Author delves into civil rights, personal identities to spark debate
The Civil Rights Movement, coming of age and hope for the future all frame the life of an eight-year-old girl in “Mourner’s Bench,” the debut novel of UTD Ph.D. candidate Sanderia Faye.
The novel — published by the University of Arkansas Press — details the life of Sarah Jones, a girl living in a small town in Arkansas who struggles to come to terms with religion and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
“It was actually a writing prompt that started the whole thing,” Faye, who is in her fourth year in the aesthetic studies program in the School of Arts and Humanities, said. “The prompt was to tell a story that you had heard before but weren’t sure whether it was true or not.”
The story that Faye had initially written was about two young girls, Sarah and Malika, who registered adults to vote in 1965 during the passing of the Voting Rights Act. After several changes and edits, the story grew into a novel centered on Sarah. The story focuses on the four generations of women in her family, including herself.
Though most of the characters and their experiences are fictitious, “Mourner’s Bench” incorporates several historical figures into its storyline. One such character, Carrie Dilworth, was a board member of the Southern Tenants Farmers Union. Another, John Walker, was an attorney for the NAACP. Daisy Bates, a prominent character in the novel, was an activist that fought for integration in Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas.
Critics and readers have praised “Mourner’s Bench,” citing its realistic portrayal of the events and people of the time. Michael Cart of Booklist hailed the novel for “successfully dramatizing an essential era in American history.” Dennis Lehane, author of “Shutter Island,” lauded the novel as “a stunning debut.”
Faye said she was delighted by the response the novel received.
“I’m totally surprised and happy when people read the book — especially young people,” she said. “I’m just blown away that people are enjoying (it), and also when people see the relationship between this book and current events.”
One of Faye’s primary goals was to spark discourse about identities and civil rights.
“I hope that the book opens a door for conversation between readers — between mothers and daughters, fathers and sons or just families — to talk about the Civil Rights Movement and how we can play (a role) in those movements today,” she said.
Because the novel is told from the perspective of an eight-year-old girl, Faye said she found certain parts of the writing more challenging than others. Sarah, the protagonist, is confronted with discrimination and prejudice.
“Those parts were the most challenging, and sometimes I would come back to those days later,” Faye said. “She had to face experiences that only adults should be facing.”
Faye said she hopes the novel will also serve as a reminder that there is still progress to be made.
“I’m sad to know that what I wrote about — what took place in the 1960s — is still present in our lives today,” she said. “We’re still talking about equal rights and we’re still asking for a voice in this society.”
Faye emphasized the role of UTD in her path towards completing the book.
“It gave me a place where I could study literature and creative writing from a scholarly perspective,” Faye said. “Being a scholar and being able to critique your own work as a scholar enhances the quality of your fiction.”
With her debut novel completed, Faye already has plans for the future and is exploring new opportunities.
“I will continue to write,” she said. “I’m working on my next project. My goal is to finish my Ph.D. and to hopefully teach creative writing.”