Ellen Ann Fentress always has been fascinated by how the smallest event can pack a cavernous cultural truth.


As a lifetime resident of the state of Mississippi, Fentress understands race and whiteness inevitably are part of that fabric. Fentress’ new book “The Steps We Take: A Memoir of Southern Reckoning” examines the idea that life handed her a script as a white, southern female and how that script has influenced her journey.

“I wanted to write about what ways and to what degree you resist that script,” said Fentress, a visiting professor in the Mississippi University for Women’s low-residency MFA in creative writing. “In what ways will people embrace that script? The answers stamp your story.”

The official release date for the book will be Sept. 15, 2023. Fentress said the book is organized as a memoir-in-essays. Some of the pieces have been previously published over a stretch of years in “The New York Times,” “Oxford American,” “Bitter Southerner,” “Dorothy Parker’s Ashes” and “Mississippi Magazine.” She said she recently wrote new essays — particularly about volunteer work and herself — to shape the book, including “What did March of Dimes, helping at a Baptist-backed men’s shelter and Meals on Wheels say about me and about the culture?”

Fentress said she first noticed in 2014 that some of her essays added up to an organic story about the Deep South. She said the essays in the book and the ones ultimately left out evolved through the developmental process, though, and that the new sections are intimate. Fentress hopes that ultra-personal writing makes experiences more identifiable to others and that the new sections sharpen the story.

Judging from feedback Fentress has received, she appears to have accomplished her goal.

“In ‘The Steps We Take’, Fentress holds a mirror to the archetype (or stereotype) of the helpful, ever-cheerful and often self-deceiving southern white woman,” said Lauren Rhoades, host of Mississippi Public Broadcasting’s “Mississippi Arts Hour.” “What results is a meaningful examination of whiteness and womanhood, privilege and charity, all baked into the author’s story of personal transformation. —

Said Paulette Boudreaux, author of “Mulberry: A Novel,” “Fentress’s book is an attempt not only to tell her story but to offer a way forward from the blindness and consequent harm caused by the easy acceptance of inequality in American society. Always the hope is that exposure to such earnest stories will persuade others toward the type of self-reflection and change in individual attitudes and behaviors that will move the needle on America’s racial and gender issues in positive directions.”

Boudreaux also is a teacher in The W’s low-residency MFA program, while Rhoades graduated from the program in 2021.

For Fentress, whose website “The Admissions Project: Race and the Possible for Southern Schools” has published stories by people who graduated from segregation academies, her writing will continue to examine the smallest details and highlight how they impact our lives.

“I see the world in that universe-in-a-grain-of-sand-way,” Fentress said. “Everyday life comes with signals of the time, place and circumstances that we live in. I like writing that doesn’t waste time with anything less than then honest truth. Bonus points for a wry voice that tells me something new and finds humor, even when it’s bittersweet.”