'Birds of Opulence' author wins Gaines literary award

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Posted: Jan 18, 2017 3:47 PM
'Birds of Opulence' author wins Gaines literary award

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — When author Crystal Wilkinson of Kentucky learned she won the 2016 Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, she said she reverted to her 12-year-old self, shrieking and squealing with glee.

"I am over the moon," Wilkinson told The Associated Press about winning the nationally acclaimed prize for "Birds of Opulence," her novel exploring generations of troubled women in the fictional Southern black township of Opulence.

The Gaines Award and its $10,000 prize were created by a philanthropic group, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, to recognize outstanding work by rising African-American fiction writers. The 54-year-old winner is Appalachian writer in residence at Berea College in Kentucky and will be presented the award Thursday in Baton Rouge.

Her first novel-length work, "Birds of Opulence" follows several generations of women of the Goode-Brown family who are plagued by mental illness, illegitimacy and the embarrassment that ensues. As younger generations watch their mothers and grandmothers die, they fear going mad and fight to survive.

"This gives me a huge boost at this point in my career," Wilkinson said. "It gives me huge confidence to know that I can do the next one and the next one and the next one."

Originally from the small community of Indian Creek, Kentucky, Wilkinson earned a journalism degree from Eastern Kentucky University in 1985 before embarking on her literary career. Many of her works have garnered critical acclaim.

"Blackberries, Blackberries," a collection of short stories, won the 2002 Chaffin Award for Appalachian Literature. "Water Street," another short-story collection, was a finalist for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award and the U.K.'s Orange Prize for Fiction.

"There are lots of awards out there, but not one better fitted to me," Wilkinson said. "I've loved Ernest Gaines' work so much and for years have thought of him as one of my mentors."

The award honors Gaines' extraordinary contributions to the literary world.

A Louisiana native, Gaines wrote the critically acclaimed novel "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," one of four of his works that were adapted for films. His 1993 novel "A Lesson Before Dying" won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.

Now 84, Gaines said he was glad that writers such as Wilkinson have emerged to keep themes about rural life in the forefront.

"You know, that's the world I write about and have always written about," Gaines said. "Now, people who come around years from now will be able to reference those different lifestyles in our works. Not everyone lives in the big city."

Gaines downplayed the recognition of having a literary award named after him.

"I think those kinds of things should be named after you when you're dead," he said, laughing. "My job is just to write. If the award gets more people to read more books, that's great too."

Wilkinson said her future absolutely involves more writing.

"My sort of romantic view is that I would live in a farm house somewhere and just write. I'm sure I will continue to teach, but I also want to get the other works I'm working on out into the world," she said.