Friends & Fiction
Friends & Fiction

Episode · 1 month ago

WB-S2E26 Mother Country w/ Jacinda Townsend

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

WRITERS' BLOCK Ron Block interivews Jacinda Townsend about her powerful new book, Mother Country

You have the best questions this. This is a really good one and I'm so glad to talk about this because one of the reasons I was so motivated to keep writing about Morocco is that what we have in American literature is Paul Bowls. You know, Paul Bowls is the person who's most known for writing about Morocco. He ended up living there for twenty seven years. I think of his life and when you read his work it is very apparent that he saw it from the perspective of a white person who was not subject to the colorism, you know, or not subject to the wrong end of the colorism, and so in some ways it's not in those books. Welcome to the friends and fiction writer's block podcast For New York Times bestselling author, one rock star Librarian and endless stories. Joined Mary Kay, Andrews Kristin Harmel, Christy Woodson Harvey and Patty Callahan Henry, along with Ron Block as novelists. We are four longtime friends with seventy books between us, and I am Ron Block. Please join us for fascinating author interviews and insider talk about publishing and writing. If you love books and are curious about the writing world, you are in the right place. Welcome to the latest episode of the friends and fiction writer's block podcast. Today we are so lucky to be hosting a very gifted storyteller whose work you're going to want to get in your hands immediately after this episode, if you have it already. I am so proud to welcome just send to Townsend to the podcast. Welcome to Sinda. Thank you so much, Ron and is such an honor to be on friends and fiction and thank you so much for having in my book. You know, I'm so excited. We've been trying to do this for a while and I'm so glad it's finally happened. Um, let me tell people a little bit about you and then we'll dive right in. Just into Townsend is the author of St Monkey, which won the Janet Hidinger Kafka Prize and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writer's workshop and teaches in the M F A program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I want to read you before we begin, a review from the New York Times, which is completely epitomizes what I think about this book. Compassionate, exquisitely written. The ever changing hues of motherhood and daughterhood, their gifts and losses for each woman and girl are brought to life in the author's precise, sensuous prose. Townsend is most eloquent when writing about Suria's grief, the despair of her empty arms, rendered unforgettably in language at once tender and brutal. And that is from the New York Times. Welcome again, just Sinda. I cannot wait to...

...talk about this book mother country. Thank you. So to give everybody kind of an introduction, will you tell us what the book is about? Sure, and is about a woman named Shannon who she's an American, she's struggling with in fertility and she goes to Morocco on a business trip with her husband and she finds, my publisher uses the word kidnaps, but I'm going to say find. She finds a child. Um She this child looks to be alone, and this isn't too much of a spoiler because this happens in the very first chapter. So this child seems unaccompanied and she brings her back to the United States. That child, however, belongs to you, a very young mother who has just escaped modern day slavery in Mauritania and is in Morocco with no papers. So what the book is about is what happens both before and after the kidnapping. And you know what I hope it's about is the idea that, well, I don't know Ron I mean, before you read this book, Did you think that you could kidnap a child? Ever, Oh gosh, no, no, it wouldn't mean me approaching me. But but the nuances of the characters and and and we're going to talk a little about their approaches to motherhood. I just you kind of get it, like right or wrong. You kind of get it. Yes, and that's what I had hoped to do, is to paint Shannon in such a sort of understanding light that we understand, you know, not only the moral complexity of her situation, but the moral complexity of of all of these characters situations. Um, there's a chapter near the end where I have five different Um, sort of relative strangers in the book, but they all sort of witnessed her taking this child and they all have their suspicions about it and none of them said or did anything and they all have their reasons you know, I like to think of them and of Shannon as Um. They're they're like the Lando Calrissians of, you know, this book, because they you know, you know, when Lando turned on Solo into the evil impiority said, I'd love to help it. Have problems on my own, Um, and I think, you know, we all do that every day, in in smaller ways, obviously, but I like to, you know, write novels that explore that, that explore the various sides of people, Um, and the idea that really we're all kind of saints and and we're all kind of sinners, Um, and that's what makes us human. Right. I don't think we're pure on either side of good and evil. I just don't. I think there's a little bit of it in all of us. Yes, so talk to me about, like where the original idea for the book came from? It a little bit about the book's journey from there to publication? Sure. So there are two different stories. The novels told in a couple of different...

...voices. One is Um Seria's voice. SIIA's an escaped slave from Mauritania, and I found out I went to Mauritania in two thousand thirteen I was doing work for Al Jazeera About Women in development and I interviewed a woman who worked for an Anti Slavery Organization there and I learned so much about modernary slavery in that country. Um. One thing that is astonishing, and most of us don't know because it is such an isolated country, but twenty percent of the Mauritanian population is enslaved Um and it is a brutal system. It's a case based system, so it's very hard to escape Um. And so Seria's story is sort of a composite of you know, I I met an escaped slave Um. She had eight children. She had escaped while giving birth basically to the last of the eight. I met her um and she said, you know, just please tell my stories. So it's a composite of her stories and some other stories of modern slavery that I had learned about Um while I was researching that story. She had in's story, she had in's voices a little more intensely personal Um. Both of my children when I had them, before I had them I thought, you know, I would give birth in this like you know, pool of water and they amby would come out of the wits and talk to me. And that's not at all what it was like. They were they were both actually C sections. One of them was an emergency c section, and it actually you wouldn't believe how long it took me, after that Um to stop feeling like a failure. I felt like I had failed at this critical moment and I could never be a proper mother, and so I spoiled that out to the INSTAGRAE and I wondered, you know, how long would it take you to feel like a kid's mother if you got that kid in this weird, almost nefarious way? Um, and that became sort of the backbone of Shannon's character. was that question that's so fascinating. I have two children and both of them were just like yours, and I'm, of course, on the Dad's side, so I really can't I have you know, I can't even pretend to be, you know, sympathetic to the mother's side, other than just being able to be there and help. But it is a lot. It is. It is the whole thing about feeling like a failure. It's the end result. Is is the is the prize, if you will. Yes, but it does take a long time. It does and I think that about parent and in general, because I'm willing to bet that you know, even as a dad, it's like there's this moment of birth and we invest so much meaning into it. Um. I guess men do as well, you know, when in fact it's all these moments after the birth that makes you a good parent. You...

...know, Um, but it took it takes a loan to realize that, or it did for me. Yes, no, I think that's universal. I mean the begin like you said, when you were talking about what you thought it would be like, I was imagining Disney birds flying around, and but the reality is is scary. It is it's terrifying, Um, for everyone. Okay, so let's talk about some of the major themes in the book. I first wanted to start. We've just touched on a little bit, but let's talk about motherhood in the characters, because they are so very different. So talk a little bit about their differences that you without spoilers, of course, and then what's what some of the similarities were between them? Sure, sure, so. One one huge difference is that both of these women are up against some tremendous obstacles. Um, SRIA's obstacles however, are much more tangible and much more harrowing. And so she becomes a mother because she's raped as she's escaping. Um. She's a single mom in Morocco with, you know, not many job prospects. She has to become involved in the sex trade, which is kind of a real thing that happens, unfortunately, Um, to a lot of migrants to Morocco. And you know her. Her her experience of motherhood is very much getting from point a to point B without dying. Basically, you know, they have trouble Um, they have food and security, they have trouble finding housing initially, Um, whereas Shannon, you know, she's kind of she's living a life of luxury in a lot of ways, but only because she got married, because she herself is in a pretty precurious situation before that. She has almost two hundred thousand dollars in medical debts, she's got a hundred and fifty thou dollars in student loans, and so she has come at motherhood from an entirely different place and and, you know, in a lot of ways, like I mentioned in the first couple of chapters, Um, I have this refrain about what to make of a choice in a lot of ways. What they have in common is that they kind of don't have a lot of choice in the matter. Um, I think Shannon, you know, Shannon's sense of having choice in a lot of ways as an illusion, because the truth is, if she wants to keep her marriage running and she wants to get she one of the reasons she gets married is to get dental insurance. So she wants to keep all that running. Um, this man wants a kid and she's got to produce one. So she does. And she's also been sort of battered by her struggles with infertility, you know. Um, she's been made to feel like she's kind of less than because she can't do this on her own. And so to her it just seems like a very natural, organic thing to gather this child bring her back. Sure, Um, there I think one...

...of the things that was lacking for both of them too, is they didn't have a lot of support. Neither one of them had support, even though their circumstances were so different, they really didn't have people to lean on. Um, Shannon's own mother really is not the best role model. Yes, Syria has no family because she's been trafficked away from them and she anon is very much estranged from her family. And so they are. It's another thing they have in common is that they're very much dependent on a circumstance that keeps them kind of bound, you know, um to the choices they have to make. Um, okay, so I want to go out to look probably a heavy topic, but I think I think it's important here is the theme of racism in the book. One of the great glorious things about the last couple of years for me personally, is that finally people are being allowed to lend their voices to literature from diverse cultures, from diverse viewpoints. and Um, it's, it's, you know, I mean it's in a way it's a big celebration because we're actually can now learn about people that aren't like us and people that are from other places, and it's really important and I just think it's, Um, it's almost like a renaissance again in literature. So talk to me about racism in this book, but specifically about the colorism, which is something that was a new layer for me, not just in this book but in recent books that I've read. Is like, and I'm never being being this white guy, I never understood this and now I'm like wow, and I'm like I need to listen to this. So sure, I'm ready, sure, and it's I mean, I'm so glad you you have the best questions that this is a really good one, and I'm so glad to talk about this because one of the reasons I was so motivated to keep writing about Morocco is that what we have in American literature is Paul Bowles. You know, Paul Bowles, says, the person who's most known for writing about Morocco. He ended up living there for twenty seven years. I think of his life and when you read his work, it is very apparent that he saw it from the perspective of a white person who was not subject to the colorism, you know, or not subject to the wrong end of the colorism. And so in some ways it's not in those books. Um, there's there's also, you know, I wanted to write in response to what I felt like was kind of Um, the Islamophobia and xenophobia in Paul Bull's books as well, because I feel like the black experience there and in other countries is a completely different experience. Um, you know, when we go to Morocco. We are we are not treated like American tourists, you know. Um, we're treated differently and in some ways poorly. Um, Syria. Also, she's from a country more Tania, when when I say that...

...the slavery is case based, that means it's also color based. And so the Hareton in Mauritania are, Um, the darker skinned people, you know, and they are pretty much they make up that entire twenty percent of the enslaved. Um. And so for her to come to Morocco and then face even more colorism Um just kind of you know, I. I. I hated to be cruel to a character, but I think that that is the reality, you know. And when when? Kind of political commentary I wanted to make about Morocco is that Morocco is a country where it's extremely hard to be a migrant. Um It's it's a country where you don't get citizenship until unless you marry into it. Um, which is well, I want to remember book, but it has a lot to do with the end of the book. Well, I'll just say that Um and it is a country where it is then very hard to get a work of these uh and so there are so many sub Saharan migrants from sub Saharan Africa who are darker skinned. They can't find work. They're having to work in in, you know, these sort of Gig economy sort of situations. Um, it's it's really hard to be a darker skinned person there. Um. I also, I thought it was one thing I wanted to sort of signify with both of these characters is that and, and a lot of is made of this in the book, that they're basically they have the same skin color, which is kind of Um, you know, it's. It's it was interesting for me to ponder this because when I go back to Morocco I have to think about this a lot, that the reason I have the same color skin has a lot of Moroccans is. Okay, so I was, you know, my ancestors were sent here from slavery, but then they sort of mixed up with the COL chures here in America and and producing, you know, my color. And the same has sort of happened to Syria, because Morocco and Mauritani are countries where there is a lot of that. There are a lot of people who have Um, you know, really Um, how do I put this skin color that is evidence of a lot of cultural mixing. Let's just put it like that, right, that's good, well put. And so in some sense it's like they have this ancient, ancient thing in common. And and so I I thought it was a little in some ways it made it a little more cosmically forgivable as well to me that she ends up with her child. Um. So, if that makes any sense, and it probably doesn't, I'm just rooting for Shandon throughout the book. I don't I can't even explain it. No, I think. I think as a reader I felt the same way. I I felt so sorry for everything that was going on...

...in Morocco, in Marrakesh, but I I just Shannon's story, I think, and maybe it's because I'm from here, I could relate more to that and the others. The other story is foreign to me. M Yes, and I and I think, you know, when a writer sets out to forgive someone, it's it's almost like I love John Dyke's rabbit books and you know rabbit is such a rogue, but I think I D sets us up to forgive him and that makes those books so magical. Um, and I and I felt the same about Shannon. Like I'm you know, from page one I was kind of setting out to forgive her Um. So I think, yeah, I think it all. It all ends up as it's supposed to. So what other research besides travel and things, did you do for this, because there's a lot of a lot of things that aren't in our everyday lives. Yes, Um, a lot of it was. Well, there were, I'm gonna say there were two layers and one was simply I we actually there was a time period, Um, and ended during the pandemic, obviously, but at some point we were in Morocco almost every year. We were there at least every other year, and then my I started taking my kids when my older one was two years old, Um, and so I had to live there, you know, kind of as a single mother, and it wasn't always easy because we weren't we were never traveling in this high budget, you know, luxurious way. We just we were we would rent apartments and middle class neighborhoods and kind of go to the suit and get our groceries with everyone else, Um, and that could be really difficult. I think that I experienced a lot of what it is like to have children in a country where misogyny runs rampant Um. You know, there was one summer I went and we had this apartment and the guy that's one of the security guards said, you know, they're they're treating you badly because you're not here with a man. You know that right, Um, and I was like no, I didn't know that, but tell me more and so and that was kind of the second layer of it. So there was just the kind of living there with two kids, you know, for months at a time, which they have. They have some stories and I've told them to keep those stories to themselves. But but the other layer of it was I interviewed everybody. Ron I would interview people, like we went to Um, we and we went to different cities, like every summer we tried to hit a different city, you know. So we did the coast, we did the desert, we did in country, we did up country, and I would interview people from every walk of life I could find. I interviewed migrants, Um, I interviewed security guards who saw everything. Um, I interviewed...

...someone who worked at a Sahara and mental hospital, Um, just everyone I could find and I learned so much. And one thing that I didn't really get to put in the book. But I have learned so much about is the way climate change has affected Morocco, particularly the parts of it that are closer to the Sahara, and so it's Seria's story, the kind of sadder part of it in terms of her leaving the desert, that's actually happening to people own mass now because they can't Um. It's harder and harder to live in the Sahara because the Sahara is frighteningly getting bigger and bigger, and so you see people having to migrate to the city's, the border cities, and they're trying to bring that desert culture with them and it's kind of like not working, but that would yes, yes, so it was. Yeah, there was a lot of learning. Um. I also, though, I read books because I only went to Mauritanium one time. It's a hard country to get to, and so I had that part was sort of I interviewed peace core workers and I read a lot of French and English language books about Mauritanian Nice. Nice. You mentioned misogyny. I meant to say that as one of the big themes in the book. It's so evident and it's so um pervasive and it just it just shows the damage of it. So it's it's Um, I don't know. All of these themes in the book just make it's so heartfelt and Um. Thank you. So let's talk. You talked a little bit about the place in the place, but it can be such a big character in the book. How do you think that influenced each of the stories where you chose to set it? Um, you know one thing that I didn't mean to do it. This is just occurring to me as I'm talking to you. In a lot of ways I made Morocco an antagonist and I really never tended to do that, because I always get mad at bubbles for doing that. Um, soracco is totally an antagonist in those books. But I hopefully what I what I was trying to say, is not that, because I think of Morocco as like an abusive spouse, like two of the three days Morocco is gonna beat you up, but the third day Morocco is going to be magical and treating really well, you know, and that is always what has happened to us while we were there. But for these two women, Morocco is it. It is very much short of limiting things for them. Um, there is the misogyny that's making life hard for Syria. There's just the sort of difficulty because Syria is, I mean, I'm sorry, she and and Shannon is also in chronic pain. Um, and so even, you know, the travel was difficult for her. She's not in love with her husbands and that that's kind of a difficult part...

...of the trip for her. So I think in a lot of ways, um, the place did. It's very determinant and you know, Morocco is kind of like a character. Morocco is like maybe one of the main characters in the book. Definitely, definitely. So let's talk a little bit about your process now. So you've got it's not dual timelines, it's dual dual viewpoint that you put together. How did you keep it all straight? Did you write them as separate or did you interweave them as you were writing? So I actually, and this is something I've done with all my novels. I all all of them. I'm I have one now that I'm trying to sell. So that's the third one, and they're all written in this diptic form of one person telling in a lot of ways telling not only their own story but keeping the plattue going in the book. So I did not write them stuff really because I wanted them both to sort of flow along the same story as smoothly as possible. Um. What was hard, though, is that they are such different people, and Syria is is illiterate, which was probably one of the biggest challenges of writing this was to be in the head of somebody for whom the world works really differently. You know, she's somebody who watches the moon rise and doesn't understand that that's because it's going around the earth, or she gets to the city and she can't read any of the signage. UH, she had a lot of ways she that prevents her from understanding what's going on in the city. But at the same time it was it was so fun to write that because when she gets to the city, things are just mysterious and miraculous in a way that was really fun to write. I think it also means that she has a hope in her that Um, maybe she if she understood just how many things are conspiring her against her, you know, in this very formal legal way. Um, but she she's plotting through life with without being able to there. There is a point where she does learn to read some words, Um, but for the most part she's depending on cues from people, you know, Um. So it's fun to write her. Yes, and that's one of the great successes of the book. For me, it almost felt like, Um, it was almost like two writers were writing each part of it. But you did it so well and being able to write from the illiterate point of view, did you have to really work at that? I really did. On the one hand, I am nearly illiterate in Arabic, so we wasn't that much of a stretch. But you know, any time I've been there, I I speak really fluent friends. So I haven't I've never been kind of stranded it,...

...you know, Um, permanently stranded. So I knew in some ways what it was like to be isolated. I knew what it was like to not be able to for instance, Um. You know there are parts of Moroccos where the signages only in Arabic. I knew what that was like. I knew what it was like to be in the middle of the Sahara and no one was speaking French anymore. I knew what that was like. But I can't. I it was fun to sort of imagine what it would be like to be, in a more permanent way, sort of cut off from language, you know, because she really is and and it's Um in that way. I think a lot of US know when we've been somewhere and we're sort of cut off from language and we can no longer express ourselves um fluently or we can, know what, longer understand someone and then we have to depend on this very kind of basic, basic thing of like, you know, watching people's body language or picking up on their the tone of their voice or whatever, um it was. It was hard to rate that, but it was fun to be able to imagine all this from her head, you know, and she has a very resourceful young woman Um and and gets a long, long way without speaking the local dialect. Nice, nicee. So I want to switch just a little bit up and change the focus back to you a little bit. I have read a bunch of things in your biography and it looks like you've had quite a career journey. So I mean I saw names like Harvard do, the Iowa Writers, even Fulbright. We talked about your path to writing, because it seems like that was where you were supposed to end up all along, based on what you've written. Yes, I and I'm just, you know, I'm always just so happy that this is where I ended up. I'm surprised, but really happy. I always when I as a kid, I I loved telling stories, I loved reading. I was an only child for the first ten years of my life and I lived in the country and that's what I did. I read books and then I lay in the field and watched planes fly overhead. But I had always wanted to tell stories. And then, you know, when I got to be a teenager, when when you're a kid and you tell people you want to go into the arts, they say, Oh, there are other things you can do. Uh. So when I told people I wanted to be a lawyer and go into politics, they were like, well, yes, that is a thing for you, you know, and so I began to believe it too. I went to college, I went to law school. I was so fortunate when I was in law school a cross registered in the English Department for a couple of fiction workshops and it was pretty much the best time I had in all of law school. So I got out of law school. I was a journalist for a minute. In a couple of...

...years I spent doing TV and then I practiced law for a couple of more years and then I got into the Iowa Writer's workshop and it was it was a question at the time for me whether I would go because, oh, I was in New York, I was finally making good money, you know, and the pool just became irresistible. So I went in. After that, life turned really magical. Um, I got the full bright right out of Iowa, which was also a really fortunate thing because I had a whole year to just write, Um, and so I learned what the writing life was like like. You know, it was trial by fire. Um, it was just me and my laptop over there. So so tell me about the you know, the first submission that got picked up, the first time that you got that we want you letter. Yes, how gosh. That was actually in law school and I think that that was another really lucky thing is that immediately all the stories I wrote that in that time period got published, almost all of them, Um, which felt to me like some son from the universe that this is what I needed to be doing with my life. When I sold my first novel, that that was a pretty big son. That was an even bigger son, Um, and I'll never forget it because by then I had I had one, no, I had two kids by the night. Yeah, so I had two kids by then. My little when was about four months old when I sold that book, and I'll tell you this story too. It's going somewhere. Um. I'll tell you the story to tell you a little bit about my mindset on writing and art in general, which is that when when I sold it, I was holding her and she was asleep and I could smell, while I was on the phone with my net new editor, that she had um soiled her diaper. So I got off the phone and I changed her diaper and then I went right back to work and I didn't even it didn't even occur to me, but like, Oh hey, I'm gonna take myself out to dinner or anything because, and I think that because I have had this, you know, unusual career trajectory, I look at writing as just work, Um, and I kept trying to keep my ego separate from it. I try to keep any notion that it's, you know, my imagination, as a thing that's going to turn on and off magically. I distanced myself from that idea. Um, I feel like the more I treat it like just a regular job, the more it is a regular job, and I think that's a good thing. So I don't I don't celebrate success it is too hard, because...

I've always felt like then I have to be equally dejected about failure. and to me it's like if you know, if you have a hard day at work and you're a bus driver, you're still gonna go drive the bus again tomorrow. Um, and I'm still going to write tomorrow, even though I get a rejection. You know. So, Um, that's yeah, yeah, that's amazing, and you know it. When you have kids, your ego is separated from everything right, like, no more of that for you. So that makes it easy. It does, it does. Thank you for that. That's really insightful and fascinating and, Um, it just lets us know a lot about you. I love it. You mentioned that you were working on something. Is it something you can mention it all about or sure, so I'll tell you a little bit about Um. So this novelist called James Loves Ruth. Um, my agent is rereading it as we speak. Um, it is about a woman who, and again it's like the other two, is told in diptic. It's about a woman whose father was killed in an afternoon of police brutality. She then changes her identity and moves across the country. So when the novel opens, she's getting a divorce and her husband, whose point of view we also have, has just discovered that that's not her real name, because she fills for divorce under her real name. So she then Um, and I must have a thing about kidnapping children, absconds with her own child and starts driving back across the country to California, and the question of the novel is sort of whether she's gonna reclaim that identity or not. Um, I'm already in. Let's go. Let's just record another podcast. Know about that book. Well, just Sinda, I can't thank you enough for joining us today. It's a book that left an indelible mark on me and I know I speak for many readers and many readers who are now going to grab a copy of mother country and we are impatiently waiting for more. So where can fans find out more about you and your journey and your work? So My, uh my website is just Sinda Dash Townsend Dot com, and I'm also on twitter and facebook. That's awesome, awesome. Thank you. It's so great to meet you. Thank you, Ron, and thank you for reading and enjoying Um and it was such an honor to be on and to meet you. Thank you, of course, and, as always, I want to say a huge thank you for listening on behalf of friends and fiction. Your support means the world, and remember you can visit the friends and fiction bookshop dot org page to purchase books from today's guest and all pass guests at a discount, while at the same I'm...

...helping the Indie bookstore community. We'll see you next week. Thank you for tuning in to the friends and fiction writer's block podcast. Please be sure to subscribe, rate and review on your favorite podcast platform. Tune in every Friday for another episode, and you can also join us every week on facebook or Youtube, where are live? Friends and fiction show airs at seven PM Eastern Standard Time. We are so glad you're here.

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