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 [End Page 74] 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.
In what ways did growing up in south central Kentucky influence your decision to become a writer?
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.
In the final chapter of the book, Audrey tells a reporter that “a whole language can disappear.”
Did you feel an obligation in writing this to present an aspect of Appalachian culture that is disappearing? [End Page 75]
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.
How did you come to write Saint Monkey? Where did the book first begin?
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.
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?
Caroline is a lot more bitter; she has a lot more reason to be bitter. And so, in some ways, Caroline is reality, you [End Page 76]
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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...