Miami author Edwidge Danticat wins `Genius Award’
by Jacqueline Charles, Miami Herald
Miami writer Edwidge Danticat was holding her 9-month-old daughter, Leila, while trying to read the computer screen when the phone rang.
“Are you sitting down?” the caller asked.
“Yes. I am holding my baby,” she said.
“Put the baby down.”
An award-winning author who was born in Haiti, Danticat, 40, learned she had just won the biggest honor of her career: the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation `Genius Award,’ which carries a $500,000 “no strings attached” prize.
“I am extremely grateful,” said an ecstatic Danticat, one of 24 winners named this year as a fellowship winner. “I am still wrapping my brain around it, trying to see how I can do it justice.”
Daniel Socolow, who directs the fellows program and called Danticat with the news, said the writer emerged from a pool of hundreds of creative leaders, nominated by individuals for their creative genius and potential.
The final selection, he said, was made by an anonymous 12-member committee and after writing “thousands and thousands of other people about them.”
In addition to Danticat, this year’s winners include Jill Seaman of Sudan, an infectious-disease specialist, Lynsey Addario of Turkey, a photojournalist, and Peter Huybers of Massachusetts, a climate scientist at Harvard.
“We look at the work they’ve done, but at the end of the day it’s a calculation this is somebody worthy of our investment,” Socolow said. “We don’t know what they will do next; we just know they are likely to do something spectacular. It is betting on their future.”
Socolow said Danticat, a compelling novelist known for capturing human endurance and perseverance through her books, “has wonderful promise yet ahead to do even more powerfully what she does.”
Danticat made her debut as a novelist in 1994 with Breath, Eyes, Memory. In all, she has written eight books, recently finished a collection of essays and is working on a new novel.
Through her works, she has amassed a wide range of fans with her simple prose and themes of isolation, human struggle, cultural survival — all set against the complex backdrop of Haiti’s complex history and immigrant life.
Her most recent book was the semi-autobiographical Brother, I’m Dying. The memoir is a tribute to her 81-year-old uncle, Joseph Dantica, a minister who fled to Miami seeking refuge from Haiti’s political and gang-ridden turmoil only to die in the custody of U.S. immigration authorities. His plight and life are chronicled through Danticat’s memories as a child growing up in Haiti under his care. The book won the National Book Critics Circle Award, among others.
Past notable winners including Dr. Paul Farmer, a Harvard anthropologist and infectious-disease specialist who won the award in 1993 for his work combating HIV/AIDS in Haiti.
`IT LIBERATES YOU’
As a writer, Danticat says she always yearns for the time and peace of mind as she brings her characters — ordinary people facing hardship and struggle — to life. This award gives her that, she said.
“What this does is it liberates you to really concentrate on your work,” she said. “I have always tried to pace myself not to live extravagantly, so I can earn the time I need to write.”
After receiving the news, Danticat said she gasped, then called her husband Faidherbe “Fedo” Boyer and told him the news. He and daughter Mira were the only ones who knew for a week.
Her mother, who lives in New York, only learned the news Monday.
Meanwhile, she says she has no idea who nominated her, but is extremely grateful.
“You just get this call one day,” she said. “It is so gratifying to know people out there think I deserve more time to work.”