Kentucky writer Crystal Wilkinson’s novel The Birds of Opulence has been named winner of the 2016 Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence.
Now in its 10th year, the Ernest J. Gaines Award is a nationally acclaimed $10,000 prize handed out annually to recognize outstanding work from rising African-American fiction writers, while honoring Louisiana native Ernest Gaines’ extraordinary contribution to the literary world.
Currently serving as writer in residence at Berea College in Kentucky, Crystal Wilkinson has been announced as this year’s winner for her first novel The Birds of Opulence. Many of Wilkinson’s works have garnered critical acclaim as well: Blackberries, Blackberries, a collection of short stories, won the 2002 Chaffin Award for Appalachian Literature, while Water Street, another short-story collection, was a finalist for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award and the U.K.’s Orange Prize for Fiction.
The Birds of Opulence follows several generations of women in the Goode-Brown family in the fictional Southern black township of Opulence. The family is plagued by mental illness and illegitimacy, as well as the accompanying embarrassment. As younger generations watch their mothers and grandmothers pass on, they also fear going mad and must fight to survive.
Wilkinson earned a journalism degree from Eastern Kentucky University in 1985 and a master’s degree in fine arts for creative writing from Spalding University in Louisville. As an educator, she has taught creative writing at Eastern Kentucky, Indiana University-Bloomington and Morehead State University.
Due to the exceptional quality of entries this year, judges for the Gaines Award shortlisted three books for commendation as well: The Side of Providence by Rachel M. Harper, Triangle Ray by John Holman and We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge.
Previous winners of the Gaines award include T. Geronimo Johnson for Welcome to Braggsville, Attica Locke for The Cutting Season, Stephanie Powell Watts for We Are Taking Only What We Need and Dinaw Mengestu for How to Read the Air.
The award will be presented to Wilkinson at 6:30 p.m. on January 19 at the Manship Theatre in downtown Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Doors open at 6 p.m. The ceremony is free and open to the public, although reservations are requested at [email protected]