April 1, 2019 at 11:00 pm

Spring Literary Festival | Stephanie Powell Watts, April 3-5

Stephanie Powell Watts, portrait

Stephanie Powell Watts

Ohio University’s Spring Literary Festival is April 3 to 5. One of this year’s featured authors is Stephanie Powell Watts, who 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.

Powell Watts’s stories explore the lives of African Americans in fast food and factory jobs, working door to door as Jehovah’s Witness ministers, and pressing against the boundaries of the small town, post-integration South.

Her debut novel, No One Is Coming to Save Us, follows the return of a successful native son to his home in North Carolina and his attempt to join the only family he ever wanted but never had. As Powell Watts describes it, “Imagine The Great Gatsby set in rural North Carolina, nine decades later, with desperate black people.”

Born in the foothills of North Carolina, with a Ph.D. from the University of Missouri and a B.A. 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.

Ph.D. Student Melanie Ritzenthaler‘s essay, “Turns and Returns in the Fiction of Stephanie Powell Watts,” examines the power of Watts’s work:

One does not necessarily expect to come to Stephanie Powell Watts’s fiction to read ghost stories. Watts’s stories are clearly populated and narrated by the living: as she writes in the introduction to her Whiting Award-winning collection, We Are Taking Only What We Need, her stories are about “young African American women trying to make a home in the world.” These women, she writes, are usually poor, usually “watchers,” usually on the cusp of finding or redefining home. Which is not to say that ghosts don’t populate her stories: in the first story of the collection, “Family Museum of the Ancient Postcards,” the young narrator reminisces about two experiences with the dead’s presence—her father’s mother, and a beloved aunt’s father. However, these are not the real ghosts that haunt “Postcards,” or any of her stories. They are woven into the very fabric of life in rural North Carolina, where these stories are set—a home that is post-Jim Crow, post-segregation, but also a home where these legacies, like ghosts, endure.

As with any writer as immensely talented as Watts, it is impossible to fully unravel the thread of her stories, to grasp how they can speak so eloquently to ghosts that seem, by and large, off the page. Part of her project, though, emerges from our reading experience itself, from the ways her stories resist the shapes we might want to impose upon them. For instance, in the final paragraph of the story “If You’ve Hit Randolph County, You’ve Gone Too Far,” the narrator leaves a celebratory meal for a brother bailed out from jail, and removes herself, at least for the time being, from the possibility of coming to peace with her family. Many of Watts’s stories conclude like this: providing no easy ending, and giving no resolutions where in life there would be none. Perhaps this is why Watts clarifies in her introduction that only “some” of these women “will find that place that can finally feel like home.” As readers, we can understand that these stories are meant, in a way, to continue to haunt us, to let us be equally unfulfilled. Even as we enjoy them immensely.

Perhaps Watts sums it up best when she describes her motive for writing her debut novel No One is Coming to Save Us, a reimagining of The Great Gatsby. She is not so much interested in writing “a literal ghost story” as she is in wanting to write about a “return.” In this novel, ghosts propagate in a variety of ways: as old relationships, as nostalgia for a once-vibrant town, and the dreams of those who live in it. These characters, this place, have all been created out of the perceived “cracks” in Gatsby’s narrative, from the recognition that a seminal work of American literature more or less leaves the stories of black, female, and impoverished characters—or a combination of the three—in the white space, unwritten.

If this is a novel about return, then perhaps it’s both in the literal sense—her characters cannot help but to go back home—and in the literary sense, as Stephanie Powell Watts turns, and returns to, the stories that might otherwise go unilluminated, unseen.

We’re thrilled to have her as a guest at this year’s Spring Literary Festival.

Stephanie Powell Watts reading: Wednesday, April 3rd, Walter Hall Rotunda. 7:30

Stephanie Powell Watts lecture: Thursday, April 4th, Walter Hall Rotunda. 10:30.



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