Sommer Hayes ’20E is an English and religion double major. Her senior thesis explores southern identity and her childhood growing up in Texas. Her thesis advisor is Writer-in-Residence Shayla Lawson.
Q: What is your thesis about? A: My thesis is an exploration of how southern identity is created, both in white and black communities. Specifically, I’m looking at Texas because I’m using my own story and my own childhood to explore that connection. A lot of it is going to be centered around education and how that happens in the home space versus the school space.
Q: How did you decide on that topic? A: Whenever you’re preparing for a thesis, they always tell you, “Choose something you can spend a very long time working with, since that’s exactly what you’re signing up to do.” For me, a huge part of my identity is being from the South and growing up in Texas, and that experience really informed how I came into college and what I chose to do here. I was sort of finding that a lot of my own experiences weren’t necessarily reflected in the subject matter that I was learning about, and I really wanted to deal with people who knew about me and about where I came from. I think it was the end of my junior year that I was like, “The only way I’m actually going to get that experience is if I do it and build it myself.”
Q: What has the process been like so far? A: Actually, I just recently got the go-ahead from Lawson to start creating content. I was really impatient for it, but now I’m stressed because I have to start writing. But up until this point, it’s been a lot of reading what other authors have done surrounding their childhoods, surrounding telling their own story, surrounding discovering their own blackness or literature — how other people in the field have written about their own selves. It’s a huge thing for me because I want to write in hybrid forms, incorporating poetry, essays and prose — I want to incorporate all of that in what I’m presenting, so I’m looking at other people that’ve been doing that to see examples of how to think about how I want to portray my own experience. That’s been the majority of my work thus far.
Q: Would you describe this as a work of creative fiction? Creative nonfiction? Academic nonfiction? A: Creative nonfiction, more like. I definitely do want it to still be a critical work, but I want to change what it means to write critically and what it means to make an argument. Especially being a religion major, a lot of the papers I write have very formal academic styles — of course, you have your thesis statement, you back that up in your body paragraphs, and then you wrap it all up. You’re really pushing your viewpoint. But growing up for me, learning was a lot more demonstrative and a lot more of you experiencing the world and coming to your own conclusions about it, and I want to reflect that in my writing too. For that reason, it didn’t feel true to form to say that this was a critical or non-creative piece, but it also didn’t feel right to say — because this isn’t fiction, right? This is real life. So I kind of land in-between, and that’s why they gave me Lawson, because she also works with in-between things.
Q: What have been the best parts so far? A: I think the best parts have been my meetings with Lawson and also seeing where I can go with this, whether that means re-creating different worksheets I had to do as a child and allowing the reader to interact with those, or crossword puzzles — there are just so many directions that I can go with this, and sitting down and speaking with her as I’m starting has been a really eye-opening process for me, and I think it’s the most fun I’ve ever had.
Q: What expectations do you have for your thesis? A: Ultimately, I just want to make something that I can show my parents and other people back home who don’t necessarily see themselves reflected in academic work or in books and stories. I want to create something that I can show them and they can engage with the way I wished I could engage with some pieces while in college.
Q: Have any works particularly influenced or inspired you? A: So far, it’s been Jesmyn Warn. She’s an author from Mississippi, a black woman. Her work, “Men We Reaped,” was my initial inspiration for what I’m doing right now. It’s a memoir to men she knows who’ve died. And the way that she writes, with pure confidence that she’s the expert in her own story, and as a tribute to the lives of these people whom she’s grown up with — that really inspired me to go in the direction I’m going right now. She’s been a huge inspiration, and of course, my mother has been a huge inspiration. It’s been really hard going back to my childhood, because there are just so many things I don’t remember. It’s a completely new space to work in, and my mom has been great. The number of things that I’m just recalling and able to talk to her about and work through with her has been really awesome.
Q: What are the most challenging parts so far? A: Going back to that place in my memory has been really hard. I don’t know — there are just so many things you move on from. Especially in college, I’m so used to talking about present-day experiences and how I’m currently processing things, and now, to think that my childhood is important, and I actually have to talk about that — I’ve been looking at old toys that I used to play with to get myself in that frame of mind. Yeah, I think that’s been the most difficult part — articulating things I knew in childhood but didn’t fully know how to say.
Q: What do you want to gain through this thesis? A: Related to the thesis, I want to have a fuller understanding of myself — just really understanding where I came from and how that made me who I am today. So I want more clarity. Afterwards, I really don’t know. I’ve always had a strong desire to help people and to create spaces where people feel included and worth something, that their voices are important. I think I’ve been doing that while I’ve been on campus, I’ve been doing that through my writing, and now I just need to figure out a way to do that and get paid for it.
Q: Do you have any advice for future thesis writers? A: Early in the stage, preparation is so important. It’s easy to want to jump into the writing and creating process immediately, but I’d say taking stock of where you are and what you bring to the table, and what others have already brought to the table — taking stock of that and your starting point is just as valuable as finishing your product … I’ve been meeting a lot of kids who took a semester or a couple of semesters off and are still trying to figure out, “Can I do a thesis, can I do the things that I came to college wanting to do?” And yes, you absolutely can. I loved having those role models myself, so just sending my encouragement to them as well.