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Aaliyah Bilal named winner of the 17th annual Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence.

Baton Rouge, LA – The Baton Rouge Area Foundation today announced that Aaliyah Bilal’s TEMPLE FOLK is the winner of the 17th annual Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. This prestigious award, presented to an emerging African American fiction writer, celebrates the enduring legacy of the late Ernest Gaines, whose narratives eloquently capture the voices of African Americans in rural settings. A national panel of literary judges chose Bilal’s work from among 30 submissions, recognizing her exceptional talent in storytelling.   Aaliyah Bilal will be honored with a $15,000 prize to further her literary pursuits during a special ceremony at 6 p.m. on October 23, 2024, at the Manship Theatre in the Shaw Center for the Arts, Baton Rouge. 

“It is an honor to have my first effort, TEMPLE FOLK, chosen for the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence,” said Bilal. “I am especially proud to be associated through this award with the legacy of Mr. Gaines, as his oeuvre informs my ambition to tell timeless stories in plain spoken, elegant prose. Mr. Gaines teaches us how to do this sacred work with grace, grit, and love.”   

TEMPLE FOLK portrays the lived experiences of Black Muslims grappling with faith, family, and freedom in America. Through her narrative, Bilal offers a poignant look at the discrepancies between personal beliefs and actions. TEMPLE FOLK presents humanity’s moral failures with compassion, nuance, and humor to remind us that while perfection is what many of us strive for, it is errors that make us human. Born in Prince George’s County, Maryland, Bilal cultivated her writing skills at Oberlin College and the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Her stories and essays have appeared in publications like The Michigan Quarterly Review and The Rumpus. TEMPLE FOLK is her first short story collection.  

Previous winners of the Ernest J. Gaines Award include Mother Country by Jacinda Townsend; The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris; Everywhere You Don’t Belong by Gabriel Bump; Lot by Bryan Washington; A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley; The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard; Birds of Opulence by Crystal Wilkinson; Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson; The Residue Years by Mitchell S. Jackson; The Cutting Season by Attica Locke; We Are Only Taking What We Need by Stephanie Powell Watts; How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu; Big Machine by Victor Lavalle; Stellar Places by Jeffery Reynard Allen; Like Trees, Walking by Ravi Howard and; A Killing in This Town by Olympia Vernon. Find out more at   The application period for the 18th annual Gaines Award is now open. Please find details available at  

About Ernest Gaines: Literary legend Ernest J. Gaines was a native of Oscar in Louisiana’s Pointe Coupee Parish which served as the setting for many of his novels. During his lifetime, Gaines received a National Medal of Arts Award (2013), a MacArthur Foundation’s Genius Grant, and the National Humanities Medal among numerous others. He was a member of the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. His critically acclaimed novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman was adapted into a made-for-TV movie that won nine Emmy awards. His 1993 novel A Lesson Before Dying won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.  

About the Baton Rouge Area Foundation: Among the largest community foundations in the country, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation seeks to improve the quality of life in greater Baton Rouge and across south Louisiana.     The Foundation pursues its mission by serving donors to build the assets that drive initiatives and solutions, supporting local nonprofits to ensure overall impact and sustainability, engaging community leaders to develop appropriate responses to emerging opportunities and challenges, and by partnering with others to leverage collective resources and create the capacity to be a stimulus of positive regional change.   

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