5 Questions with Ernest Gaines Award Winner Nathan Harris
In its 15th year, the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence was awarded to Seattle writer Nathan Harris for his debut novel, The Sweetness of Water. The award is a nationally acclaimed $15,000 prize given annually by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. The award recognizes the outstanding work of promising African-American fiction writers, while honoring the late Louisiana native Gaines’ contribution to the literary world.
Harris’s novel is set during the waning days of the Civil War. Two brothers, newly freedmen, seek refuge and are hired by farmer George Walker and his wife, Isabel. Their newly formed bond changes the lives of the brothers and George, altering all of their lives forever.
Harris graduated in 2020 with a master’s in Fine Arts from the Michener Center at the University of Texas. Before winning the Gaines Award, he was a recipient of the University of Oregon’s Kidd Prize and a finalist for the Tennessee Williams Fiction Prize.
The 15 annual Gaines Award will be presented to Harris virtually at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, January 25, at www.lpb.org or with the LPB app. Xena Scott interviewed Harris in advance of his officially receiving the award.
Xena Scott: What was your reaction when you first learned that you had won the Gaines Award?
Nathan Harris: I was thrilled! I had read Mr. Gaines growing up a bit and I had known a few of the people that had won before, and you know you follow these things as a young writer. You never think you’re going to be mentioned, you know. Yeah, it’s just kind of surreal, but a great thing. I couldn’t be happier.
XS: Oprah Winfrey chose your book for her global reading club. Why do you think this story resonates with readers so well?
NH: If I knew the formula to a T, I’d be incredibly successful. I don’t know how these things happen, but I call the novel a communal novel. What I mean by that is that the novel gives an opportunity to anybody who’s reading it to see part of themselves in it. Whether we’re talking of George, who is the Northerner who lives in the South now who comes upon the brothers in the book, he is this outcast. I think people see parts of themselves as an outcast like that. Isabel, his wife, is grieving and we’ve all been in that position. And the brothers are trying to find their way in the world and, we’ve all felt that as well, so I think that there’s space for everybody who enters into this novel to see a piece of themselves. And to see a piece of people who are very different from them and still be able to empathize with those folks as well. That has really resonated and made an impact.
XS: And speaking of those characters, you were sort of creating relationships between people that normally would not have been able to exist around each other and interact with each other. Why exactly did you decide that this time period, this setting and this community was the one that you wanted to tell your story? And how does it comment on our understanding of community?
NH: That’s a deep question. I think the time period of the Civil War and the time immediately after the Civil war, there’s just so much tension between the races, between the classes. People who were at the forefront of authority in the South suddenly felt like they were not. And free people were trying to find their way with this sudden freedom thrust upon them. And, in between that, you have all sorts of varieties of people trying to understand what just took place, with the Confederate surrender and whatnot, and what life will look like. So I just thought of this ripe opportunity to place a story that is talking about race, that is talking about class, and it allowed me to emphasize that from a distance, you know. I feel like our country is still fighting the same battles in some ways that we were fighting then, but it gives the reader a chance to step back from the everyday politics and issues we’re facing right now and kind of see it through the lens of the past. I think that distance was necessary and gives readers a different perspective.
XS: Allowing someone to take themselves out of the picture and see it like a clean slate?
NH: Yes! It’s that distance. I think people have this emotional reaction—for one, they get lost in the story and then they start seeing these patterns, in some way, of what we’re still going through as a nation. They sort of connect it and they see that it’s all ongoing. I think that’s powerful and I wanted to try and create that effect.
XS: What are you working on next? What do we have to look forward to?
NH: I just made an agreement for a second novel with Little Brown and it’s going to be a bit more historical fiction. I always quote, or paraphrase, I should say, ‘When you speak about the work, it sort of hardens and it’s hard to continue to work with it,’ so I can’t say much but it’s around the same time period. It’s about another freedman and it spans across nations. It’s more ambitious in a way, but I think it’ll give people who enjoy The Sweetness of Water more of what they came to love.
Read our past interviews with Gaines Award winners here.