Stephen was singing along and tapping his hands on the…
In February, Jacinda Townsend’s debut novel Saint Monkey was published to critical praise. Deeply moving and beautifully written, the book follows two young African-American women as they grow up in Eastern Kentucky in the 1950s. Audrey Martin and Caroline Wallace are consistently confronted with challenges and change; not only must they overcome the tragic loss of beloved family members, but they must do so in a society that subjects them to systemic disadvantages. Their friendship becomes strained when Audrey moves to New York to play piano at the Apollo while Caroline gives up her dream of leaving home and assumes the responsibility of raising her younger sister. Saint Monkey, told alternately through the perspectives of both Audrey and Caroline, explores the classic literary theme of growing up and leaving home. The juxtaposition of these two voices results in a powerful work that explores Appalachian identity.
Townsend recently spoke to Appalachian Heritage assistant David Cornette about her first novel and Appalachia as a microcosm of America.
David Cornette: In what ways did growing up in south central Kentucky influence your decision to become a writer?
Jacinda Townsend: I think Kentuckians are great storytellers, and I grew up with a mother and a grandmother who told tremendous stories. It was mostly gossip. [laughs] But the way they gossiped, it always had like a dramatic arc to it. You know, [when you’re] just sitting around snapping beans, you can just really learn how to tell great stories.
DC: In the final chapter of the book, Audrey tells a reporter that “a whole language can disappear.”
DC: Did you feel an obligation in writing this to present an aspect of Appalachian culture that is disappearing?
JT: Definitely…There are two kind of layers of it. One is just that, part of Appalachian culture, you know, when you’re talking about the black people, they were former slaves who were hired to take care of the horses in the area all around Lexington. A lot of those hamlets have either disappeared or shrunk tremendously in size, so in some ways the book was a love letter to that culture that has disappeared. But also to a language that has largely disappeared, so some of the phrases—even some of the syntax and diction of these people—is diction that I heard growing up, and I have not heard since, because those people are literally dying off. You know, my grandmother was the last person I ever heard use the word “nary.” So yeah, I wanted to record that.
DC: How did you come to write Saint Monkey? Where did the book first begin?
JT: It’s actually [the] chapter that’s the titular chapter about the murder. That was the first chapter I wrote, so it’s loosely based on—there was an actual murder that took place in my hometown. It wasn’t really like [in the novel], but it was a domestic murder—a guy killed his wife. And they left behind three kids, and I had always wondered what it was like to be that oldest kid and have to, in effect, raise your sisters…that’s how it came to me. And that’s how a lot of writing comes to me—I’ll see a situation from the outside and wonder what it feels like for the person who’s in that situation.
DC: You’ve said previously that this novel was originally all about Audrey, and told from her point of view. In what ways did the story change by giving Caroline a voice?
JT: Caroline is a lot more bitter; she has a lot more reason to be bitter. And so, in some ways, Caroline is reality, you know; Audrey is much more of a dreamer than Caroline is. So when I gave Caroline more of a voice, it changed the story so dramatically because I think the story had been about pursuing your ambition and leaving your home and all those timeless themes, but then the story kind of became about the way people are constrained even when they do follow their dreams.
DC: After spending a few months in New York, Audrey discovers that she’s under many of the same limitations that prompted her to leave Kentucky. What does this reflect about the connection between Appalachia and the nation at large?
JT: Well, that Kentucky’s really not all that different. [laughs] And I mean, I think it’s as true now as it was then, you know. For instance, I lived in New York as an adult; I moved there when I was twenty-three. And I remember a moment, and I was just—I was in the bathroom just like beside myself. I was at work and I went to the bathroom at work and I thought, you know, I have never experienced racism like I have in this workplace, and I had never experienced racism the way I experienced it in New York. In New York it was a very limiting
thing, because people were very much defining what you were going to do. I mean, I couldn’t even catch a cab in New York; certainly that’s not true in Kentucky. And yet, you know, stereotypically we think of Appalachia as this region where a lot of the stereotypes that are put forth in mass media hold true, and it’s just not [always the case].
JT: And so I think it’s true, and it was just as true in the fifties [that] women were just as confined in New York as they were in Appalachia. And so people have this idea that “Oh, certain parts of the country are so much more progressive than others,” and that’s not entirely true. What goes down goes down in different ways depending on where you are.
DC: Another question about Caroline and Audrey—as you mentioned before, they see the world in different ways, despite having a lot in common. Do you identify more closely with either one of them, or do you kind of see them as two separate sides of yourself?
JT: [laughs] That is such a good question. I think another reason that at first I had written more [about] Audrey is that I identified more with her. After I had my second kid and I became a single mother shortly thereafter…I began to really feel, the gender definition in a way that I had not before. I felt like the world was defining me in ways that it had not previously. Caroline, you know, I think that’s why she became more of the book too is that there was a part of me that was more Caroline by the time I had finished revising that book. So yeah, [those characters] are two very different sides of me.
DC: Music plays a major role in the plot of Saint Monkey, and there also seems to be some tension around the idea of performing music as a job, “just as much as driving a tractor” as you describe it. Could you tell me a little bit about the different ways that music ties into the meaning of the novel?
JT: Sure…I mean, first of all, I always wish that I were a professional musician, and my poor kids [who are musicians] have to—I’m like living through them almost. [laughs] But I also chose that world because I think it’s such a metaphor for almost anything that one can do, and it’s a really good metaphor. For instance, Audrey’s father passes down this gift to her, but it becomes a curse in some ways. You know, it’s almost like she’s born into this gift she has with music, but she doesn’t really know what to do with herself, and so I wanted to kind of think about that. But also because, oh my gosh, it was such a—when I started doing the research of the jazz world of the fifties—what a rich tapestry to explore. And it was also a way to talk about just what the fifties were socially and politically.
DC: The novel ends at a time in which society begins to undergo major changes, and yet the last lines are whispered words from the past. What is the effect of emphasizing this recurrent memory amidst a quickly changing world?
JT: One thing that is happening to Audrey is that she’s realizing…that when you leave a place, it is not just about you individually leaving a place. When you leave a place, you are very much using that to continue a way of life…It’s almost like when people immigrate here from other countries—when you leave a part of this country that has such a rich, rich culture, you’re choosing—in some ways, you’re choosing not to be a part of that anymore. You can continue it all you want, you know—there’s this scene where she’s like “I have to go get that salt for the house, cause that’s what my daddy told me to do for good luck.” You can take it with you but you are, in fact, choosing not to be a part of it. And in having these memories—and I know you talked about the last scene, and that’s the memory of her being with August—but I think that’s what a lot of her memory is, and I think it may also be the author’s kind of memory and wistful longing to have continued her own culture.
DC: What piece of writing advice do you like to give to all of your students?
JT: Stay in the game. It’s a game—the Yankees, you know, if you think about it, actually lose sixty percent of the games that they play—and they’re a phenomenal team, right? And so it’s the same with writing—it’s just a job. And I like to tell this story but my students don’t like to hear it, but when I sold this novel my second kid was four months old, and I was talking to the editor and I had this child who had just pooped and gone to sleep. [laughs] So she had a dirty diaper and I was just praying through the phone call that she wouldn’t wake up, and I got off the phone and I just changed her diaper, so there was no fifty-yard line dance or anything like that. Because I’ve always felt that if you get really dejected by failure, you also have to be really invested in success, and neither thing is good for writing, because writing really is—you have to stay in the game. You have to keep doing it; it’s a job. And that’s the way I like to think of it: “I’m gonna get up and do this no matter what.”