Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence - Award Winning Books Since 2007
The Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence award honors Louisiana’s revered storyteller, Ernest J. Gaines, and serves to inspire and recognize rising African-American fiction writers of excellence at a national level. The book award, initiated by donors of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation has become nationally recognized in its role of enhancing visibility of emerging black fiction writers while also expanding the audience for this literature. The annual award of a $10,000 cash prize is to support the writer and help enable her/him to focus on her/his art of writing.
Eligible entries are read by a panel of judges, themselves renowned contributors to the literary world. They are Anthony Grooms, Edward P. Jones, Elizabeth Nunez, Francine Prose and Patricia Towers. Learn more at the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.
2016 — Award Winner
The Birds of Opulence
by Crystal Wilkinson
University Press of Kentucky (Mar 07, 2016)
List Price: $24.95 Format: Hardcover
Page Count: 208
From the critically acclaimed, award-winning author of Blackberries, Blackberries and Water Street comes an astonishing new novel. A lyrical exploration of love and loss, The Birds of Opulence centers on several generations of women in a bucolic southern black township as they live with and sometimes surrender to madness.
The Goode-Brown family, led by matriarch and pillar of the community Minnie Mae, is plagued by old secrets and embarrassment over mental illness and illegitimacy. Meanwhile, single mother Francine Clark is haunted by her dead, lightning-struck husband and forced to fight against both the moral judgment of the community and her own rebellious daughter, Mona. The residents of Opulence struggle with vexing relationships to the land, to one another, and to their own sexuality. As the members of the youngest generation watch their mothers and grandmothers pass away, they live with the fear of going mad themselves and must fight to survive.
Crystal Wilkinson offers up Opulence and its people in lush, poetic detail. It is a world of magic, conjuring, signs, and spells, but also of harsh realities that only love—and love that’s handed down—can conquer. At once tragic and hopeful, this captivating novel is a story about another time, rendered for our own.
2015 — Award Winner
Welcome to Braggsville: A Novel
by T. Geronimo Johnson
Penguin Books (Feb 17, 2015)
List Price: $25.99 Format: Hardcover
Page Count: 384
From the PEN/Faulkner finalist and critically acclaimed author of Hold It ’Til It Hurts comes a dark and socially provocative Southern-fried comedy about four UC Berkeley students who stage a dramatic protest during a Civil War reenactment—a fierce, funny, tragic work from a bold new writer.Welcome to Braggsville. The City that Love Built in the Heart of Georgia. Population 712Born and raised in the heart of old Dixie, D’aron Davenport finds himself in unfamiliar territory his freshman year at UC Berkeley. Two thousand miles and a world away from his childhood, he is a small-town fish floundering in the depths of a large, hyper-liberal pond. Caught between the prosaic values of his rural hometown and the intellectualized multicultural cosmopolitanism of Berzerkeley, the nineteen-year-old white kid is uncertain about his place until one disastrous party brings him three idiosyncratic best friends: Louis, a “kung-fu comedian" from California; Candice, an earnest do-gooder claiming Native roots from Iowa; and Charlie, an introspective inner-city black teen from Chicago. They dub themselves the “4 Little Indians.”But everything changes in the group’s alternative history class, when D’aron lets slip that his hometown hosts an annual Civil War reenactment, recently rebranded “Patriot Days.” His announcement is met with righteous indignation, and inspires Candice to suggest a “performative intervention” to protest the reenactment. Armed with youthful self-importance, makeshift slave costumes, righteous zeal, and their own misguided ideas about the South, the 4 Little Indians descend on Braggsville. Their journey through backwoods churches, backroom politics, Waffle Houses, and drunken family barbecues is uproarious to start, but will have devastating consequences.With the keen wit of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and the deft argot of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, T. Geronimo Johnson has written an astonishing, razor-sharp satire. Using a panoply of styles and tones, from tragicomic to Southern Gothic, he skewers issues of class, race, intellectual and political chauvinism, Obamaism, social media, and much more.A literary coming-of-age novel for a new generation, written with tremendous social insight and a unique, generous heart, Welcome to Braggsville reminds us of the promise and perils of youthful exuberance, while painting an indelible portrait of contemporary America.
2014 — Award Winner
The Residue Years
by Mitchell S. Jackson
Bloomsbury USA (May 06, 2014)
List Price: $17.00 Format: Paperback
Page Count: 352
Mitchell S. Jackson grew up black in a neglected neighborhood in America's whitest city, Portland, Oregon. In the '90s, those streets and beyond had fallen under the shadow of crack cocaine and its familiar mayhem. In his commanding debut autobiographical novel, Mitchell writes what it was to come of age in that time and place, with a breakout voice that's nothing less than extraordinary.The Residue Years switches between the perspectives of a young man, Champ, and his mother, Grace. Grace is just out of a drug treatment program, trying to stay clean and get her kids back. Champ is trying to do right by his mom and younger brothers, and dreams of reclaiming the only home he and his family have ever shared. But selling crack is the only sure way he knows to achieve his dream. In this world of few options and little opportunity, where love is your strength and your weakness, this family fights for family and against what tears one apart.
2013 — Award Winner
The Cutting Season: A Novel
by Attica Locke
Harper (Sep 18, 2012)
List Price: $25.99 Format: Hardcover
Page Count: 384
Read AALBC.com’s Review of The Cutting Season: A Novel
From Attica Locke, a writer and producer of FOX’s Empire:“The Cutting Season is a rare murder mystery with heft, a historical novel that thrills, a page-turner that makes you think. Attica Locke is a dazzling writer with a conscience.”—Dolen Perkins-Valdez, New York Times bestselling author of WenchAfter her breathtaking debut novel, Black Water Rising, won acclaim from major publications and respected crime fiction masters like James Ellroy and George Pelecanos, Locke returns with The Cutting Season, a second novel easily as gripping and powerful as her first—a heart-pounding thriller that interweaves two murder mysteries, one on Belle Vie, a historic landmark in the middle of Lousiana’s Sugar Cane country, and one involving a slave gone missing more than one hundred years earlier. Black Water Rising was nominated for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, an Edgar Award, and an NAACP Image Award, and was short-listed for the Orange Prize in the U.K.
2012 — Award Winner
We Are Taking Only What We Need
by Stephanie Powell Watts
BkMk Press at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (Nov 30, 2011)
List Price: $15.95 Format: Paperback
Page Count: 221
Fiction. African American Studies. African American women protagonists lose and find love, confront sanity and craziness, and strive to make sense of their lives in North Carolina. A Jehovah’s Witness girl goes door-to-door with an expert field-service partner from up north. At a call center, operator Sheila fields a caller’s uncomfortable questions under a ruthless supervisor’s eye. Forty-something Aunt Ginny surprises the family by finding a husband, but soon she gives them more to talk about. Pulitzer-Prize winner Edward P. Jones writes "Watts offers an impressive debut that promises only wonderful work to come." Fiction writer Marly Swick agrees: "Each story seems, at the same time, to be a breath of fresh air and an instant classic." Author Alyce Miller notes that "Watts writes with a penetrating eye for the extraordinary moments in the lives of ordinary people. As I read, I found myself holding my breath."
2011 — Award Winner
How To Read The Air
by Dinaw Mengestu
Riverhead Hardcover (Oct 14, 2010)
List Price: $25.95 Format: Hardcover
Page Count: 320
From the prizewinning international literary star: the searing and powerful story of one man’s search for redemption. Dinaw Mengestu’s first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, earned the young writer comparisons to Bellow, Fitzgerald, and Naipaul, and garnered ecstatic critical praise and awards around the world for its haunting depiction of the immigrant experience. Now Mengestu enriches the themes that defined his debut with a heartbreaking literary masterwork about love, family, and the power of imagination, which confirms his reputation as one of the brightest talents of his generation.One early September afternoon, Yosef and Mariam, young Ethiopian immigrants who have spent all but their first year of marriage apart, set off on a road trip from their new home in Peoria, Illinois, to Nashville, Tennessee, in search of a new identity as an American couple. Soon, their son, Jonas, will be born in Illinois. Thirty years later, Yosef has died, and Jonas needs to make sense of the volatile generational and cultural ties that have forged him. How can he envision his future without knowing what has come before? Leaving behind his marriage and job in New York, Jonas sets out to retrace his mother and father’s trip and weave together a family history that will take him from the war-torn Ethiopia of his parents’ youth to his life in the America of today, a story—real or invented—that holds the possibility of reconciliation and redemption.Watch a Video
2010 — Award Winner
Big Machine: A Novel
by Victor Lavalle
Spiegel & Grau (Aug 11, 2009)
List Price: $25.00 Format: Hardcover
Page Count: 384
A fiendishly imaginative comic novel about doubt, faith, and the monsters we carry within us.
Ricky Rice was as good as invisible: a middling hustler, recovering dope fiend, and traumatized suicide cult survivor running out the string of his life as a porter at a bus depot in Utica, New York. Until one day a letter appears, summoning him to the frozen woods of Vermont. There, Ricky is inducted into a band of paranormal investigators comprised of former addicts and petty criminals, all of whom had at some point in their wasted lives heard The Voice: a mysterious murmur on the wind, a disembodied shout, or a whisper in an empty room that may or may not be from God.
Evoking the disorienting wonder of writers like Haruki Murakami and Kevin Brockmeier, but driven by Victor LaValle’s perfectly pitched comic sensibility Big Machine is a mind-rattling literary adventure about sex, race, and the eternal struggle between faith and doubt.
2009 — Award Winner
Holding Pattern: Stories
by Jeffery Renard Allen
Graywolf Press (Sep 02, 2008)
List Price: $15.00 Format: Paperback
Page Count: 227
The world of Jeffery Renard Allen’s stunning short-story collection is a place like no other. A recognizable city, certainly, but one in which a man might sprout wings or copper pennies might fall from the skies onto your head. Yet these are no fairy tales. The hostility, the hurt, is all too human.
The protagonists circle each other with steely determination: a grandson taunts his grandmother, determined to expose her secret past; for years, a sister tries to keep a menacing neighbor away from her brother; and in the local police station, an officer and prisoner try to break each other's resolve.
In all the stories, Allen calibrates the mounting tension with exquisite timing, in mesmerizing prose that has won him comparisons with Joyce and Faulkner. Holding Pattern is a captivating collection by a prodigiously talented writer.
2008 — Award Winner
Like Trees, Walking: A Novel
by Ravi Howard
Harper Paperbacks (Jan 22, 2008)
List Price: $13.95 Format: Paperback
Page Count: 272
Based on the true story of a modern-day lynching in America, Ravi Howard’s widely acclaimed debut novel exposes one of the most tragic chapters in the history of the American South.
On the morning of March 21, 1981, in Mobile, Alabama, nineteen-year-old Michael Donald was found dead, his body badly beaten and hanging from a tree on Herndon Avenue. Brothers Paul and Roy Deacon of the Deacon Memorial Funeral Home are called upon to bury their close friend and classmate, and the experience will leave them forever changed. Along with other residents of their hometown, the Deacon brothers must struggle to understand the circumstances surrounding Donald’s murder—the city’s first lynching in more than sixty years and a gruesome reminder of racial inequalities in the New South.
2007 — Award Winner
A Killing in This Town: A Novel
by Olympia Vernon
Grove Press (Jan 11, 2007)
List Price: $12.00 Format: Paperback
Page Count: 256
Award-winning author Olympia Vernon’s third novel, A Killing in This Town, is a taut, poetic masterpiece that exhumes a horrific epoch from the annals of the American South.
There is a menace in the woods of Bullock County, Mississippi, and not only for the black man destined to be lynched when a white boy comes of age. The white men who work at the Plant are in danger, too, but they refuse to heed Earl Thomas’s urgent message that the factory is slowly killing them; turning a deaf ear to the black pastor. Thomas knows he should try to deliver the message again, but he hears the blood of his murdered friend calling to him from the ground, and fears that he will be the next black man to be dragged to his death. Adam Pickens, a white boy now on the eve of his thirteenth birthday, isn’t sure he wants to wear the garb being readied for him by the Klan seamstress, or participate in the town’s ugly ritual. It is only when Gill Mender?a man haunted by past sins?returns that redemption seems possible. A transfixing and pivotal work of fiction, A Killing in This Town exposes the fragile hierarchy of a society poisoned by hatred, and shows the power of an individual to stand up to the demons of history and bring the cycle of violence to an end.