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Jacinda Townsend

March 26, 2014

This story originally published by Bethany Nolan in the Art at IU blog.

A real-life story lies behind Jacinda Townsend’s new novel. “Saint Monkey,” published in February by Norton, was partly inspired by a true story from Townsend’s western Kentucky hometown involving a familial murder that left behind small children to be raised by their grandmother.

“The novel is told in two different voices,” says Townsend, now an assistant professor in the Creative Writing Program in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences Department of English. “One of the young ladies is a very talented pianist and is discovered at a church in Kentucky. She is taken off to play with the Harlem jazz bands of the 1950s, so she has this very exciting life ahead of her. Meanwhile, her best friend is left behind to care for her younger sister and ailing grandmother because her father is in prison for killing her mother.”

Townsend says she only realized how intrigued she’d been by the true crime example once she’d arrived at the end of her own creative process.

“I wondered what it must feel like to be the oldest kid, and to remember life like it was before, and to be responsible for your family because your grandmother is too elderly to care for you,” she says. “And in some ways, it wasn’t until I had children of my own that I was able to access what that must have felt like for the youngest daughter.”

The book also focuses on the friendship of the two protagonists and whether it will survive their separation, as well as the cultural constraints and perceptions that abounded for women in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

While she wrote much of “Saint Monkey” before arriving at IU three years ago, Townsend praises the university’s continued encouragement for her writing, saying she just completed her second novel.

“The university is so supportive, and the department has given me the resources to really research this novel and the time to write it,” she says. “This one is partially set in Morocco, and I received funding to travel and do some research for it, which was the experience of a lifetime. I was able to make a side trip to Mauritania — one of my main characters is an escaped slave from there — and meet with anti-slavery activists there. And I had this incredible experience, where I was able to meet a family of escaped slaves, including holding this barely 4-month-old baby who was the only person in her family who had been born outside of slavery, and just barely so. It was so powerful, and meant so much to me to be able to participate in this research.”

It’s not just about her own work either, Townsend says. Her students encourage her as well.

“We have a really, really good creative writing program here, and my students inspire me on a daily basis,” she says. “Sometimes I read their work, and I get jealous that they’re discovering these great new things about themselves and getting better and better at it. I’m truly honored to be a guide for them.”