Berkeley author wins Simpson Family Literary Prize

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Xiaoye Yan/Staff

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T. Geronimo Johnson, a New Orleans native and Berkeley resident, has won the inaugural Simpson Family Literary Prize of $50,000.

The prize is sponsored by the Simpson Family Literary Project, a local philanthropic organization. Winners must be mid-career authors — defined as authors with two or three books already published — according to project Chair Joseph Di Prisco.

Di Prisco said the Simpson Family Literary Project seeks to better educate the writers of the future. He added that he “(hopes) the Simpson prize will have an important role in the national literary landscape.”

The winner is chosen from a set of finalists by an anonymous jury. After winning the annual prize, the writer will replace the current winner as the in-house writer on campus and at the Lafayette Library.

Di Prisco and the Simpson family are both giants of the Bay Area nonprofit community.

Di Prisco has been on the board of the California Shakespeare Theater, the Ann Martin Center and the Redwood Day School in Oakland. He has also taught in the Bay Area for 25 years and is a campus graduate with a doctorate in English.

Though he has now passed, Barclay Simpson, the Simpson family patriarch, was described as “the most charitable thoughtful public person I’ve ever known” by Noel Nellis, president of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive Board of Trustees.

Nellis also cited Simpson and his wife, Sharon Simpson, as key donors to the new BAMPFA building and the campus’s Memorial Stadium. Nellis estimates Simpson’s lifetime donations to charity to be “well over $100 million.”

According to Di Prisco, the project offers many services such as writing workshops taught by campus graduate students. Currently, the project retains Joyce Carol Oates, an author and campus English professor, as an in-house writer at Lafayette Library and Learning Center Foundation. Johnson will soon take over the position.

Johnson won the prize for his 2015 book “Welcome to Braggsville,” a dark comedy about a group of campus students who go down to Braggsville, Georgia, to protest a Civil War reenactment. “Welcome to Braggsville” received a rave review from Ron Charles, the editor of the Washington Post’s Book World. Charles described the book as “the most dazzling, most unsettling, most oh-my-God-listen-up novel you’ll read this year.”

Johnson also previously wrote “Hold It ‘Til It Hurts,” a novel about an adopted black soldier trying to find his adopted brother in New Orleans just before Hurricane Katrina hit the city.

Lafayette Library and Learning Center Board of Trustees Executive Director Beth Needel spoke very highly of the Simpson Literary Project and of the benefits of having an in-house writer. “(The Simpson Literary Project) brings everything we love to do together and creates something that is just right for us,” Needel said.

Needel said she hopes that other libraries will be involved with the project and that libraries across the country will also get similar opportunities. She also stated that the project perfectly aligns with the library’s mission statement, “great minds and great communities start here.”

Contact Patrick Boldea at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @testeapteteroma.