Welcome to our newest blog series: Where Are They Now?
In this series, our editors interview past Literary Mama contributors to see what they’ve accomplished since publishing in LM and talk about their writing journeys.
This week, Publisher Amanda Fields talked to Literary Mama Contributor Jacinda Townsend. Jacinda is the author of Saint Monkey (Norton, 2014), which is set in 1950s Eastern Kentucky and won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for historical fiction. Saint Monkey was also the 2015 Honor Book of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. Her second novel, Mother Country, will be published by Graywolf Press in fall of 2022. Townsend teaches in the Zell Creative Writing program at the University of Michigan.
Amanda Fields: In “Unbricking,” you discuss so wonderfully and empathetically the complexities of parenting and being a writer. As you look back on that piece, in what ways has your perspective on motherhood and writing shifted or remained the same?
Jacinda Townsend: I am now a mom of two, one of whom is a junior in high school, so gosh, the oceanic depths have trenched farther and deeper than I ever imagined they could. I have broken my children’s hearts and had them break mine. I have held on tenaciously to them through struggle. I have loved them with the ferocity known only by those of us who’ve suspected, intellectually, that we may be failing our children, all while we listen to that nagging voice in our heart that promises we won’t. Children are so easy to love when they’re small, but as they grow up, the daily love test gives you the kind of passing score you can measure only in years. My writing reflects all of this–how could it not? My characters have no idea what they’re doing. They’re so much more deliciously complicated. Some of them are doing the wrong thing but in such a lovable way, a way I couldn’t have previously written.
And I was chuckling, gently, at what I wrote about process. Over the years, I got so little solitude while writing that I simply learned to write while people were screaming at me. My kids know they can break down the walls of the well at any time. I can’t concentrate, anyhow, knowing that there’s an immediate need, no matter how small.
AF: You have a novel coming out with Greywolf Press in. Could you tell us more about the genesis and subject matter of this novel?
JT: My new novel, Mother Country, tells a story from two different, serial points of view: that of an American woman struggling with infertility who finds a child on a business trip to Morocco and brings her home, and that of the escaped Mauritanian slave who is the child’s biological mother. As with all my work, I found that I didn’t understand why I wrote it until I’d finished the first draft, but it is very deeply about the process by which we actually become parents. It doesn’t happen at that moment of birth–all cultures put so much stress on that moment, when it turns out to be meaningless. The first time I gave birth, I was a natural birth devotee, having visited The Farm and chatted with Ina May Gaskin’s daughter-in-law. Both births were c-sections, and I felt like a failure for years afterward. It took a lot of mama bear moments for me to realize just how insignificant the moment of delivery is when compared to all the mothering (and advocacy for your children) you’ll do thereafter. But I can’t say I was completely “here” when I wrote the first draft–that part of my psyche wanted to spool this out to its nth degree, to figure out just how hard it would be to feel like someone’s real mother if your becoming a mother happened in the most terrible way possible.
The novel’s other point of view deals with grief, and I think there’s a part of all of us who harm fictitious children who want to exorcise the spectre of those things happening to our own children in real life. Certainly, there was also that part of my psyche. But also, in the real world, I had met a family of escaped slaves when I was in Mauritania, writing a piece for Al Jazeera on women in development. The mother had eight children, all of whom had different fathers because her father had leased her out as a prostitute, and she had escaped slavery while giving birth to the eighth child. I held that infant as she was sleeping, and it was one of the most powerful moments of my life, to feel a small part of what parents have felt all throughout history when they shepherd their children to freedom. I wanted to bring awareness to all of this, to the fact that in Mauritania, around 20% of the population is brutally enslaved. Also, I wanted to bring awareness to how hard it is to be an immigrant in a place like Morocco, that is so xenophobic, and that puts up barriers to immigrants remaining in its country. The woman who escapes slavery then has to go into the sex trade because Morocco does not give immigrants work visas. This is, alas, a common story.
AF: You have taught creative writing in many capacities, which we would love to hear more about. How do you think teaching creative writing has influenced your work as a writer?
JT: It’s made me a better writer on a couple of different levels. First off, I am able to toss around the new ideas I have about writing. For example, in 2011, I began teaching about what I then called “negative space,” which is a visual arts term I adapted to fit an idea I had about structuring stories and novels. Over the years I’ve watched students use negative space and elaborate on and refine my ideas about it, which has impacted my own work. Secondly, I get so jealous when I give students an assignment and then watch them have the in-class “light bulb” moments, when they’re writing so happily and furiously that they’re kind of disappointed when I call time. That keeps me inspired. This writing life never gets old to me, because I get to see so much of its new joy.
AF: In what ways has being a mother and writer influenced the community/ies you have found and surround yourself with?
JT: Thank you so much for making me realize how fortunate I am to be surrounded by artistic mothers–I can’t say I’ve cultivated this community so hard as it cultivates itself. Of all my identities–Black person, woman, artist, mother, professor, single parent–I think that being a writing mom might be the one with which I identify the most strongly. Ours is the best tribe, the best sorority ever because it’s so supportive, is it not? I’ve not gone as far as fast with my career because I’ve been raising and growing two humans for the last seventeen years, and those two humans are so much more important for the future of the planet than however many inches my books will take up on some dusty library shelf. My children are my book prizes, you know? Maybe other writers pity us for taking so long to make things, but I feel lucky as hell. I was watching a documentary about two well-known writers–one male and one female–wherein the male writer was just talking about himself writing, and there were scenes of him at the typewriter and so forth. Meanwhile, the woman writer was talking about everyone and everything but herself and her writing: she was carrying a baby at all times, and actually writing with the baby in a sling on her chest. The documentary didn’t seem to realize how gendered this all was, but I saw it so clearly. I’m able to do this and feel so resolute about my choices because I know so many other writing mothers who are making them. I love that. I love us. We just do the damn thing so it gets done, and we don’t complain or falter. I love us so much.
AF: What are you reading now, and what are some of your most frequent reading recommendations?
JT: I am reading Lauren Groff’s Florida stories, which are simply dazzling. They are both an indictment and a celebration of motherhood, and female power in general. My most frequent reading recommendations are anything by Toni Morrison, and John Updike’s Rabbit novels. I’m very old school in my tastes. I long for the days when all educated people knew how to use semicolons. (smile) I also love political work. I just finished reading Richard Wright’s The Man Who Lived Underground, which wasn’t politically palatable to publishers when he wrote in the forties. It packs a punch. It’s unforgettable.