Stephanie Powell Watts, an English professor who grew up in Lenoir and Wilkesboro, has won the 2012 Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, a prize that recognizes rising African-American writers. The award includes a $10,000 prize.
Watts graduated from UNC Charlotte in 1997 with an English degree. With her husband, Bob Watts, she wrote a community column for the Charlotte Observer in 1996-97.
The Gaines Award is one of several honors Watts has received for her debut short story collection, "We Are Taking Only What We Need." Earlier this year, the book was a finalist for the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, considered the nation's most important award for a first work of fiction.
Watts’ characters in the story collection are young black women living in North Carolina. For the book’s Pushcart Prize-winning story, “Unassigned Territory,” she draws from personal experience as a former Jehovah’s Witness. In the story, the narrator, a young black woman, is proselytizing door to door on a hot day in rural North Carolina.
"On the way past the car, past the tired old dog, through the patchy yard,” the narrator recalls as she leaves one woman’s porch, “I can’t be sure, but I think I heard the woman say ‘wetback.’ I don’t know, it could have been the bigoted cicadas or heat stroke, but I think she called me a wetback. I wanted to put my finger in her crumpled face, her skin like the film from Krazy Glue and say something wise and cutting like, ‘Get your racial epithets right, Ms. Einstein.’”
Watts told me earlier this year that as a former Jehovah’s Witness she has often written about losing faith "and what that feels like and trying to figure out how to reconstitute yourself once you’ve lost faith."
Watts, who teaches English at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, holds a PhD from the University of Missouri.
Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Posted by Pam Kelley at 2:40 PM