Return to the News Feed

Willie Morris Award Winners To Read, Sign At Conference

David Joy, Cassandra Jackson and Lauren Crawford lauded for works with sense of place

Three writers who incorporate universal themes of art, landscape and family in their latest works are being honored as winners of this year’s Willie Morris Awards for Southern Writing, housed at the University of Mississippi.

North Carolina-based writer David Joy wins in the fiction category for his novel “Those We Thought We Knew” (Penguin, 2023); Alabama native Cassandra Jackson takes the nonfiction prize for her memoir, “The Wreck: A Daughter’s Story of Becoming a Mother” (Penguin, 2023); and Lauren Crawford, a native of Houston, Texas, gets the nod in poetry for “Galveston.”

All three winners will participate in a discussion and reading at the annual Oxford Conference for the Book, set for April 3-5 across the Ole Miss campus and the Oxford Square. The session is slated for 4:30 p.m. April 5 at Off Square Books.

A national panel of judges selected this year’s winners from hundreds of nominations, said Susan Nicholas, the program’s coordinator.

“What these works share is the powerful impact they leave on the reader, reminding us of the gravitational pull the tradition of Southern storytelling has on us all,” Nicholas said.

Joy’s winning novel is a perfect example of that, said Monica Weatherly, a former poetry winner and judge for the awards’ fiction category.

“His intricately developed characters, careful establishment of place and thoughtful storyline demonstrate a depth and complexity that challenges the reader to confront preconceived notions about race, friendship and community,” Weatherly said.

Joy is also author of the novels “The Line That Held Us,” “The Weight of This World” and “Where All Light Tends to Go,” as well as the memoir “Growing Gills: A Fly Fisherman’s Journey.” He said he appreciates the affirmation of winning the fiction award.

“I think, as a writer, it is easy to fall into the trap of believing the work you’ve created has slipped through the cracks,” he said. “A book releases and within weeks the wave has gone and the water has stilled.

“This sort of recognition is blessed reassurance that the work I was trying to do is important and needed and valued. I’m thankful for the readers having sat with this story and I’m honored by the recognition.”

Jackson’s memoir, set in Alabama, follows Jim Crow-era family tragedy alongside the author’s fertility struggles and navigating a still-discriminatory 21st century health care system.

“It is in Jackson’s homecoming to the South that she reckons with the ghosts of her past and finds the strength and resilience to continue on her journey toward motherhood,” said Amber Nichols-Buckley, a judge for the nonfiction category.

Jackson said she is “humbled and grateful” to receive the nonfiction award.

“This honor is especially meaningful to me in a time rife with denials of both the legacy of racial oppression and the centrality of Black life and culture to the American story,” she said. “I wish to express my gratitude to the judges for reading my book with careful consideration and to the University of Mississippi for housing and diligently managing this important award.

“May Willie Morris’s legacy of engaging in honest examination of the South’s painful history, while also maintaining a sincere hope for its future, live on.”

Crawford, a writing professor at the University of New Haven, likewise struck the judges with a profound sense of place in “Galveston.”

“Lauren Crawford’s free verse poem ‘Galveston’ deftly observes the natural world as she reflects on her inner world,” poetry judge Susan Kinsolving observed. “She surprises the reader with imagery, energy, angst and an insatiable spirit.”

Humbled by the award, Crawford cites the impact of poetry and literature to shape thoughts and emotions in enduring ways.

“Your love for literature is the greatest gift you can give yourself,” she said, speaking specifically to younger readers. Within each page, she noted, “is a journey, each story a treasure waiting to be discovered. Keep reading, keep dreaming, and keep believing in the power of words.”

The poetry award goes to a single, unpublished poem. A limited number of broadsides of Crawford’s winning poem, signed by the author, will be available at the signing.

The Willie Morris Awards for Southern Writing, housed since 2020 in the UM Department of Writing and Rhetoric, honor the contributions and writing of Morris, former editor-in-chief of Harper’s Magazine and a longtime instructor and writer-in-residence at Ole Miss. The awards are supported by an endowment from Dave and Reba White Williams, of Connecticut.

Written by Lucy Gaines