‘Welcome to Braggsville’ author wins Gaines literary award
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The winner of the 2015 Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence will be formally introduced to the public this week.
New Orleans native T. Geronimo Johnson will receive the recognition Thursday at a ceremony at the Manship theatre in Baton Rouge for his latest work “Welcome to Braggsville,” according to the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, which initiated the annual book award in 2008.
The novel chronicles four University of California-Berkeley students who stage a protest during a Civil War re-enactment. The $10,000 award recognizes outstanding work from rising African-American fiction writers while honoring Gaines’ contributions to the literary world.
The 2014 winner was Mitchell S. Jackson for his novel “The Residue Years.” Attica Locke won it in 2013 for “The Cutting Season,” her second novel.
Gaines, also a Louisiana native, wrote the critically acclaimed novel “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” one of four of his works adapted into films. His 1993 novel “A Lesson Before Dying” won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.
WHO IS T. GERONIMO JOHNSON?
Johnson began a writing career after working in the world of finance for more than a decade. Writing, he said, allows him to “fully participate in the human world in a way that I can be helpful.”
“I have to find different ways to do good work in this life. Teaching is one way but writing is another activity for which I can feel I’m engaging in the important discussions and hopefully leaving the world better than I found it.”
Johnson currently lives in Berkeley, California, and serves as a visiting professor at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he earned a master’s degree in fine arts. His first novel, “Hold it ’til it Hurts,” was a finalist for the 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction.
Johnson said the Gaines award is special because Gaines’ “legacy has affected me directly.” Gaines was a Stegner creative writing fellow at Stanford University — as was Johnson — and was one of the first writers of color in that program. “He opened doors for me and for all who’ve come after,” Johnson said.
The author added that he believes storytelling is essential to humanity.
“It’s what keeps us together as a race of humans. I find a lot of value in it.”
HOW DOES GETTING THIS RECOGNITION AFFECT YOU?
Johnson said any literary award is an important validation for a writer. “Throughout your career, you tend to get more negative feedback than positive. This is a very special honor because it reassures me that I’m reaching the people who matter to me. That’s what it says to me.”
He said he’s heartened by the reception “Welcome to Braggsville” has received. “Not just for sales and my career, but also for what it means for me as a participant in a conversation that we’ve been having about race. The reviews let me know how they’re receiving the ideas and engaging those ideas in rich, compelling and necessary ways. It means the book is doing the good work in a real way.”
WHY DID THE AWARD BEGIN AND WHY NAMED AFTER GAINES?
In addition to honoring Gaines, the award aims to inspire and recognize rising African-American fiction writers at a national level. Gaines, who lives in Pointe Coupee Parish, attends the ceremony for the book award, whose cash prize supports the writer and enables him or her to focus on the art of writing. The University of Louisiana at Lafayette houses the Ernest J. Gaines Center and is where Gaines is a writer-in-residence emeritus.