The cover of the novel MOTHER COUNTRY features a painting of a brown face against a blue background

Mother Country

THE NEW novel from kimbilio faculty member Jacinda Townsend

Saddled with student loans, medical debt, and the sudden news of her infertility after a major car accident, Shannon, an African American woman, follows her boyfriend to Morocco in search of relief. There, in the cobblestoned medina of Marrakech, she finds a toddler in a pink jacket whose face mirrors her own. With the help of her boyfriend and a bribed official, Shannon makes the fateful decision to adopt and raise the girl in Louisville, Kentucky. But the girl already has a mother: Souria, an undocumented Mauritanian woman who was trafficked as a teen, and who managed to escape to Morocco to build another life.

In rendering Souria’s separation from her family across vast stretches of desert and Shannon’s alienation from her mother under the same roof, Jacinda Townsend brilliantly stages cycles of intergenerational trauma and healing. Linked by the girl who has been a daughter to them both, these unforgettable protagonists move toward their inevitable reckoning. Mother Country is a bone-deep and unsparing portrayal of the ethical and emotional claims we make upon one another in the name of survival, in the name of love.

Jacinda Townsend


Jacinda Townsend is the author of Mother Country (Graywolf, 2022) and Saint Monkey (Norton, 2014), which won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for best fiction written by a woman and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for historical fiction. Jacinda is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has taught in MFA programs around the country.

Five Questions for Jacinda Townsend

My superpower, as a writer, is habit. Most of the time I’ve been writing, I’ve also been a single mom who works outside the home, so I’ve had to be pretty tenacious about claiming time. I tend to wake at 5:30 in the morning to finish working before anyone else in the house is awake, and when I’m “in” a novel, I write every day. The imagination is a muscle. Exercising it at the same time every day, in the same place, after having performed the same pre-writing routine, just makes the creative part that much easier.

What inspired me most while writing Mother Country was the phrase “just tell my story.” While I was researching the book, I met an escaped slave in Mauritania. She was living in a tent at the edge of the capital city with her eight children and when I asked her what I could possibly do for her, she said “just tell my story.” Souria, one of the novel’s protagonists, has a backstory that is a composite of many of the harrowing stories I collected about Mauritanian slavery. I wanted to give voice to people who have no other.

What came first for me, with Mother Country, was setting. What I most identified with, as Souria’s character came to me, was being a bit adrift in the Sahara desert–it’s such a vast place, of so many cultures and peoples and languages, and one can very quickly be alone in a way that is both shockingly alienating yet cosmically settling. I wanted to capture that right out of the gate, though the first, Sahara-set chapter ultimately became the novel’s second chapter.

The first is isolation. I was usually the only Black kid in my class or grade, and for two years, I was the only Black kid in my entire school. This was in Kentucky, in the late seventies/early eighties, and the n-word was dropped on me on a regular basis. Other children told me they couldn’t hold my hand in the class circle because they “might turn black,” and they told me that their parents said they shouldn’t play with ******* in school, so they weren’t going to. It was a cruel, traumatic experience but it was socially isolating enough that I learned how to hang back from a crowd and just observe its characters.

The second is that I come from a long line of master Southern gossips. And I grew up in the same Kentucky town where my family had lived for generations, so when my relatives gossiped, the stories touched on all layers–socioeconomic commentary, psychological history, and existential angst.

The third element is that as the older of two children, I was an only child for ten years. I grew up in a rural area where I had no one–just books and blue sky, for miles and miles. Fortunately, my mom was an early reading specialist who taught me how to read while I was still in diapers, so when I wasn’t lying out in a field watching the planes pass overhead, I was reading. I read and read and read and read and read.

The most important component of writing and completing Mother Country, for me, was the research. Morocco is like a second home to me at this point, but when I was writing the book I cultivated Moroccan and Mauritanian experiences I might not have otherwise. I volunteered to was the feet of sex workers in Rabat (Morocco). I met up with anti-slavery activists in Nouakchott (Mauritania). When my children and I went to Morocco, we lived in flats rather than in hotels, so I could ensure that we were living outside the touristy, “trop luxe” life that’s the one most Americans see when they visit Morocco. And I interviewed everyone, everywhere, from the mental health worker I met in Foum-Zguid, at the gate of the desert, to the bank teller I encountered in Nouakchott. I read firsthand accounts of modern-day slavery that have been