Stephanie Powell Watts will be accepting this year’s Ernest Gains Award for Literary Excellence from the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.
Watts is being recognized for her collection of 10 stories, “We Are Taking Only What We Need," chronicling the lives of African Americans in rural North Carolina.
Watts writes from experience.
WESTERMAN: In the story “Unassigned Territory” you tell the story of an African American Jehovah Witness going door-to-door, now you’ve done that. So can you can you tell me, what did you expect when you were the one knocking on stranger’s doors in rural North Carolina?
WATTS: It was a challenge and it’s one of those kinds of things that when you look back on it and you think that, “Oh, I did that.” You wonder how you did it because it’s frightening and you feel, especially as an African American person, you feel especially conspicuous. So there’s all of that going into it. But if you are a believer, you think that I have something that’s important that I can share with you and that will maybe make your life better. So that pushes you into the situations that you would never think about doing otherwise.
WESTERMAN: And you wrote about a lot of other things in these stories. So, for you, where did the fiction end and the autobiography begin?
WATTS: It’s all fiction but some of the situations, I have found myself in. Like the story “Unassigned Territory”, I was that in that position. I was that girl out in the rural area, down those dirt roads. What happens in the story didn’t happen to me, at least not in exactly the same way but most of the stories I just, I know the milieu and I know the world that they live in and the people that they meet but they’re not from my own experience.
WESTERMAN: And another thing that I noticed about your stories is that you have strong female protagonists and they’re all strong in their own ways and their own different ways. Why did you decide to use female characters as the window through which you wanted your readers to learn this story about African Americans in the South.
WATTS: First of all, that’s the lens that I see the world through as a woman and so that’s partly it. Also, I just feel, I feel those girls – the girls and young women that are in my stories – I just feel they’re in so many ways at the lowest end of the totem pole and they’re smart, though not usually educated, and they’re really working hard and they have something, or they want something that they can’t see right now but they know it’s out there. And I just wanted to show these vulnerable, but not pitiful or pathetic, people struggling and working hard to get to something else.
WESTERMAN: You’ve moved away from North Carolina. Can you just tell me, what is the one thing that you take from there always?
WATTS: One of the things that comes to mind just immediately is if you’re poor and if you don’t feel like you’re, in whatever kinds of ways, part of the main stream then often you feel like, “I want to be anywhere but here. I’ve got to get out of this place.” And one of the things that has come to me after years of being away is what was good about so much of the place and what I didn’t see necessarily when I was there. And that’s been really eye-opening and I think a lot of people experience that but it takes a while. It takes a kind of moving around, either metaphorically or literally, to get to the place where you can see it for what it is with its flaws and complexities but also with the really wonderful parts of it. And to see it as home, as the place where no matter what that’s where you’re from.
WESTERMAN: Alright, well, Stephanie Powell Watts, author of “We Are Only Taking What We Need”, thank you so much for speaking with me.
WATTS: Thank you, I really appreciate it.
Stephanie Powell Watts. Watts will receive the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence for her first novel at a ceremony Friday evening.