Walking Through Fire: An Interview with Sanderia Faye

Conducted by Erica L. Williams

I met Sanderia Faye years ago at the Hurston/Wright Foundation’s Summer Writers Workshop in Washington, DC in a class led by novelist Agymah Kamau. It’s where she first revised portions of the novel that would later become Mourner’s Bench.

Faye and I became close friends during our week-long residency and before departing she gifted me a wood-scented candle to aid creativity. Throughout the years the candle has served as fuel to my creative fire, a symbol of our connection as writers of color and the artistic community of our origin. Before our interview, I asked her about the candle and she said, “There was something about your personality. I thought this energy would project in your life.”

This gesture is typical of Faye. A person who is affable enough to create lasting connections from the briefest encounters. Someone who in spite of her success remains grounded in the humble beginnings of her Arkansas roots.

Mourner’s Bench (University of Arkansas Press, 2015) is set in the fictional town of Maeby, Arkansas in the summer of 1964 and tells the story of eight-year-old Sarah Jones, who is navigating a conflicting spiritual journey against the backdrop of the civil rights movement in the Arkansas Delta.

From surviving a tragic fire in her childhood, to battling a debilitating illness that almost ended her writing career, to enduring a devastating job loss, Faye’s resurgence is valiant. After attaining multiple awards, accolades, and critical success for Mourner’s Bench, Faye has indeed come through the fire. And she’s prevailed above it all without smelling like a hint of smoke.


EW: From Granny to Muhdea to Esther, Mourner’s Bench is held together by the threads of strong, matriarchal characters. Were there any women in your life you drew strength from or influenced your writing?

SF: My great-grandmother—I dedicated the book to her. I would say at an early age the way I tell stories came from my great-grandmother. When I read from Mourner’s Bench I hear her voice. I must have heard it when I was writing the book. I think it was from me being around her all the time listening to the way she told stories. She could easily capture an audience. I believed that listening to her had the most influence on my story telling because I still think I tell stories from the oral tradition of oral storytelling. There are people I believe that transition that you don’t ever really feel their presence. But my great-grandmother is forever present in my life, decision-making wise she’s there. Her spirit is always there. We had such a closeness, a bond. We all lived together in the same house. When my mother moved out of the house and into the house next door I was about to be a teenager, but I stayed with my great-grandmother. It would’ve been like tearing a dress apart and I think my mother knew that. Even with my mother being in the house with us, I just gravitated to my great-grandmother. There was a bond between us that I never had with any other living person. I believe I came here to learn from her. Everything I know now spiritually the core of who I am came from her. I wish she would’ve gotten a chance to see me telling stories.

EW: Speaking of the oral tradition, much of your book is written in the vernacular language, a dialect that has been criticized in the past because of long-held antiquated views of black and rural language. Because this book is so fresh, I wonder how readers respond to vernacular. Have you met any resistance?

SF: One of my first MFA professors told me that I could not write in the vernacular. At the time I didn’t know what it was or how to even spell it. I had no idea what he was talking about. I didn’t have an African American literature background coming from the accounting world. I wasn’t familiar with some of the black writers I would come to know. So that was my first time hearing the word. Of course since that time I’ve studied vernacular and written papers on it. But at the time I was totally embarrassed that someone could tell me that I couldn’t write in a way that I didn’t even know what the word meant.

EW: Once you found out what the word meant how did it make you feel?

SF: Horrible. I had lived my adult life being associated with the dominant culture, so by the time I had decided to write I had come a long way from hearing that language at home. But those were the voices that came to me when I started to write, and I heard them very clearly. For me it is my first language, so it’s easier. It comes to me first. I questioned if I was good enough or even if I belonged at the school. I had this deep-rooted fear of not belonging there. So much so that the writer Tayari Jones, (a fellow classmate in the MFA program at Arizona State), told me you’re going to have to accept the fact that you’re good enough to be here. She said you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t belong here. Later on in my schooling I had another professor who said that only Alice Walker could write in the vernacular, and I’ve been in a class where the professor devoted an entire period about how people shouldn’t write in the vernacular. All of those things pushed me. I wanted to know more about it, and why it was natural for me to hear that language as opposed to anything else. But if you grew up in that type of environment where people spoke vernacular and you decide to write about that period that is the language you’re going to hear. It took me a long time to accept that.

EW: Mourner’s Bench tells the story of eight-year-old Sarah Jones who decides it’s time to get baptized and become accountable for her sins. In order to do that she will have to sit on the mourner’s bench in the church, and wait for a sign. In the midst of that her mother, Esther, comes back into town and becomes involved with SNCC, (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), which sets the small town on edge, causing a rift in Sarah and her mother’s relationship, threatening Sarah’s view of religion as she knows it. I’ve always wondered if Mourner’s Bench was semi-autobiographical. Are there any similarities between your life and Sarah’s?

SF: I think for all writers—even Stephen King said something similar when asked about his book Carrie—everything is grounded in something we know. With Mourner’s Bench, I wrote about a relationship between a mother and daughter.

EW: In the beginning of the book, Esther leaves town, but comes back later causing an uproar when she begins working with SNCC, disrupting not only Sarah’s life but the lives of the townsfolk’s. In a previous interview, you described Esther as your most challenging character. In what ways would you have wanted your real life mom to be like Esther?

SF: I think my mother is now more similar to Esther than she probably was when she was young. She was active during the civil rights movement but when I was growing up she had become a mother, wife, and active member of the church. I always imagined her as a US Senator. Then one day she came from behind the scene. She started and finished college. She decided to run for mayor of our town and won. She’s tireless. She hasn’t ever been happier. It’s amazing how her life changed when she became the person that God intended for her to become.

EW: You once told me that the character of Uncle Robert was one of your favorites in the book. Can you talk about how Uncle Robert came to be?

SF: He was a character introduced to broaden Sarah’s horizon. I was surprised to find out the Nation of Islam was in Arkansas during that time. Since Sarah was struggling with religion I needed a character who was going to introduce her to a religion that was different than Christianity, and Uncle Robert and his affiliation with the Nation of Islam seemed perfect. I only needed him to introduce Sarah to his new religion, but as soon as he walked on stage, he began to take over the story. Maybe there is a story about Uncle Robert I need to explore because I cut most of what I wrote about him. He challenged Sarah to not take Christianity at face value, and he loved her unconditionally. Readers always ask what character is more like me and is always surprised when I tell them its Uncle Robert. We’re alike in that, I also challenge my younger relatives, pass on wisdom and give them books to read.

EW: In your book there is a dedication page to #BlackLivesMatter. Why was it important for you to include that dedication in the book?

SF: There are many similarities in my novel and our current political and social climate. When I was revising the book it seemed as if I would come to a scene in the book a similar story was being played out on the evening news. The one I remember distinctively was the murders of those nine people in the South Carolina church. Those murders had such a profound affect on me that I had to stop revising for about three or four days.

The dedication was my way of acknowledging Black Lives Matter. In the civil rights movement the activists were very young. Those people now are grandparents, but when they were activists, they were college students, high school students, and elementary students. I dedicated it to them because I believe in the causes and I wanted my readers to know it. I wanted them to know that I see your hashtag, I appreciate your hashtag. I respect your hashtag and the work you’re doing.

EW: SNCC came to the Arkansas Delta during the summer of 1964. Your book is set in the fictional town of Maeby in the sixties. Can you expound on some of the parallels in your book in regards to the civil rights movement, and how relevant these issues are today?

SF: The key issues in the book are the issues that are relevant today. Voting rights, education, equal rights in general. Especially education. I just think that it also caused me to recognize that racism is systemic. I looked at four generations from 1918 to 1965 and by doing that research it allowed me to see that all throughout history African Americans have been wanting the same thing, to be treated equally from the beginning. All I ever wanted was to have an equal opportunity, and even having an equal opportunity under the law isn’t enough. We have to believe that everybody deserves an equal chance. We just deserve that.

EW: When you were doing research for Mourner’s Bench you told me that in your research approximately 13%-15% of churches participated in the civil rights movement. In your book the church was vehemently against the infiltration of the movement in Arkansas condemning all of those involved. Was it a conscious decision on your part to have the church oppose the movement?

SF: No, I only wanted to explore the story I knew about these two young girls who were teaching adults to read and write and registering them to vote. They haunted me for years. I thought I knew the history of the civil rights movement, but my research proved to be opposite of what I had learned. At the time, I didn’t know that African American history wasn’t always accurate. I was afraid my research would be challenged when the book was released, but instead more writers are writing books to add and correct history.

EW: Your book depicts several real life characters including Carrie Dilworth, who worked with the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, local activist Daisy Bates who fought for integration at Little Rock Central High School, and Civil Rights attorney John Walker. In a previous interview you said that you were interested in giving voices to the unsung civil rights activists of the time. What made you portray them as their real selves as oppose to fictional characters, and were you nervous about doing so?

SF: I was embarrassed that I knew them as neighbors and friends of the family, but I didn’t know they had played an important role in American history. As I was writing the book, the more I learned about them. Whether the book was published or not, I wanted the stories of these people to be acknowledged, and for others to know about them as they were when they were young and fearless.

EW: You were born and raised in Gould, Arkansas, a town similar to the fictional setting of Maeby. Can you tell me about your hometown of Gould, whom your mom also now happens to be the mayor?

SF: I wish people had a chance to experience it the way I did. To us it was like the town where Opie lived with Andy and Aunt Bee. People grew plants and gardens and shared with each other. It takes a village. If someone saw me in the wrong place, they would call my mother. If I was supposed to be somewhere and I wasn’t there my grandmother could call and ask if they had seen me. There were people in the neighborhood always watching you to keep you on the straight and narrow.

I also loved listening to my great-grandmother and the church ladies tell stories. I preferred it to playing with friends. They told the best stories about back in the day, and their back in the day was probably like 1920s. I remember when it would rain my grandmothers would turn off the lights and tell bible stories. Even the babies would be quiet when we sat at the foot of the elders. We knew when God was doing his business we were supposed to be quiet. My cousins and I still talk about those memories.

EW: You also dedicated the book to fellow Arkansan Dr. Maya Angelou whom you stated gave you the confidence to write.

SF: Yes, she was an influencer early on. I never got the chance to meet and thank her, so I dedicated the book to her. My deciding to become a writer came from reading about her life experiences, which gave me the confidence to keep going. My values came from my hometown, but I looked to someone with life experiences that I could follow and based my decisions from how they lived their life. Maya was that person for me.

EW: Recently you had the opportunity to read from Mourner’s Bench on the front steps of Little Rock Central High School, the historic site where in 1957 nine black students known as the “Little Rock Nine” integrated the all-white school, testing the 1954 ruling of Brown vs. Board of Education. Can you describe the significance of that moment?

SF: I don’t have the words. I opened the novel with Sarah thinking about the Little Rock Nine. No child should’ve had to make those sacrifices. Children were sacrificial lambs. They were on the front lines of the civil rights movement war. And it was a war. The adults couldn’t desegregate the schools. For me to have the opportunity to speak there having written a book about the civil rights movement—I don’t even have the words for it yet.

EW: During the height of writing Mourner’s Bench you suffered an illness that almost derailed your writing career.

SF: I had a thyroidectomy, a surgery to remove my thyroid. I spoke about it this year at Mega Fest—how it affected my brain. And how my family had always taught me that beauty would fade, so use my mind, my brain. I had always relied on that but when I had the thyroidectomy my brain failed me. That was a very scary place for me. When my brain failed me and my body failed me, I had no place to go but to God. It was difficult because I’m a writer, and I couldn’t remember what I had written from one paragraph to the next. I had gotten a book contract, I needed to finish the book and I was still working on my PhD. If this is my life how am I going to write a novel? How am I going to finish school?

EW: I was living in Dallas when you had that surgery and recall some of the sluggish days. What do you think got you through your recovery?

SF: God. Perseverance. I am a fighter. I believe that even if that was my state I was going to figure out how to live with it. I’m not a person who is just going to lie down and quit. One of the most trying parts was that I looked healthy when I was very ill, and I was home alone. People looked at me and didn’t believe I was ill. When I tell them now how sick I was they don’t believe it. Not only was I sick, I had been fired from my job, my home was in foreclosure and I was trying to finish a novel.

EW: In the middle of that chaos you did an interview with Ebony Magazine chronicling your struggles about your termination and pending foreclosure. I’ve also heard you tell people you got downsized or something similar which was plausible because of the economic turmoil the country was experiencing at that time, but I’d often wondered how hard it must have been for you be fully honest about what happened. What made you have the courage to tell your story to one of the premier African American publications in the country?

SF: In June ’09 I bought a home and by January ’10 I had been fired. It took me a few years to accept I was fired. I was fired on a technicality. That article shocked me out of that phase. I saw a request on social media from Ebony Magazine asking people to contact them if you were losing your home, and I replied not thinking I would ever get a call back. The writer of the article called me back and interviewed me. By the time I did the interview I was on the brink of foreclosure, feeling hopeless and helpless. When he called I was feeling low, but after doing the interview I felt so much better.

Later I actually called him back and asked him not to publish it. I didn’t want anyone to feel empathy or sympathy for me. I didn’t want anyone showing up with cakes and pies. I was still doing stuff, supporting charities, and still walking around like I wasn’t devastated. I didn’t want the article to paint me as being pitiful. Also, I had always wanted to be in Ebony as one of the powerful women they wrote articles about because John H. Johnson, the founder was from Arkansas.

I wanted to hide when the article came out. Kevin Hart was on the cover. I didn’t want to tell anyone about it. My aunt who can be somewhat critical was very proud of the article, and that’s when I knew that maybe the reception that I thought I would receive wasn’t going to be as bad. That article was a turning point in my life. More so than how it was received it allowed me to be able to accept that what I knew as my life was not going to be my life anymore. We’re doing this interview now in the same home I thought was in foreclosure. “I’m still here,” as Ms. Celie said. I’m still here. It was a turning point of acceptance and rebuilding. It took me a long time, a lot of faith, and a lot of trust in a higher power.

EW: Last year you attended a Tony Robbins seminar where you participated in a “fire walk,” walking across hot coals as a symbol of conquering fears. Did it change your life or your perspective on life?

SF: The seminar was “Unleash The Power Within.” I’ve always wanted to attend the conference. After extensive travel for the book tour while continuing my PhD, I felt this conference would help me gather the energy I had left throughout the country. I was exhausted (in a good way), and I wanted to do the fire walk as a symbol of the work I completed. It also symbolized letting go and starting again. It was good for me in ways I’m unable to explain, like Vipassana meditation. I find different ways to reenergize, and these are only a couple of them. They work for me.

EW: Your book has won numerous awards, but how special was it for you to win the Hurston/Wright Foundation’s Legacy Award for Debut Fiction, especially after attending their writer’s workshop years before?

SF: Just like the reading at Central it was the ultimate. To be there amongst writers such as Mitchell Jackson, who I met in 2006 at AWP. His journey has been similar to mine. To see Junot Diaz whom I met the year before, and my hero Ernest Gaines who was on the same program. And writer Jeffrey Renard Allen gave me the award. I can’t really say how much all of that meant to me. Writer Victor Lavalle once asked me if I’d taken the time to take it all in. When I have the time to let all of this sink in I may come up with words to explain it. It was a full-circle moment for me.

EW: You’ve always been very active in the literary community. You co-founded Kimbilio, a writers’ retreat for writers of color, https://www.pw.org/content/kimbilio_nurtures_black_writers and I’ve witnessed you hosting writer salons at your house and being involved in numerous literary organizations. Where did you your sense of community come from?

SF: I was born into a family that served their community. I’ve always been involved in community. Friends called me the volunteer queen. I worked for major corporations that supported my volunteerism. When I came into the literary community I came with the idea that artists should be paid, there is money out there—you just have to convince these companies and organizations to give it to you.

EW: Can you talk a bit about your writing process?

SF: I don’t know if I have one. I do write better when there is noise. Or people around. While most writers prefer solitude, I’m the opposite. Many writers prefer to go to the woods and stay for months. I can do it for about two weeks. I remember when I was at a Martha’s Vineyard writing residency and the residents came in to cook and they were concerned about disturbing me. It wasn’t a disturbance. I like the energy that chatter brings.

EW: We started the interview talking about energy, and we’ll end with energy. How apropos. Thank You.

SF: You’re welcome.