University of Mississippi
The Willie Morris Awards for Southern Writing will celebrate some of the year’s best in contemporary literature in a session concluding the 2023 Oxford Conference for the Book.
The awards program celebrates the legacy of Willie Morris, award-winning author and former writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi, and, by extension, spreads appreciation for contemporary Southern literature. In the spirit of the awards’ namesake, winning authors address Southern themes with an air of hope.
After considering hundreds of nominations, the national panel of judges has chosen winners in fiction, nonfiction and poetry.
“In remarkable works of fiction, poetry and our newest category, nonfiction, our authors continue the relevant consideration of what it means to call the American South home,” said Lucy Gaines, production assistant for the Willie Morris Awards and an Ole Miss graduate student in Southern studies.
The Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction goes to Destiny Birdsong for her debut novel, “Nobody’s Magic” (Grand Central Publishing, 2022). Beverly Lowry wins for “Deer Creek Drive” (Knopf Doubleday) in the new nonfiction category. And the winner of the poetry category is Adam Haver for his single poem “There Are Words That Conjure.”
The winners selected represent a variety of voices whose works, written in the last calendar year, warrant national attention.
“In our winners’ circle this year, we see a wider variety of experience levels and perspectives than ever before,” said Susan Nicholas, the awards program coordinator. “The unified theme across these works is a testament to the legacy of Willie Morris himself, whose creativity and passion for the written word were reflected in honest, optimistic representations of his hometown.”
Birdsong is a poet, essayist and novelist who has published works in the Paris Review Daily, African American Review and Poets & Writers, among other publications. She is a 2022-23 artist-in-residence at the University of Tennessee.
“Someone recently asked me what it meant to me to be called a Southern Black woman writer, and I couldn’t answer because I’ve never identified as anything else,” she said. “I learned the art of storytelling from my Deep South family, and whenever I dream of a character, my first impulse is to place her in the land I know and love.
“It’s instinct for me, and receiving this award is confirmation that my instincts are good.”
Birdsong receives $12,000 for her Willie Morris prize. Her debut novel also has been named to the long list for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize.
“‘Nobody’s Magic’ does things with the English language I’ve never seen before in these stories about young albino Black women fighting to take control of their lives,” said Katherine Clark, an author, previous Willie Morris winner and judge for the fiction category.
“In a tour de force of voice, author Destiny O. Birdsong thrusts the reader into her characters’ minds and distinctly Southern world, where we experience that exhilarating moment when a young person breaks free of oppression and prepares to claim agency of her future.”
Ralph Eubanks, author and judge for the nonfiction category, said Lowry’s book was a perfect choice for the new category’s inaugural honoree.
“Beverly Lowry’s ‘Deer Creek Drive’ stands out for its richly layered narrative, one that weaves a tale based in the Mississippi Delta’s past and connects it with the author’s own personal history on the same landscape,” said Eubanks, also a visiting English professor at Ole Miss and writer-in-residence for the Center for the Study of Southern Culture.
“This is a vivid portrait of a world of privilege and willful blindness that would be recognizable to Willie Morris, since this story reveals the way bigotry, as well as a violent crime, echoes across time and memory.”
Lowry, who was born in Memphis and grew up in Greenville, has written six novels and four previous works of nonfiction. Her writing also has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Mississippi Review and Granta. She receives $12,000 for her award.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am to be receiving an award that helps keep Willie Morris’ name alive,” she said. “I knew and loved Willie and am more than a little overwhelmed by the honor.”
Haver served as editor of FOLIO, a college literary magazine, and has published poetry in the Fahmidan Journal, Braided Way and in the February edition of The Pierian. He receives $3,000 for his award.
“I can only express my gratitude at being selected for the Willie Morris Award for Southern Poetry,” he said. “The notion of this poem had incubated in my mind for a number of years, and I cannot think of a better way to share its message of honesty and ultimately hope.”
Susan Kinsolving, an award-winning poet and poetry judge for the awards, praised Haver’s work.
“In Adam Haver’s eloquent poem, ‘There Are Words That Conjure,’ images are enchanted and definitions imply some sorcery,” she said. “The poem is haunted by history and its elusive consequences.
“Yet by virtue of his own poetic contemplation, Haver presents self-recognition. He summons a future when words are more capable of clarifying time, place and ourselves.”
The Willie Morris Awards for Southern Writing, part of the Department of Writing and Rhetoric, are made possible by a generous endowment established by Dave Williams and Reba White Williams.
All the winners will be celebrated during the Oxford Conference for the Book with a reading at 4 p.m. March 31 at Off Square Books. The session, which is free and open to the public, will be followed by a book signing and reception.