Snagging the biggest literary prize for African-Americans would please any writer, but the honor feels especially sweet to Stephanie Powell Watts. She grew up poor in rural North Carolina and writes about the people she knew as a fast-food worker, a factory hand and a Jehovah’s Witness preacher knocking on doors.
Watts won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence — and a $10,000 prize — for her debut story collection, “We Are Taking Only What We Need.” The annual award, administered by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, is named after one of Louisiana’s most prominent authors.
“My writing has always been about trying to give voice to individuals who aren’t heard in our culture: the poor, African-American dirt-roaders that are my people,” Watts said. “In that sense, this award isn’t just for me, but for the communities I came from. I’m proud of that — and I’m proud of them. Literature belongs to everyone.”
Watts’ collection of 11 stories also was named a finalist for the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. Publishers Weekly hailed it as “a strong debut” in a pre-publication review. Work from the collection won a 2007 Pushcart Prize, appeared in the prestigious “New Stories from the South: Best of the Year” anthology, and was published in notable journals, including the Oxford American.
Watts, who teaches at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, joins a distinguished list of Gaines Award honorees. Previous winners include Dinaw Mengestu, Victor Lavalle, Jeffery Renard Allen, Ravi Howard, and Bogalusa native Olympia Vernon. (We highlighted their achievement in January and focused on Mengestuin a 2011 story).