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NEA Big Read

NEA Big Read: A Lesson Before Dying and Ernest Gaines's Legacy

Free

Register Below

Wednesday, 7:30 pm EDT March 31, 2021

Online via Zoom

In this final NEA Big Read event, winners of the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence will come together to discuss the lasting legacy of Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying. They will be talking as writers about the craft and story of the novel, as well as Gaines’s body of work as a whole. Panelists include Gabriel Bump (Everywhere You Don’t Belong), Stephanie Powell Watts (We Are Taking Only What We Need), and Crystal Wilkinson (The Birds of Opulence).

Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, A Lesson Before Dying is a deep and compassionate novel about a young man who returns to 1940s Cajun country to visit a black youth on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Together they come to understand the heroism of resisting.


The Center for Fiction’s Big Read initiative, running from March to June 2021, includes free online reading discussion groups, workshops for young writers, flash fiction writing contest for teens, and public events with authors and scholars. This initiative is made possible through a $15,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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  • KFa05_Gain_1400044723_aup2

    Ernest J. Gaines

    Ernest J. Gaines

    The author of ten books of fiction, Ernest J. Gaines was the recipient of the National Humanities Medal, National Medal of the Art, Chavalier of the Order of Arts and Letters from the government of France, and a National Books Critics Circle Award winner. His brilliant portrayals of race, community, and culture in rural south Louisiana—in particular of both dispiriting and triumphal experiences of Black personhood—made him a greatly respected and beloved world-renowned author.

    Photo Credit: Steven Forster

  • _Gabriel Bump (c) Jeremy Handrup - Carla Cain-Walther

    Gabriel Bump

    Gabriel Bump

    Gabriel Bump grew up in South Shore, Chicago. He is the author of Everywhere You Don’t Belong. His nonfiction and fiction have appeared in Slam magazine, the Huffington Post, Springhouse Journal, and other publications. He was awarded the 2016 Deborah Slosberg Memorial Award for Fiction. He received his MFA in fiction from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He lives in Buffalo, New York.

  • Stephanie Powell Watts. Photo Credit Doug Benedict - Zach Cihlar

    Stephanie Powell Watts

    Stephanie Powell Watts

    Stephanie Powell Watts won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence for her debut story collection, We Are Taking Only What We Need (2012), also named one of 2013’s Best Summer Reads by O: The Oprah Magazine. Her short fiction has been included in two volumes of the Best New Stories from the South anthology and honored with a Pushcart Prize. Born in the foothills of North Carolina, with a PhD from the University of Missouri and a BA from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, she now lives with her husband and son in Pennsylvania where she is an associate professor at Lehigh University.

  • Crystal Wilkinson (c) Anastasia Pottinger - Zach Cihlar

    Crystal Wilkinson

    Crystal Wilkinson

    Crystal Wilkinson, a USA Artist Fellow, is the award-winning author of The Birds of Opulence (winner of the 2016 Ernest J. Gaines Prize for Literary Excellence), Water Street, and Blackberries, Blackberries. Nominated for the John Dos Passos Award, the Orange Prize and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, she has received recognition from the Yaddo Foundation, Hedgebrook, The Vermont Studio Center for the Arts, The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and others. She has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and her short stories, poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including most recently in the Kenyon Review, STORY, Agni Literary Journal, Emergence, Oxford American, and Southern Cultures. She currently teaches at the University of Kentucky where she is Associate Professor of English in the MFA in Creative Writing Program.