Seattle writer Nathan Harris’ debut novel, The Sweetness of Water, has won the 2021 Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, presented annually by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation to an emerging African American fiction writer. The winner receives $15,000 to support continuing his craft.
The 15th annual Gaines Award will be presented to Harris at 6:30 p.m. Thursday Jan. 25, 2022, at the Manship Theatre at the Shaw Center for the Arts. The award is given to honor the late Ernest Gaines, whose stories gave voice to African Americans in rural areas.
“I’m deeply honored to have been awarded the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence,” said Harris, 29. “Mr. Gaines’ fiction continues to move readers around the world, but equally important is the impact he had, on a personal level, with communities across Louisiana and 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’ novel tells a story set in the waning days of the Civil War. The tale is about an unlikely bond between two freedmen who are brothers and the Georgia farmer whose alliance will alter their lives, and his, forever.
In reviewing the book, the Washington Post called it a “miracle,” particularly because it was written by a young author.
Harris graduated in 2020 with a master’s in fine arts from the Michener Center at the University of Texas. Before winning the Gaines Award, he was a recipient of the University of Oregon’s Kidd Prize and was a finalist for the Tennessee Williams Fiction Prize.
Oprah Winfrey selected the winning book for her global reading club, helping it break into the New York Times bestsellers list for two weeks in July 2021.
The Gaines Award is determined by a national panel of judges who selected the winner from 36 entries, a record number of eligible submissions. Because of the strength of the nominated books, the judges short-listed six entries: The Creatures of Passage by Morowa Yejidé, The Days of Afrekete by Asali Solomon, How to Wrestle a Girlby Venita Blackburn, Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge, The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You by Maurice Carlos Ruffin; and The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr.
Ernest J. Gaines Award recipients in previous years 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, which served as the setting for many of his novels. During his lifetime, Gaines received a National Medal of Arts Award (2013), a MacArthur Foundation’s Genius Grant, and the National Humanities Medal among numerous others.
He was a member of the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. His critically acclaimed novel “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” was adapted into a made-for-TV movie that won nine Emmy awards.
His 1993 novel “A Lesson Before Dying” won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.