Jacinda Townsend: I love to poke holes in this trip of the perfect mother because we are just as lovable for our imperfections.
Alex Chambers: This week on Inner States WFIU'sYaël Ksander talks with novelist Jacinda Townsend about her latest novel Mother Country. It's about two mothers on either side of the Atlantic and the daughter they come to share. We also have Mother's Rules from poet Yalie Kamara. That's all coming up on Inner States from WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana with me Alex Chambers. Stay with us.
Alex Chambers: One version of the story is that it was all the Jarvises. Anna Jarvis had watched mother Anne develop mother's day work clubs in the late 1850s to help product infant mortality. Then the Civil War started and Anne Jarvis's public health work in the service of mothers shifted to caring for wounded soldiers on both sides of the war. After the war Anna's mother, Anne, started a mother's friendship day for soldiers and their families from both sides. Anne died in 1905, after that Anna campaigned tirelessly to bring her mother's vision to life, a day to memorialize and honor mothers. In 1914 her efforts paid off. Woodrow Wilson signed the new Federal Holiday into law.
Alex Chambers: So it might be surprising that just a few years later, Anna Jarvis was out protesting Mother's Day, it had gotten too commercial, people were buying their mothers greeting cards instead of writing letters, they were buying jewelry, delivering candy. About the candy Anna said, "Candy! You take a box to mother and then eat most of it yourself." Anna Jarvis's second campaign against the commercialization of Mother's Day was less successful. This year, 2022, Americans are predicted to spend 31.7 billion dollars on the holiday.
Alex Chambers: Jarvis held tightly to her identity as the founder of Mother's Day. She insisted that the idea for the day had come solely from her own mother Anne, but Anne herself had also been inspired by Julia Ward Howe and Howe's reasons for celebrating mothers were a lot more pointed. Howe spent her life fighting for abolition and women's suffrage and in 1872 she called for a mother's day for peace. She was calling for women to rise up against war, for mothers to refuse to let their sons be trained to hurt others, to make society itself more hospitable to mothers, children and by extension everyone else.
Alex Chambers: There are probably other origin stories to be told about Mother's Day but I want to point out one more thing about this one. Anna Jarvis got pretty obsessed with fighting the holidays commercialization, she spent out her life savings. In 1948 she was protesting it and got arrested for disturbing the peace. She spent her final years in the Marshall Square Sanitarium in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Where did the money come from to pay for her time in the sanitarium? From the deep pockets of the floral and greeting card industries. Maybe they were feeling generous, maybe they were just appreciative.
Alex Chambers: This is Inner States by the way. I'm Alex Chambers and, as you've probably guessed, we are replaying our Mother's Day episode. Even though it’s not Mother’s Day, I want to give a shout-out to anyone who does the work of mothering, whether you're a biological mother, a stepmother, a grandmother or you don't identify as a mother at all but you do the hard work of caring for other people, making sure they're okay.
Alex Chambers: We're going to turn now to a conversation with Jacinda Townsend about her new novel which tackles the subject of motherhood from two perspectives on different sides of the world. Townsend was Associate Professor of English at Indiana University when her 2014 novel, Saint Monkey, was published. She's not Helen Zell Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Michigan. Published on May 3rd, Townsend's new novel, Mother Country, alternates between the story of Shannon, a black woman in Louisville who's got her share of western world struggles, and Souria, a Mauritanian woman who's got her share of non-western struggles. The book refuses to take sides. Jacinda Townsend spoke with WFIU's Yaël Ksander.
Yaël Ksander: I would just love to say it's a great honor to have you Jacinda Townsend and thank you for being here for WFIU today.
Jacinda Townsend: Thank you so much for having me
Yaël Ksander: Your novels have both been really warmly received. Your debut, Saint Monkey, in 2014 won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for historical fiction, and also the 2015 Honor Book of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, and already your new novel, Mother Country, just being published this month is already receiving glowing reviews from Book List, Publisher's Weekly, there are probably more.
Jacinda Townsend: Yes, yes there are [LAUGHS], actually.
Yaël Ksander: And there will be more by the time this airs. So I just want to congratulate you.
Jacinda Townsend: Well thank you.
Yaël Ksander: I think that before we get into the books, I'd really love for our listeners to get acquainted with you. So maybe you can give us a sort of a thumbnail picture of your journey.
Jacinda Townsend: Sure. So I grew up actually in Kentucky, in South Central Kentucky. I left when I was 16 and spent the rest of my life trying to get back actually. I got very close, I got to Bloomington Indiana and spent almost ten years there and, you know, those were my favorite years. Actually we came back even, we came back to Bloomington, we boomeranged back after moving to California and had some more kind of favorite years in Bloomington. I kind of traveled the route of Odysseus to get to this book and I am so fortunate, because it was only through a series of coincidences that I ever got to Morocco in the first place. I had been a lawyer and a broadcast journalist in New York City, from there I went to Iowa Writer's Workshop, you know after that everything turned magical.
Jacinda Townsend: The first thing that happened to me was right after I got my MFA, I got a Fulbright to Cote d'Ivoire and I had never lived in Africa, you know, and I wanted to see as much of Africa as I could. So technically, as a Fulbrighter, you know, you're supposed to stay in that country but I left, you know, for the maximum amount of time I could leave, I left. So one of those trips that was just actually to come back to New York and see my then husband and the layover from Abidjan to New York City was in Casablanca. So I decided to just, you know, get another stamp on the passport and extend that layover for four days, and during that four days I took the Marrakesh Express down from Casa to Marrakesh and it just blew my mind that there were so many different Morocco's, you know, even between Casablanca and Marrakesh in that one initial trip. It was like there were two different planets, you know.
Jacinda Townsend: So I begin to go back and one of the first times I went back I took my two-year-old daughter and we had an amazing time and I began to take her and then I had another kid and we would go every other summer at least, sometimes it was every summer, and every summer we had a whole different experience, you know, we went to a different city in Morocco. And I often tell people and I'm very serious, like in a lot of ways the kids, we'd grow up there in the summer but I would too, you know, very much so. Morocco is kind of like an abusive spouse for me because it's the kind of place where, particularly if you're a woman traveling alone or traveling alone with children, you get the best and the worst, you get both sides of Moroccan hospitality.
Jacinda Townsend: There is quite a patriarchy there, people are very suspicious of women traveling alone but also a lot of people are really hospitable and, you know, when the kids were little, when they were like babies, people would just grab them from me and kiss them, you know [LAUGHS]. People would just, you know, they would haul water for us and it's just an amazing place. It's full of stories, Morocco is, you know, and that's the other thing that kept taking us back. I think one of the last times we went, unfortunately the Sahara had started to become more depopulated because of climate change, you know, and I learned so much about that.
Jacinda Townsend: One of the side trips though I went without my kids, one of those times and went to Mauritania. I knew I couldn't take them there or I could've but I wouldn't have. It was a really hard trip. When I got back to Morocco I was very sick. There was one ATM in the country, it wasn't working. I had to be chaperoned to the bank because I was a woman, you know. The streets there are made of sand, there are no paved roads. So I was hosted by a couple of anti-slavery activists and one of them introduced me to a family of slaves and I spoke to her through translator. I was speaking French to her and he would speak Hassaniya back to me kind of thing. She had a harrowing story. It's not unusual that, you know, slavery in Mauritania is brutally enforced, it's kind of a brutal case system, case base system.
Jacinda Townsend: She had escaped slavery with her eight children. All eight of them were completely different colors because her master had laced her out and I said, you know, "What can I do for you?" You know she living in this tent on the edge of the capital city and she said, "Just tell my story, please just tell my story." So I sought to do that with this novel and yeah, and so from there, you know, the rest is kind of writing history at this moment.
Yaël Ksander: Wow this fills in so many gaps for me, this is so interesting because of the story that you just told, there are so many touch points in the novel, in the story of Souria, is that how we say her name?
Jacinda Townsend: Yes.
Yaël Ksander: So Souria has been in slavery and she escapes and it is at a bank actually or sort of an accountant and of course even you speaking about your two-year-old being picked up, in a fond way, but we see a reprise of that action as the pivotal action in your novel. And then also all of these dialects intersecting, French, Hassaniya, [PHONETIC: Dareesha], is that the other one? Are those Arabic dialects, is that right?
Jacinda Townsend: Yes, yes.
Yaël Ksander: So you had an actual calling from this woman you met to tell her story.
Jacinda Townsend: Yes and a few other features of Mauritania are that personal it's really hard to even get there. I kind of snuck in with a tourist visa but the government understandably does not want people to report about slavery there, they kind of want to pretend that it's not happening. They didn't outlaw it actually until 2008 and you can count on probably two hands the number of cases that have been successfully prosecuted against slave masters. So I felt compelled to tell it for that reason as well because one thing that blew my mind too, is that there's only one television station there and it is state run, not much radio there either, and so you have a population of people who sort of believe what they are being told about slavery, and even the slaves themselves often believe that this is the Will of Allah that they are enslaved, you know. So it's really interesting.
Jacinda Townsend: One of the people who I interviewed said to me, "Well, you know, there's all kinds of slavery and even in your country you might think maybe some of the things you do are slavery." And I thought well there is, you know, it is true that truth is subjective, but I think it is objectively true that brutal slavery is kind of wrong, you know. And so I did feel really compelled, particularly by that sort of attitude of push back to the idea that slavery is wrong, you know. I felt compelled to tell this story of just how wrong it really is.
Yaël Ksander: For sure. It's so interesting that you bring that up too because as exotic as this local is, nonetheless there are serious through lines with her story and Shannon's, whose you tell in an alternating narrative throughout the novel, but then there are also fanatic through lines with your other novel. And so I would say to anyone who might be slightly hesitant because of the introduction of dialects of Arabic or interesting unusual locals, that really we're talking about some very universal, unfortunately, themes such as the intergenerational black experience of trauma, right, moral relativity and another would be the limits but also the possibilities of personal choice in a world whose forces tend to crush it.
Jacinda Townsend: Yes.
Yaël Ksander: And so I guess I would bring it back to the fact that you made this choice to tell this story, it feels at once like a real departure but at the same time coming back to what you know.
Jacinda Townsend: Yes and, you know, I hadn't really realized it until I had finished the first draft of this one,that I told yet another story in like a diptych with two different voices. But it was kind of similar in the sense that in a way, you know, even in 2022, my other novel is set in 1955, but even now women are constrained but only in different ways, you know. So Shannon, the other character in the novel, she's facing a lot of existential angst, but she's facing some really tangible constraints in that she is burdened with student loans, she's struggling with infertility, she has to get married because she doesn't have dental insurance and these are all, in a lot of ways, constraints that are informed by gender to some extent. And so she's not facing this harrowing life, you know, of slavery and its aftermath, she is dealing with her own troubles.
Jacinda Townsend: It's funny during the editorial process, people wanted to sort of take sides and generally people want to side with Souria because Shannon, I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say, because it happens in the first chapter that Shannon takes Souria's child, but I think, you know, she's Lando Calrissian, she's got problems of her own, [LAUGHS] you know that one from Star Wars, she's got problems of her own.
Yaël Ksander: Where the moral relativism comes in.
Jacinda Townsend: Yes, yes. And, you know, her story came from a much more essentially personal place, because before I ever had kids I adopted this whole cosmology about what birth would be like, and I thought oh I will give birth in a pool of water and Bambi will come out of the forest and whisper in my hair, that is not at all how it happened. They were both c-sections and it took me years, years, years, Yaël, to not feel like a failure about that. I think it wasn't until I had my second kid that I was like oh okay, yeah I think you're their mother, [LAUGHS] like I think you can just let all that go because you're really their mother now. And it was just because I was so busy at that point, you know, and could no longer think about that moment.
Jacinda Townsend: But I spooled that out kind of to the nth degree in my head and I thought well what if you came by a child in some really crazy way, you know, how long would it take you to feel like a proper mother? And it was healing for me to write this really, because I think what I learned in writing, and of course as I was writing my children were getting older, and I think parenting is in every act that comes after that moment of birth. I want to call it like the birth industry, I think it does such a disservice to women because you're told, you know, in all the months leading up to this birth, that that's going to be like this huge [LAUGHS] moment of impact like, you know, it's like a media has struck the earth. But parenting is everything you do after that. So her story in a way is the more kind of personal one to me, her becoming a mother and owning it and was really important for me to tell as well.
Alex Chambers: If you're just joining us we're listening to a conversation with novelist Jacinda Townsend about her most recent novel, Mother Country. It's time for a short break. When we come back Townsend talks with Yaël Ksander about motherhood as a kind of credential for adulthood in American culture. This is Inner States. Stick around.
Alex Chambers: Welcome back to Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers. We're listening to an interview, WFIU's Yaël Ksander did with novelist Jacinda Townsend about her latest novel, Mother Country. Let's get right back to it.
Yaël Ksander: You talk a lot about the kind of credentialing nature of motherhood and how Shannon feels as though once she punches that card she will be an official adult and just that particular role that mothering plays for the mother and it's quite ubiquitous in American culture but at the same time what short shrift it gives to what a child needs really. That credentialing is more about filling the mother's needs.
Jacinda Townsend: Yes. There's a quote at the beginning of the book, a little epigraph from David Gibb who is the father of Kilauren Gibb. Kilauren Gibb is Joni Mitchell's biological child and she was put up for adoption in 1965, she didn't meet Joni Mitchell until she was 32. And he says, "People are born, they are a life, they belong to nobody." And without offering too much of spoiler in terms of what you were just saying, I wanted not to ignore the story of the adoptee themselves and it was a little tricky. There's a chapter that's told from the perspective of her brain and that was kind of one way to get around that, you know, because she is a really young child when she is, quote unquote, adopted. But then it was important for me to offer a later chapter that's told from her perspective as well because, you know, it's a question, it's a big question of the book, is actually the child's question, like who is my mother, what makes my mother, and I in some ways gave her the last line of the book for that reason as well.
Yaël Ksander: I want to go back to this idea that you brought up of the diptych and that does tend to be the structure of both of your novels, the alternating narratives between two women. Saint Monkey took place in the 1950s in a fictional Appalachian town in Eastern Kentucky and in Harlem, and then briefly, for a very bleak period, in the outer banks of North Carolina, and then your latest novel is set in the present, more or less, and it alternates between Shannon's story and she is a black woman in Louisville and then Souria who's this Mauritanian woman who is escaping slavery on a trek to Morocco.
Yaël Ksander: So I'm curious about the fact that in your first novel the two characters have been friends or rather frenemies since childhood and then their paths diverge and then they come back together again. In your second novel the women's lives couldn't be farther apart, but this chance meeting in the marketplace in Morocco forces them to intersect forever. So could you talk about those patterns, how that developed and how fun was that or how intentional that was.
Jacinda Townsend: Sure. Oh thank you. That's such a good question Yaël, thank you. So in my first novel, and it was fun in both cases, it was a lot of fun in the first novel to write this dreamy kind of bookish girl's voice for, you know, however long I was writing that chapter and then I would actually give myself a break. I would give myself a day's break and move on to the other voice which was so angry and the funny thing is the angry girl's voice came pouring out of me and I thought I must be angrier person than I think I am.
Yaël Ksander: You just found a good way to exercise it.
Jacinda Townsend: You know one of the funny things about that too is that the angry girl kind of speaks in this Appalachian dialect that doesn't necessarily belong to me, my grandmother spoke in that dialect, she was from a more rural part of Kentucky, you know, and so I actually had to make myself a little chart of like when do you use weren't, wasn't, you know, and still that angry voice just poured out of me. I think by chapter four I was like by nowI know when you use weren't, you know. And even there are words that people don't use anymore that I had to sort of conjure up from memory after hearing my grandmother speak, like [PHONETIC: nery],that's a word that we don't use and swerp, you know.
Jacinda Townsend: So it was just so fun to write and I felt like in some sense those two were telling two different, very different parts of the same story and they were sort of reporting on each other. So sometimes I used the device of letters, you know. Well Caroline wrote me this letter and, you know, what she said is just crazy, you know, so that they got to kind of judge each other. It was a way of letting them tell both of their stories that are very much the same story of how they're both constrained in these very different ways. With Mother Country it's a little different because you're right, they don't meet up except at this point at which their lives intersect and even then they never quite meet up until the very end of the book.
Jacinda Townsend: But with these two voices the thing that kind of unites them is that in some sense they're both incredibly alienated people, when is alienated in a country where she has to learn how to speak the language even, you know. She has escaped slavery so she has no job, she has to work in the sex industry for a while and so she's very alienated and seeking community, which she finally finds. But I think Shannon, the American woman, is also tremendously alienated. She has parents who kind of all but ignore her when she's growing up, doesn't have many friends, she marries a man who she's not in love with and she knows that from the get-go, you know, and she has a different ending. I think she finds community in a different way but I would say if there was any through line on sort of uniting those two very different voices it was that. It was this question into my mind of like how do each of these characters sort of answer the question of alienation for themselves.
Yaël Ksander: I get that, that's wonderful and we'll get back to the role that language plays in a minute. Another real commonality among all of your female characters, the ones who are mothers, the ones who have mothers, is that the mothers are relentlessly cruel and there is an unremitting, inexorable unkindness that is visited from one generation to the other and I might even have you read a passage Jacinda.
Jacinda Townsend: 'Some bad news her face was ruined. Her mother had shown her with the chrome handled hand mirror, her mother's head dropped in shame as she held it apart from Shannon's face. The scar was a long puckered thing, the wound running the length of her right cheekbone. They sutured it together quickly with old fashioned staples and in the mirror she saw the little bite marks where the staples had been removed, 12 of them in two neat little rows of six, just like the little French girls in Madeline. She imagined a third date with Vlad and his money, his telling her it was okay, her face was fine. He was just glad she was still alive.
Jacinda Townsend: Maybe he'd even say something sweet in winning, something like, scars are beautiful because they're proof you survived, a bit of virtue signaling before he ghosted her all together. Maybe he'd even take one of his un-ruined hands in his own, expecting the sweaty palm he'd shaken on that first date, but he'd be getting a different hand now, a cold dry palm. He'd be getting a woman who'd brushed up against mortality and returned with prophecy. She thought how unfair because it was a car wreck and the scar could have shown up in some other less devastating fashion, but apparently the scar had had aspirations just like everyone else. It could have settled for being a crick in her neck, a bruise on her forehead.
Jacinda Townsend: It could have left her completely untouched. It could have been the cute chipmunk running across the road at the moment of impact, forever lodged in her cerebrum to sadden her. The scar could have announced itself as a crushing case of PTSD that would leave her white knuckled every time she got behind the wheel of her car. But no, the scar needed her. It had seen how optimistic she was and for no good reason. Her parents had been so awful to her, just as their parents had been so awful to them and even her maternal great grandmother had been an unmaternal ice box of a woman, and so on and so forth, up the line all the way to Eve, every damn thing, every mother's fault. Not one of these women have left her cheating husband, pursued that machinist job at the factory or left the state in a loaded down station wagon destining herself in her progeny for freedom.
Jacinda Townsend: These women had stewed in their trauma passing it down through the generations like the seeds of an heirloom tomato and Shannon, who had become the scar's aim andtarget, simply did not deserve any better. This scar needed her, like a glove of molten glass it would blow into spiritual shape.'
Jacinda Townsend: So yeah I mean I feel like mothers are, we are unjustly exalted and that exaltation in a lot of ways harms us because what we have is this cult of perfect motherhood, you know. One of my favorite movies has become The Lost Daughter, oh I love that because it's so real. I mean I think this every Mother's Day. Mother's Day just makes me so angry actually because I think people have strong feelings actually about it including mothers, you know, and nobody's allowed to say it on Mother's Day, you're supposed to kind of take your chocolate and be really happy, even though everybody has kind of messed up the kitchen and you're going to have to clean that up, you know. It's like here's my one day to relax but no that's not even possible right. But I feel like to the cult of perfect motherhood, we deem mothers as potential saints, at the same time we make it almost impossible in the United States for mothers to be at peace even if they were saints. I get really exorcised thinking about it and just even as in terms of characters and literature.
Jacinda Townsend: Women in general we don't allow them to be unlikeable characters. We sort of decide that if they're not likable they're not investible, you know, whereas you rarely hear a critic saying of a male character, you know, I didn't like him so I didn't want to read this anymore. I mean but we expect that of female characters just as we in some ways expect it from real women. So I love to poke holes in this trip of the perfect mother because we are just as lovable for our imperfections, you know, and I think we're allowed.
Yaël Ksander: I love it, I love it, and you've really homed in on the mother, the imperfect mother and the woman story in this book. You know you gave us fair warning, you said this going to be mother country okay people. We had some fathers in the last one and when you talk about giving men a pass, yes one character in your previous novel cut up his wife and put her pieces in all of the far reaches of the house from chimney to basement, but gets out of jail and is embraced. However, there are other characters, female characters, who are morally ambiguous characters and those to me are your most interesting characters. So Shannon is, yeah I'd call her morally ambiguous. This is one of the two women who are your protagonists in Mother Country, Shannon the Louisville native who, and it's not a spoiler because it happens on page 15, steals a child, straight up steals a child. Like how is this okay?
Jacinda Townsend: Steals is a strong word.
Yaël Ksander: Well let's see, she borrows a child. [LAUGHS] She borrows a child, she assumes that the child is homeless or doesn't have a family and then she uses her cultural seniority to manufacture some documents to abscond with said child. So what's wonderful you could, you know, in our current culture, you could just say oh this is hideous, this is heinous and we see the effect on the other mother. We see the horrible mourning and the dark nights of the soul in the wake of that event. However, we also see the evolution of Shannon and so that's what's the most compelling aspect of that book if you ask me, the way she grows.
Jacinda Townsend: Thank you, thank you. That was definitely a thing that happened on subsequent drafts, that was not a first draft, no, at all, but I mean it's strange to have come into writing this from the perspective that I was not going to take sides was kind of interesting, because I think it's a story that you can, you know, you get to page 15 and I think you've taken sides right,you know. And so when I decided that I was not going to take sides, I had to really sort of develop back story and in some ways develop front story as well because even aside from those sort of social constraints she's facing, there's a lot of existential angst. I mean she's struggling with infertility but she's also having other people sort of put that struggle on her which is a lot. Thank you for saying that because I wanted it to be a trajectory of growth for Shannon in a lot of ways.
Alex Chambers: This is Inner States. It's time for a short break. When we come back we'll continue with Yaël Ksander's conversation with novelist Jacinda Townsend about language as a form of connection in the role of artists in the pursuit of social justice. Stick around.
Alex Chambers: Welcome back to Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers. Let's get right back to Yaël's Ksander's conversation with Jacinda Townsend.
Yaël Ksander: There's an important theme that really captured me in this most recent book and in the previous one. It has to do with the language or more broadly, code. So I see the universe of both stories as one that is dark and wants to cheer you up and spit you out, and in the midst of this universe you create characters who cope with it in different ways, some more successfully than others. The coping strategy a lot of time seems to have to do with learning a code or a language. We see it in this novel, Mother Country. First of all you drop us, the reader, into the desert where the geography is unfamiliar, the language is unfamiliar and you don't give us that much help.
Yaël Ksander: You throw us into all of these words that we can look up, we can figure out by context because they're in [PHONETIC: Dareesha], they're in Hassaniya, they're in French, and so you help us understand what it's like to be Souria who is wandering in the desert without language, without papers to prove her citizenship, and then you show how Souria copes by learning the language and the first real love story, the first tender story that you share is the one where the young boy is teaching her language, and I was hoping maybe that Jacinda you could read that passage which is so tender.
Jacinda Townsend: 'Adwan spoke to her only in two word sentences but he helped her mop the floor with a towel in the evenings after dinner and he walked her around the Medina showing her when to buy cooking oils and the vegetables the family needed. She didn't yet know all the words for gratitude in the new dialect so she was relieved to be able to express it in housekeeping. Her fourth day in the house, Adwan taught her phrases, which way is the spice filler, the price for fish is too high, I feel like a drink of tea. Then he taught her words that stood by themselves, hot, arm, 20, elephant. On this her fifth day he talked to her about music. She didn't feel attracted to Adwan so much as connected to him but the connection in this new land of her immediate future felt essential.
Jacinda Townsend: The seventh day, Adwan taught her how to make different tenses of the verbs of his dialect. After the lesson she went down to the kitchen to cut chicken for a tagine and she was pleased while pulling off a severed wing, to find that she could now say that she existed and would continue to exist further. Adwan put his lips to hers and the warm moisture of his kiss stirred an anger she hadn't felt since the camp at [PHONETIC: Majek]. She leaned into her consciousness and fell, he had no idea who she was. She would work hard to speak his pronouns and discern his beef but he'd never know the first window of her mind.'
Yaël Ksander: The times that I see tenderness in this pretty harsh world of yours , whether it's on one side of the Atlantic or the other, it's happening because of the transmission of language and there's a connection happening. Whether it's Souria learning the dialect from Adwan or later learning the letters from her employer and just getting more access to the world, getting connection, feeling grounded, having more power, but I also see it on Shannon's side, the time that she is finally kind of at peace is when she gets that job reading to the blind. Was that intentional, this idea? I mean as a writer obviously language is your currency.
Jacinda Townsend: Yeah and I guess, you know, it maybe wasn't intentional but in researching this novel I had so many moments and so many experiences not being able to connect with people I wanted to be connected with because of language. You know in some ways it's kind of the ultimate point of connection or it can be the ultimate gulf, you know. There were times in Mauritania I had access to translation and then times I didn't and I cannot tell you, Yaël, how many times I desperately wanted to. There was one summer we went and I worked with a group, it was a church group who were sort of helping people who were in the sex trade in Morocco because they were African migrants, and in Morocco it's extremely hard to get a work visa and so what happens is women who end up there invariably have to go into the sex trade, you know. And so this group was doing work for them and I could not talk to them and it was a really interesting experience.
Jacinda Townsend: I was able to do things that were helpful to them and I guess some people would argue that that's the ultimate kind of point of connection, you know. Like one thing we did for them, we gave them pedicures, you know, which is a way of communicating through touch and it's a way of literally touching people in the most intimate of ways but to me that is not as intimate as language. It's not as intimate as like knowing a person's mind and hearing their experiences, you know. So if anything it was just maybe a bit of personal knowledge that made it into the book of what that feels like, how terrible it feels when you can't speak to other people, you know, because I've also had the experience in Morocco of not being able to do it for weeks on end. There have been times when we were in some little tiny town and nobody even spoke French and we could only speak to ourselves, you know. So it's a bizarre experience right, you're there to get to know a country but you can't really connect to people. So I did profoundly know what that felt like and how terrible it felt.
Yaël Ksander: Clearly this novel in particular and probably a lot of your writing, your literary work, is motivated by your values and this one, you mentioned the back story of wanting to tell the tale of the woman who had been in slavery. I'm curious about your choices in your life, in your career, your devotion to social justice has manifested itself in many ways. In Bloomington you were our leader of Black Lives Matter, you also played a role on the Mineral County School Corporation School Board and of course you are pursuing your social justice goals through your writing of literature. How do you balance that? Do you have the conviction that fiction can save the world?
Jacinda Townsend: I do actually. I think that artists are unique in that it's a job requirement to step out of our skin into someone else's skin and then come back and transmit that person's experience to the rest of the world, and I think that art can serve and for me I just don't make art that doesn't serve. I just can't anymore and I think that that's why, is that I do see it as a calling. I think that when you go to a country like Mauritania and you see someone in the circumstance who can't tell their story. I think it behooves you to tell it and that's what I felt. I feel that the artist can't avert their eyes from a situation. So yeah it's something I am entirely committed to.
Jacinda Townsend: The novel I'm working on now is actually about a woman whose father is killed in the late 80s by a policeman and she changes her identity and moves from California to Kentucky and it's about grief, you know, that's kind of its overarching thing, but it's also very much about the impact that police brutality has on not just the individual themselves, the victim, but also their families and their communities and it just ripples out. So I am really trying to write in service, yes. Thank you.
Yaël Ksander: Wow, fantastic and, you know, I personally believe that people are more moved by art than they are by a screed or a manifesto, that if you can create empathy then you're most of the way there.
Jacinda Townsend: Yes. Well this has been the most wonderful time Yaël, thank you for having me on.
Yaël Ksander: You are so welcome Jacinda. Congratulations. I can't wait to see the encomiums come through as they have already begun to and I am deeply honored by having had the chance to speak with you.
Jacinda Townsend: Same here, thank you.
Alex Chambers: Novelist Jacinda Townsend spoke with WFIU's Yaël Ksander about her new novel Mother Country, published just last week by Graywolf Press. Currently a professor of creative writing at the University, Townsend was an associate professor of English at Indiana University in Bloomington. Her debut novel, Saint Monkey, was published in 2014 by Norton. I'm going to end with a poem by Yalie Kamara, it's called Mother's Rules.
Yalie Kamara: For my mother. One, if you see me praying in the living room, never sit in front of me, you are not God. Two, when we go to a restaurant and I don't know any foods on the menu, never order me a meal that is spelled with silent letters, I came to eat not to explore. Three, you didn't make food, no, God did, you cooked food, watch your English, watch your faith. Four, your creole is offensive. When you speak you sound like Shabba Ranks. Your accent is funny but keep practicing, it is the only way we will be able to gossip in peace while at the supermarket. Five, try to learn the language of your lover and his family, they could be smiling to your face and getting ready to trade you for six goats and three meals during your first trip to their homeland. Six, if anyone stares at you for too long, more than five seconds, start speaking an imaginary language while maintaining eye contact, they'll be the first to look away. Seven, consider the consequence of purchasing human hair wigs, secondhand clothing and used furniture, maybe you will feel beautiful and also save money but you never know whose bad luck or misfortune will be sitting on your head, body or in the home in which you sleep. Buy what you can truly afford. Eight, your father's Muslim so you are too. 1989 to 1993. I am Christian so you are too. 1993 to 2012. I am Catholic now but you keep praying. 2012 to present. Nine. You laugh at me now like I laughed at my mother, like she laughed at hers, like your daughters will laugh at you and I will live long enough to forgive your folly. Ten, just make sure to pray. Amen.
Alex Chambers: That was Yalie Kamara reading her poem Mother's Rules from her book When the Living Sing. Yalie Kamara is a Sierra Leonean American writer, educator and researcher from Oakland, California. In addition to When the Living Sing, her books include A Brief Biography of My Name and the forthcoming What You Need to Know About Me, an anthology of youth writings on immigration. She is also the current Poet Laureate of Cincinnati.
Alex Chambers: You've been listening to Inner States from WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. If you have a story for us or you've got some sound we should hear, let us know at wifu.org/innerstates. Speaking of found sound, we've got your quick moment of slow radio coming up but first the credits. Inner States is produced and edited by me, Alex Chambers, with support from Eoban Binder, Aaron Cain, Mark Chilla, Michael Paskash, Payton Whaley and Kayte Young. Our executive producer is John Bailey. Special thanks this week to Jacinda Townsend, Yalie Kamara and Yaël Ksander. Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music and Airport people.
Alex Chambers: Alright let's go somewhere else now and listen...
Alex Chambers: You've been listening to robins in a tree, early February in Bloomington, Indiana. Until next week, I'm Alex Chambers. Thanks for listening.