By Colby Gable
As the 2019 Fall Visiting Writes Series for Appalachian State University comes to an end, the last featured author of the event, Jacinda Townsend, will be attending her part in the series on November 12th. Townsend is the Appalachian Writer in Residence at Berea College. She 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.
Townsend grew up in south central Kentucky and at age 16 took her first creative writing class at Harvard, where she earned her B.A. While at Duke University Law School, she cross-registered in the English department and took several formative writing workshops. In 1999, after four years as a broadcast journalist and then a lawyer in New York City, Townsend went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she received her M.F.A. She spent a year as a Fulbright fellow in Côte d’Ivoire, and recently finished a novel called Kif.
In an interview with “Connections on KET, Townsend discussed a little about her 2014 novel, Saint Monkey, “I think what inspired it was the music, and the idea that someone would feel the need to fill their father’s unfulfilled legacy.”
The story itself, which heralded wonderful reviews from the New York Times such as that of Ayana Mathis’ mentions, “Saint Monkey” is certainly a coming-of-age novel — its teenage heroines eat the damning apple and fall from innocence. But it is agency that matters most for Caroline and Audrey,” (the story’s main characters). “In Townsend’s hands, virtue and innocence were only a veil that needed to fall away so the girls might see themselves, and their chosen course, more clearly.” Other reviews, such as the one from novelist Jonathan Odell of the Star Tribune, comments on Townsend’s ability to beautifully capture beyond the cartographic nature of physical space, saying, “Townsend’s use of regional dialogue is delightful, and she is strongest when she is creating settings that are at once historically vibrant and visually concrete.”
The first part of her visit will include a craft talk, which she says, “Will be on plot development that will focus on writing conflict from the ground up, through character. Often, we write “top-down,” meaning we determine a theme, or a plot, and then make our characters try to fit that. But when we write bottom up, we come up with characters whose rich depths create conflicts, and then plot structures, we never would have dreamed up otherwise.”
Kif is told in the voices of an American who “adopts” a Moroccan child and
the young mother, escaped from Mauritanian slavery, who lost her. As Townsend describes it, “Kif is the story of an American woman struggling with infertility who, while accompanying her husband on a business trip to Morocco, kidnaps the child of an escaped Mauritanian slave who is working in the country. The Mauritanian woman’s story came to me as I met with escaped slaves and anti-slavery activists in Mauritania, where a good 20% of the population is brutally enslaved. The American woman’s story came out of my very personal experience of trying to figure out what motherhood means when it is borne out of trauma. Both my children were born via c-sections, when I’d been planning natural births for both. The novel was my very personal wrestling with the question of feeling less than triumphant, biologically speaking, about how I came by my children.”
As a Hellman Fellow, Townsend will return to Morocco in order to spend time in Marrakech and points south, interviewing the sub-Saharan migrants who have escaped precarious situations to build new lives in the kingdom of Morocco.
Townsend’s schedule for her visit is set at:
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 12
3:30-4:45 p.m., Beacon Heights Room
7:30 p.m., Beacon Heights Room, 417 Plemmons Student Union
Admission to all events is free and open to the public. Book sales and signing will follow the talks and the readings.
PARKING is free on campus after 5 p.m. The Library Parking Deck on College Street (from King Street, turn down College Street at the First Baptist Church; opens at 5:30 p.m.) is recommended by the university. To reach the Student Union, cross College Street and follow the walkway between the chiller plant and the University Bookstore, passing the Post Office and entering the Student Union on the second floor. For further parking information or a map, please see parking.appstate.edu.