a long time to feel like I could be a good mother if I’d failed at that critical point. Later on, it kind of spooled out in my head. You said, Shannon sort of hijacks motherhood, and so I wondered, what if you just came by a kid in the most ridiculous way possible? Like if you kidnapped a kid, how long would it take for you to feel like that child’s mother? Writing it became healing for me because I realized that mothering is in all the acts that you do after the child’s birth. That birth is one day and there are about 20,000 more.
LP: When did you feel like a mother?
JT: It was after my second was born. I have two daughters; my second was born when my oldest one was five, and it was just really devastating for me that the second one had also been a C-section. But then, almost immediately, I was a single mom. I was working. It was right before Saint Monkey came out. One day, I was talking to the oldest about her lunch while changing the infant’s diaper and I was like, you know what, I think that I’m their mom. Mary Poppins is not here, changing this diaper. All of these things that I’m doing every single day make me a mom. My oldest, she needed a lot of advocacy at school around that time so I felt empowered by that as well. But it took me a long time.
I feel like the natural birth industry can get a hold in your head. There are a lot of politics attached to it. I mean, we don’t want a world where 30% of women are having a C-section, you know? But the way things are worded, and the way things are offered to you when you’re pregnant, make you feel like if you can’t do this natural birth thing, like— [laughs]
LP: Yeah, there’s supposed to be a certain story, certain moments. And if you didn’t have those moments, then it’s a lesser experience. I didn’t think about it until you said it just now: there’s a moment.
JT: When did you have it?
LP: I wasn’t even a fully formed person, let alone an adult. I backed into motherhood during childhood, so I kind of had to hijack it. I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel. I was 15. At first, it was just about keeping her alive. Paying attention. Not being a stereotypical teenaged mom. It was all just love. But you’re right, there is a moment when it hits you. A moment when you realize: I’m the one. I have to be there for them every day, when no one else will. And I think I had to have that moment with each of my children.
Religion is an aspect in both of your novels, and the mothers are like gods who control the fates of their daughters. Shannon doesn’t believe in God but is a god-like figure because she takes this child from her mother and then creates a whole other universe of experience for her. Souria, who believes in Allah, is a world away and powerless to change the fate that Shannon decides for her daughter. In the end, Souria must wait for Shannon to decide if she’s going to make things right. It was incredible that it is the atheistic or agnostic character in the novel who controlled fate. Was this intended?
JT: Wow! You’re a really good reader. I tried not to take sides, but the truth is that Shannon is a very privileged American. Obviously, she has this god-like power to do almost anything in the book while Souria doesn’t. But you know what? She’s like Lando Calrissian when the Empire is taken and he tells Han Solo something like, “I have problems of my own and I can’t be of any more assistance than this.” I think that’s true about Shannon too. She has a relatively privileged life, but she’s also facing all these constraints, some existential and some not. She’s got all these people telling her that even though she’s struggling with infertility, she needs to find some way to make a baby. So, I hope that even though she has this god-like power, that her frailties are also showing up as well. In some ways, she has a bit more choice . . . but in a lot of ways, she also doesn’t.
LP: Yes. You not only gave her agency but also invisibility. She gets this child out of the country with an invisibility [of movement] that we associate with white women and white men. It’s mind-blowing, the incongruity of her being a Black woman who is disempowering and taking something away from another Black woman who is, historically and contemporaneously, even more disenfranchised! You were writing about an experience outside even our own understanding as Black descendants of slaves. I would’ve been afraid to tell [Souria’s] story. How did you come to the mindset that you were the one to write this? Did you ever have any concern that you weren’t the right person to tell this story?
JT: I didn’t because I was so angry. You know in Mauritania, 20% of the population is enslaved—
LP: They just made it illegal in 1981. It likely still occurs.
JT: Oh, absolutely. The last I heard, they had only successfully prosecuted like three cases. So, it’s all out in the open and I was angry about that. I love Morocco. I’ve been back a million times and would love to move there when I grow old, but Morocco is very much an abusive spouse, particularly if you’re Black. So, I’ve seen this side of Morocco that never gets reported in travelogues. In some ways, it’s the flip side of what Paul Bowles showed us about Morocco. He’s probably the most famous American expat writer who lived in Morocco. He was very Islamophobic, very racist, and I’m hoping that my book sort of flips that around. I’m looking at Morocco from the point of view of someone who went there as a darker-skinned Black person and that made all the difference. I was driven by that too. It’s not just the formal slavery that goes on in Mauritania but it’s also the kind of racial discrimination that goes on in the rest of the Arab world that is more subtle, but no less jarring, to someone coming from America. I don’t even go north of Marrakesh anymore because the discrimination there is thick. It’s something you experience several times a day.
LP: It sounds like your experience was also an extreme form of colorism.
JT: Absolutely, absolutely. And you know, Moroccans were pretty untroubled about it. As are Mauritanians, obviously. So that’s the reason I didn’t tell it from the point of view of a native Moroccan. There’s the point of view of an American and then a Mauritanian, who was a teenager when she went to Morocco. It kind of took the burden off of, what you were saying, the fear. The zeitgeist that I’m writing from is about immigrants from two different places but they’re both experiencing Morocco as dark-skinned Black people, which just makes all the difference.
LP: But there was a point in the novel where you did embody Moroccan voices. It was in the chapter where you explained how various people Shannon encountered either facilitated the kidnapping, or looked the other way based on their illusions about Americans. It was very cleverly written.
JT: Why, thank you. I’m very keen on the idea that what makes us love characters is that we could all do anything, really. [laughs] I don’t know. I mean, could I kidnap a child? Maybe I could, you know. Could I look the other way [while someone else did] because I liked the woman I was working with at the hotel? Maybe. That’s what I was hoping to do in that chapter.
LP: I love that you write politically. In the past, we’ve discussed Toni Morrison’s adage that all good art is political. But I feel like almost everything political relates back to some personal experience. You’ve said in the past that you flee material close to your own life, but you write political stories so well because they feel like intimate experiences. Given that Morocco is close to your heart, do you now disagree with that, or do you still feel like you flee the personal?
JT: Whenever I go into a book, there’s usually a thing that’s making me angry, politically, and I write about it, and then it often does turn intensely personal. So, the one I’m working on now is about this woman whose father is killed by the police in the late eighties, and she changes her identity, and moves across the country. Decades later, she’s getting a divorce and she takes her real name back in the divorce filing and then the novel kind of becomes about grief. And then that really personal thing has overtaken the political, but it kind of takes me a minute to get there, you know? I guess, it’s like what you said, everything is political, because the personal is often quite political. It may be that when I said I was fleeing the personal, I was wrong. Even writers who are apolitical are political in their choice to be apolitical, because what they are writing is this maintenance of the status quo.