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'A Juneteenth celebration': Austin writer spreads empathy with sweeping historical novel

(Nathan Harris)

Recently selected by Oprah Winfrey for her acclaimed book club, one Austin writer is employing the power of historical fiction to bring attention to contemporary issues of class, race and sexual identity.

Nathan Harris's debut novel, "The Sweetness of Water," is a masterfully realized historical fiction novel that follows the struggles of two newly freed brothers in the fictional town of Old Ox, Georgia. It is set in the antebellum South, a stark moment when emancipated slaves and plantation owners were yoked to the project of reconstruction.

Winfrey described its release as "a Juneteenth celebration" on CBS This Morning. Juneteenth—the newest federal holiday—commemorates the end of slavery as the news of the signing of the emancipation proclamation took two months to reach some of the South.

An Oregon native, Harris has been in Austin since August 2017 when he was accepted into the Michener Center for Writers. Prior to this, Harris won the University of Oregon's Kidd Prize for creative writing while an undergraduate.

Harris chose the mode of historical fiction for what he describes as its freedom. He says historical fiction makes the reader detach from their opinions and assumptions because it is taking place in the past.

"The Sweetness of Water" started out as a strong mental image of newly freed slaves standing before their unknown futures. "I saw this scene in my head. I was imagining the freed slaves almost just standing there, deciding what they were going to do and that was sort of the launching point," Harris said.

In writing historical fiction Harris knows his first task is always to the story. "You want to do right by history. I did my best to do that. You don't want to just get it wrong, but if you don't allow for that space for fiction to arise… I mean at that point you're just writing nonfiction. Not my skill set."

Inspired by his affection for epic works such as "Cold Mountain" and "Lonesome Dove," as well as the audacious historical comedy of James McBride, Harris was determined to write a sweeping novel that dealt with deep topics.

"I always say I wanted to make one of those big meaningful books that kept us up as children, you know, or that we found as teenagers turning to love books," he says, adding that he is hopeful his readers will come away from his debut with "a sense of empathy for people who are unlike us."


Comedy, live music, McConaughey Q&A: Events in Austin this weekend

💈 Finley’s Pop-up Barbershop

Experience luxury grooming the old-fashioned way at a revival of the Driskill Hotel’s early 1900s barbershop put on by Austin-based Finley’s. The pop-up will offer men’s haircuts, beard trims, hot towels, neck massages and straight razor shaves. Click here to book an appointment.

9 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday-Sunday | The Driskill Hotel, 604 Brazos St.

😂 Moontower Comedy Presents Hannah Gadsby

Catch veteran Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby touring with her newest show, “Body of Work,” written while she pondered the effects of the pandemic. Tickets are still available in the orchestra section, starting at $60.

Doors at 6 p.m. Friday | The Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress Ave.

🎤 Rex Orange County Who Cares? Tour

Alexander James O'Connor, AKA Rex Orange County, is returning to Austin to perform his newest album, “Who Cares?” Tickets are still available starting at $49 each.

Doors at 7:30 p.m. Friday | Germania Insurance Amphitheater, 9201 Circuit of The Americas Blvd.

⚾️ Round Rock Express vs. El Paso Chihuahuas

Catch our local Minor League team play against the El Paso Chihuahuas at home this week. Tickets start at $22.

Starting 7:05 p.m. Friday | Dell Diamond, 3400 E Palm Valley Blvd.

🎶 Bleachers—The 2022 Tour

Enjoy a night of indie-pop from Grammy-winning producer Jack Antonoff, whose stage name is Bleachers, from the intimacy of Stubb’s. Tickets are still available starting at $33.

Starting 7:05 p.m. Saturday | Stubb's Waller Creek Amphitheater, 801 Red River St.

🎸 The Peterson Brothers with Latasha Lee

Catch the groovy, Bastrop-born brothers are taking their rightful place on stage with soulstress Latasha Lee at Antone’s. Arrive early, seating fills up quickly! The show is 21+ and tickets start at $15.

Doors at 7 p.m. Saturday | Antone's Nightclub, 305 E 5th St.

🤠 Emmanuel Acho and Matthew McConaughey Q&A

Famous former Longhorns Emmanuel Acho and Matthew McConaughey are joining forces for a Q&A about catching greenlights and living a limitless life. Each ticket will get the holder a copy of Acho’s new book, “Illogical: Saying Yes to a Life Without Limits.” Tickets are $39 per person.

1:15 p.m. Sunday | LBJ Auditorium, 2313 Red River St.

⚽️ Austin FC vs. Orlando City

Austin FC is facing off against Orlando City at the biggest party in Austin, Q2 Stadium. Tickets are still available starting at $65 but ticketless Verde fans can still support at one of the many Pub Clubs.

7 p.m. Sunday | Q2 Stadium, 10414 Mc Kalla Pl.

Austin FC wins big! Team makes history, takes No. 1 spot in 2-1 LAFC win

Over a year after its first loss, Austin FC was all smiles as it beat LAFC to take home the top MLS West spot Wednesday. (Austin FC/Twitter)

Over a year after they took the stage for the first time in Los Angeles, Austin FC returned to Banc of America Stadium to snatch the No. 1 spot from LAFC in a 2-1 statement win late Wednesday night.

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