On January 18, Louisiana author of “A Lesson Before Dying” Ernest Gaines will have a literary award handed out in his name at Baton Rouge’s Manship Theatre. The sixth-annual Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence will go to Stephanie Powell Watts for her work, “We Are Taking Only What We Need.” A collection of short stories chronicling the lives of African Americans in rural North Carolina, the book is Watts’ first and was named a finalist for the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award.
Grammy-award winning trumpeter Irvin Mayfield will serve as Master of Ceremonies and, accompanied by The Irvin Mayfield Sextet, perform an original tribute composed in honor of Gaines – a fitting way to celebrate his 80th birthday.
Born on a plantation in Point Coupee Parish on January 15, 1933, Ernest James Gaines was the oldest of 12 children. The fifth generation of a sharecropper family, Gaines grew up in the old slave quarters of the plantation and went to school in the plantation church. His first novel was written at the age of 17. The story goes that he wrapped it in brown paper, tied it with string and sent it to a New York publisher. It was rejected, but he later rewrote the manuscript to become “Catherine Carmier.”
His more famous works like “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” “A Gathering of Old Men” and “Lesson Before Dying,” which was nominated for a Pulitzer, followed and were inspired by Gaines’ plantation life. The author still lives on Hwy. 1 in Oscar, Louisiana, on the same property where he grew up. His works are now taught all over the world, and four have been made into television movies.
In honor of his longtime writer-in-residence status at UL Lafayette, the Ernest J. Gaines Center was established in 2010 on the third floor of the university library to honor the author and his work. Today, the center is a space where scholars and students can study his early papers and manuscripts, hear recorded interviews with him and attend author readings and events. North Carolina author Wiley Cash, who studied under Gaines at UL, read from his book “A Land More Kind Than Home” at the center recently, and Gaines is known to pop in from time to time.
The Ernest J. Gaines Award was established in 2007, and past recipients have included Olympia Vernon and Ravi Howard. Winners receive $10,000 along with a commemorative sculpture. Friday’s awards ceremony is free and open to the public, but reservations are required. Email [email protected] to reserve your seat. Doors open at 6 p.m., and the awards start at 6:30.
To find out more about the Ernest Gaines Center, including a special item in the center’s possession that’s not always on display, download the Deep South Literary Trail App.