Willie Morris Awards Announce Fiction and Poetry Winners

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By Susan Nicholas

University of Mississippi

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An early fiction writer writing a story of redemption, loss and social change amid intersecting relationships in the Reconstruction South and a poet rediscovering Southern roots are the winners of this year’s Willie Morris Awards for Southern Writing, housed at the University of Mississippi.

The Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction goes to Nathan Harris for “The Sweetness of Water” (Little, Brown and Co., 2021). Monica Weatherly wins the Willie Morris Award for Southern Poetry for her poem “If I Had My Grandmama’s Praise”.

Winners will be celebrated at the Oxford Book Conference, scheduled for March 31-April 1.

“Nathan Harris has written a profound novel,” said Stephen Monroe, chair of UM’s writing and rhetoric department. “We hope the Willie Morris Prize will inspire more people to read his fine debut, and we look forward to welcoming Nathan to the Oxford Book Conference this spring.

“Our winners will join an incredible group of talented writers at this year’s conference.”

A national panel of judges reviewed the nominated novels looking for works that ask readers to engage with the complexities of the American South. They narrowed down the fiction entries to a shortlist of three: Harris’ “The Sweetness of Water”, Jason Mott’s “Hell of a Book”, and Brit Bennet’s “The Vanishing Half”.

As the fiction winner, Harris receives $10,000. He holds an MFA from the Michener Center at the University of Texas. Harris was a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 winner in 2021.

The Seattle resident gained national attention when Oprah Winfrey selected her debut novel for her book club, propelling it to New York Times bestseller status.

“I’m so honored to be the recipient of the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction,” Harris said. “Allow me to express my deepest gratitude to the judges, the University of Mississippi, and the spirit and legacy of Mr. Morris himself. It is an honor I will reflect on for some time.

Jonathan Haupt, one of the Willie Morris Prize fiction judges and executive director of the Pat Conroy Literary Center, praised Harris’ work.

“Harrowing yet also hopeful, ‘The Sweetness of Water’ deftly captures the South in the days following the American Civil War with perspectives on race, class, gender and sexuality that resonate in historic moments that we are still sailing through today,” Haupt says.

“That this masterful epic by Nathan Harris is a debut novel is nothing short of stunning – and brings with it the welcome possibility of many more stories to come from an author who deserves every accolade that comes his way.”

The Willie Morris Award for Southern Poetry celebrates the diversity of Southern poetry and encourages emerging poets. For her winning poetry, Weatherly receives $2,500.

Weatherly is a poet, writer, and professor of English at Perimeter College at Georgia State University. Her work has appeared in Tulane Review, Plainsongs Magazine, and Auburn Avenue, a biannual publication featuring the intellectual and creative voices of people of color.

“This poem was born out of a need to not only go back to my Southern roots, but it also spoke to where I was personally at the time,” she said. “Winning the Willie Morris Award affirms to me that writing in truth is what this art form is all about. I am incredibly grateful for this artistic space to share my writing.

Susan Kinsolve, herself an award-winning poet, selected the poem from a record number of entries.

“The honesty and history expressed in Monica Weatherly’s courageous poem of praise offers the reader an uplifting lesson in resilience and faith,” she said. “It is a gripping and heartfelt poem.”

As the youngest editor of Harper’s magazine in New York, Morris inspired great writers and helped shape careers. As a writer-in-residence at UM, Morris mentored students and aspiring writers, stimulating both their creativity and their passion for writing. The Willie Morris Awards carry on this legacy.

For more information, visit the Willie Morris Awards.



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