Interview by Miguel Perez, University of Texas at Dallas News Center
University of Texas at Dallas student, Sanderia Faye spends a lot of time reading and dissecting books for her doctoral research, but she also has been working on a book of her own. A PhD candidate in the aesthetic studies program in the School of Arts and Humanities, Faye recently finished her debut novel, Mourner’s Bench, about a young girl navigating life in small-town Arkansas during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The novel was published by the University of Arkansas Press.
“I started with two little girls and wondered what it would be like to be friends during this time period and have activists for parents,” Faye said. “It grew from that.”
It began as a writing prompt during a workshop. She was tasked to write about a story she knew that may or may not be true.
Faye said she remembers the bombing at 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, and the four young girls who perished in the attack.
“When I first read about that, I thought ‘What about the other kids?’” Faye said. “That was a time — in the African-American community — where women were baby sitters, but they didn’t necessarily have sitters for their children. I wondered about the children.”
The novel that resulted follows 8-year-old Sarah Jones as she works to find a balance between the traditions and religion of her community and the progressive politics of her mother, all while activists thrust her town toward racial integration.
“It actually stems from politics and what the role of the young person was during the civil rights movement,” Faye said. “I hadn’t read much fiction about that. Being from the South, I know how religious communities can be, so I wanted to know who these kids were. What are they doing? What was their role in this movement?”
Faye, an Arkansas native, said she was also interested in giving voices to the unsung civil rights activists of the time.
“Arkansas’ history isn’t really talked or written about that often, so there were these people that I knew growing up that I didn’t know had such an active role throughout their lives as activists,” she said. “How could I be oblivious to this?”
“I believed that my growing up there would help make it more authentic. I wanted to make it a place that was particularly Southern but general enough to where anyone who’s lived in a country town could identify with it.”
aesthetic studies PhD candidate
One character in the novel, Carrie Dilworth, was an older woman who taught Faye how to sew. As Faye later discovered, Dilworth was an officer of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, which helped integrate union locals in the 1930s. Dilworth would go on to become the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit involving her grandchildren’s right to attend an all-white school in Gould, Arkansas.
“I started reading and I realized that this woman was important to our history,” she said. “How do I, as a fiction writer, give people an opportunity to know that?”
Other real-life, historical figures depicted in Mourner’s Bench include Daisy Bates, an activist who played a leading role in the integration of Little Rock Central High School; John Walker, a civil rights lawyer; George Stith, an officer of the Southern Tenants Farmers Union; and Bill Hansen, who served as the first director of the Arkansas Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
While there are aspects of the book taken straight from history, the town featured in Mourner’s Bench is fictional, Faye said. Still, it’s one that can be found throughout the Arkansas Delta and rural America.
“I think it’s hard for some of your personal beliefs to not get into your writing,” Faye said. “I think when I knew that I was going to set this book in rural Arkansas, I believed that my growing up there would help make it more authentic. I wanted to make it a place that was particularly Southern but general enough to where anyone who’s lived in a country town could identify with it.”
Faye said she ran through a number of challenges in her research for the book. She wasn’t getting detailed explanations on people’s motives and their reasons for either supporting or denouncing the movement. She relied partially on local newspapers and court files for historical accuracy.
With a book now under her belt, Faye is exploring new methods of writing, such as what she refers to as “lies” — something akin to folk tales influenced by her culture. She’s also researching the role of voice in fictional works for her doctoral dissertation, specifically how the author can be an extension of the voice of their community. Consequently, the character is an extension of the author.
“I actually don’t start writing until I hear the character’s voice,” Faye said. “When I have their voice, I can start writing. To me, that’s the exciting part. Regardless of what you think is going to happen when you sit down to a blank page, anything can happen.”