NEW ORLEANS -- The debut work of Seattle author Nathan Harris has earned him the 2021 Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence.
Harris' “The Sweetness of Water” chronicles the unlikely bond forged between two freed men and a Georgia farmer set as the Civil War nears its end. The three form an alliance that ultimately alters each of their lives.
Harris said he's always been fascinated with historical fiction surrounding the Civil War, including books like “Cold Mountain” and “Gone With the Wind.”
“I had never read a story, personally, that was set immediately after slaves were freed,” Harris said in an interview with the Associated Press. “So I started to read some oral histories that discussed that time when the gate was opened and people had to decide whether to stay or go. I couldn't imagine what that would be like, so I put that to paper and began to explore.”
The Baton Rouge Area Foundation presents the award, in its 15th year, annually to an emerging African American fiction writer to honor Gaines, whose stories gave voice to African Americans in rural areas. The winner also receives $15,000.
The foundation will present the award Tuesday evening in a virtual ceremony that will be available online because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Harris said he was thrilled to learn his work had earned such high praise.
“You go into writing books and never expect much,” Harris said. “You hope to have this sort of flow or trajectory upwards but never expect it. To get an honor like this is so surreal. It's all so surreal to see my name next to that of Ernest Gaines.”
Harris said Gaines' work continues to move readers around the world.
“His mission was to promote literacy and a love of literature, and I do not take it lightly that I now have an opportunity to further that mission. I follow in Mr. Gaines' footsteps and the footsteps of previous winners of this award, and that is the greatest distinction of all,” Harris said.
Originally from Ashland, Oregon, Harris, 29, graduated in 2020 with a fine arts master’s degree from the Michener Center at the University of Texas. He has won the University of Oregon’s Kidd Prize and was a finalist for the Tennessee Williams Fiction Prize. Oprah Winfrey also selected his book for her global reading club, helping it break into the New York Times bestsellers list for two weeks in July.
Harris said he's been writing his whole life.
“I was one of those elementary kids who wasn't good at math or science or sports, though I tried,” he said. “But I could always keep people interested in my stories. I kept at it through high school and college, and here we are. I think I was put here to share stories with people and I'm glad it worked out. I really didn't have much of a Plan B."
A national panel of judges selected Harris' work out of 36 entries, a record number of eligible submissions, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation said.
Previous winners of the award include “Everywhere You Don’t’ Belong” by Gabriel Bump, “Lot” by Bryan Washington, “A Lucky Man” by Jamel Brinkley, “Birds of Opulence” by Crystal Wilkinson, “Welcome to Braggsville” by T. Geronimo Johnson, “The Cutting Season” by Attica Locke, “We Are Only Taking What We Need” by Stephanie Powell Watts and “How to Read the Air” by Dinaw Mengestu.
Gaines was a native of Oscar in Pointe Coupee Parish, which was the setting for many of his novels. He died in 2019 at the age of 86.
His critically acclaimed novel, “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” was adapted into a TV movie that won nine Emmy awards. His 1993 novel, “A Lesson Before Dying,” won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.