Now in its 13th year, the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence is a nationally acclaimed $15,000 prize given annually by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. The award recognizes the outstanding work from promising African-American fiction writers, while honoring the late Louisiana native Ernest Gaines’ extraordinary contribution to the literary world.
Gaines died on November 5 at his home in Oscar, Louisiana, at the age of 86, so this year’s award is bittersweet. Houston writer Bryan Washington‘s debut book of short stories titled Lot has been named the 2019 winner. Lot is set in Washington’s hometown of Houston, particularly its East End. Washington earned his bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Houston and his master’s in creative writing from the University of New Orleans. He is currently a lecturer at Rice University.
Lot was selected by a national panel of judges including Edward P. Jones, Pulitzer Prize winner for his 2003 novel The Known World and Francine Prose, author of more than 20 books, including Blue Angel, a nominee for the 2000 National Book Award. Washington joins previous winners Crystal Wilkinson, T. Geronimo Johnson and Attica Locke.
The Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence will be presented to Washington on January 30 in downtown Baton Rouge during a public ceremony. We asked him six questions by email before he receives the award later this week.
Erin Z. Bass: What was your response when you found out you’d won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence?
Bryan Washington: Gratitude. It’s a massive, bittersweet, honor.
EZB: Did you have the chance to meet Ernest Gaines before he passed away, and what is your past experience with his work?
BW: I didn’t have the chance to meet Mr. Gaines, but I’m a big fan of his work. His emphasis on community, and the many different forms it can take, is something that stuck and will continue to stick with me.
EZB: What does this award mean to you?
BW: It’s further validation that narratives about the communities that you hold dear, wherever they are—and particularly narratives centering this country’s marginalized populations that don’t capitalize on their marginalization—are narratives that folks want to hear. They are narratives that have weight.
EZB: Lot was one of Barack Obama’s favorite books of the year and was also named a New York Times Notable Book of 2019. Why do you think the stories in Lot are resonating so well with readers?
BW: I think I’d be the person least qualified to answer that: once you write a book, it doesn’t really belong to you anymore. But the focal point of Lot, for me, is about coming together, and trusting your neighbors, and giving each other the benefit of the doubt, and taking care of each other when you can. It’s heartening to see that folks are keen on those stories.
EZB: Your book is set in the cultural mecca that is Houston and has a narrator who doesn’t feel at home in his hometown. If there’s one thing we can learn from Ernest Gaines, it’s a sense of place. Why did you decide to set your stories in Houston?
BW: Houston’s the American city that I love the most, and so many of the communities that I hold dear live here. It’s an honor and a privilege to tell stories beside them, and I literally can’t imagine setting Lot anywhere else.
EZB: What are you working on next?
BW: My first novel, Memorial, will be released in the fall. And I’m working on a few other things, but I’m too superstitious to say much about them.
The awards ceremony will be held at 6:30 p.m. on January 30 at the Manship Theatre at the Shaw Center for the Arts in downtown Baton Rouge. The ceremony is free and open to the public, but reservations are requested at [email protected].
The Louisiana Center for the Book in the State Library of Louisiana in Baton Rouge will celebrate Black History Month with “Gather at the River: A Tribute to Ernest J. Gaines” on February 19, from noon-1:30 p.m. This program will celebrate the life and work of Gaines and be hosted by two-time Louisiana Poet Laureate Darrell Bourque and also feature several authors, poets and others with close personal connections to Gaines reading favorite passages from his work.
Photo of Bryan Washington by David Gracia; Lot book cover courtesy of Don Farrall/Getty Images.