The path to becoming an acclaimed novelist usually doesn’t go through Harvard University’s political science program or Duke University’s law school.
But then again Jacinda Townsend wasn’t your average student. After graduating from Warren Central High School in Bowling Green, she entered Harvard when she was only 16 years old. After she passed the bar, Townsend practiced law in New York before she decided to return to her first love: creative writing.
“People tell young people that they cannot have a sustainable life in the arts – I certainly was told that over and over again,” says Townsend. “It wasn’t until much later that I learned from people all around me that, yes, you can have a sustainable life in the arts, and you don’t have to starve and you don’t have to be Beyoncé.”
Townsend, who teaches creative writing at Indiana University, appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss her career and her critically acclaimed debut novel “Saint Monkey.”
A Creative and Precocious Youth
Growing up in Bowling Green in the 1970s and ‘80s, Townsend says she spent her free time making her own illustrated books, writing plays, and lying in a field near Scottsville Road to watch airplanes fly over her small town. Her mother was an English teacher and her father drove to Louisville each day, two hours up and two hours back on I-65, to work the line at General Electric. It was definitely a small-town life.
“Not only did everyone know everybody, but everyone knew everybody’s grandmother,” jokes Townsend. “You could never get in trouble, ever.”
A precocious student, Townsend skipped two grades in school and found herself at Harvard when she was only 16 years old. But being younger than her peers didn’t stop her from making waves on the Boston campus.
When Townsend was a junior, another student hung a Confederate flag from her dorm window. Offended by what she considered a racist symbol, Townsend appealed to the student and to the university to remove the flag. When the student and school officials both declined, Townsend created her own flag. She spray-painted a swastika on a bed sheet and hung that from her dorm window.
“That forced a huge dialogue,” Townsend recalls. “A lot of people do not equate the two, and [the swastika flag] was taken much more seriously by the college administration.”
After a week of calls demanding that she remove her flag, Townsend finally relented, satisfied that her action had initiated some much-needed debate among her Harvard peers. Now that she’s lived numerous other places in the years since then, Townsend says she’s still shocked that someone would hang a Confederate flag, knowing the hurt that it can cause African-Americans.
“A Love Letter to Kentuckians”
After she got a political science degree from Harvard and a law degree from Duke, Townsend tried her hand at journalism and practicing law, but the lure of creative writing never left her. She entered the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop when she was 27 and studied with the likes of Frank Conroy and Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson.
“I was a baby when I got there,” Townsend says, “and I had teachers who were just amazing on every level from language to the big picture of a story.”
The succeeding years included teaching, a Fulbright Scholarship to Africa, kids, and a failed novel that Townsend says was simply too grim and heavy.
Then she completed the manuscript for what would become her debut novel called “Saint Monkey.” It’s the story of two African-American girls coming of age in Mount Sterling, Ky., during the Jim Crow era. Both have big dreams, but only one of them is able to realize her dreams, and the book explores the friction that results between the two friends.
In The New Yorker, writer Junot Díaz called the book a “stunner of a novel.” The book also won this year’s James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Historical Fiction from the Society of American Historians.
Townsend says “Saint Monkey” is about how we see and love people despite their shortcomings. Although the book deals with segregation, sexism, and poverty, it also features some humorous moments.
“It’s in dialogue where the lightheartedness comes from,” Townsend says. “In real life during a lot of normal conversation, people say things that are just hilarious.”
Townsend says some of that dialogue recalls the language she heard her grandmothers use when she was growing up. And while the book is set in a different part of the state, she says it reflects her devotion to the commonwealth and the older generations.
“It is a love letter to Kentuckians, particularly this way of life [that’s] passing away,” Townsend says. “I really wanted to capture that, and I wanted to capture what’s just so beautiful about this land and these people.”