Nathan Harris

Nathan Harris, winner of the 15th annual Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence

Seattle writer Nathan Harris’ debut novel, "The Sweetness of Water," is the winner of the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, presented annually by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation to an emerging African American fiction writer. The winner receives $15,000.

The 15th annual Gaines Award will be presented to Harris at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 25, at the Manship Theatre at the Shaw Center for the Arts. The award is given to honor the late Gaines, whose stories gave voice to African Americans in rural areas.

"I'm deeply honored to have been awarded the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence,” said Harris. “Mr. Gaines' fiction continues to move readers around the world, but equally important is the impact he had, on a personal level, with communities all across Louisiana and the world. His mission was to promote literacy and a love of literature, and I do not take it lightly that I now have an opportunity to further that mission. I follow in Mr. Gaines' footsteps and the footsteps of previous winners of this award, and that is the greatest distinction of all."

Harris’ novel, set in the waning days of the Civil War, is about an unlikely bond between two freed men who are brothers and the Georgia farmer whose alliance will alter their lives, and his, forever.

Noting Harris is 29, The Washington Post called his book a “miracle.”

Harris graduated in 2020 with a fine arts master’s degree from the Michener Center at the University of Texas. He has won the University of Oregon’s Kidd Prize and was a finalist for the Tennessee Williams Fiction Prize.

Oprah Winfrey selected his book for her global reading club, helping it break into the New York Times bestsellers list for two weeks in July.

The Gaines Award is determined by a national panel of judges who selected the winner from 36 entries, a record number of eligible submissions.

Previous winners of the award include "Everywhere You Don’t’ Belong" by Gabriel Bump, "Lot" by Bryan Washington, "A Lucky Man" by Jamel Brinkley, "Birds of Opulence" by Crystal Wilkinson, "Welcome to Braggsville" by T. Geronimo Johnson, "The Cutting Season" by Attica Locke, "We Are Only Taking What We Need" by Stephanie Powell Watts and "How to Read the Air" by Dinaw Mengestu.

Gaines was a native of Oscar in Pointe Coupee Parish, which was the setting for many of his novels. Among his many honors, Gaines received a National Medal of Arts Award, a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant and the National Humanities Medal. He was a member of the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. His critically acclaimed novel “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” was adapted into a made-for-TV movie that won nine Emmy awards. His 1993 novel “A Lesson Before Dying” won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.