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It’s official: Edwidge Danticat is a genius

September 22, 2009
Edwidge Danticat

Edwidge Danticat

Edwidge Danticat, the Haitian-American novelist and memoirist based in Miami, is one of three writers chosen to receive a MacArthur Fellowship — the so-called “genius” award, which carries a $500,000 no-strings-attached cash prize.

“It felt incredibly, wonderfully surreal,” Danticat told The New York Times. “What artists crave and need most is time. It will definitely buy some time. It’s wonderful to have a sense of security, especially in these economic times.”

Other recipients this year include short-story writer Deborah Eisenberg, poet Heather McHugh, investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell, painter Rackstrow Downes and mixed media artist Mark Bradford.

Ranging in age from 33 to 69, those receiving the award are doctors, scientists, economists and engineers, as well as artists and writers. For a complete list of the 24 MacArthur Fellows for 2009, visit the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation website.

At 40, Danticat is among the younger recipients of this year’s prize, but she’s built an impressive body of work since her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, was published in 1994. It became an Oprah Book Club selection in 1998, greatly expanding her audience.

Her other books include Krik? Krak!, a collection of short stories nominated for a National Book Award; the novel The Farming of Bones, winner of the 1999 American Book Award; The Dewbreaker, a novel-in-stories, which won the 2005 Story Prize; and a memoir, Brother, I’m Dying, winner of the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award.

As Danticat relates in Brother, I’m Dying, she was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where she was raised by an uncle after her mother and father immigrated to the United States when she was two. She joined her parents in Brooklyn at age twelve. She studied at Barnard College, where she majored in French literature, and Brown Univeristy, where she earned an MFA in creative writing.

The MacArthur Fellowships were established by the MacArthur Foundation, which manages the multi-billion-dollar estate left by insurance and real estate tycoon John D. MacArthur in 1981. Since then some 803 recipients have been given grants totalling more than $800 million.

According to the Foundation’s website, fellowships are given not as a reward for past achievement “but rather an investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential.” Previous recipients includes poet Campbell McGrath, who teaches creative writing at Florida International University in Miami. He received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1999.

You can’t apply for a MacArthur fellowship. Instead a secret nominating committee forwards a list of nominees to the foundation’s president and board of directors. The first time most recipients know they were being considered is when they receive the call that they’ve been chosen.

As Miami Herald reports, Danticat was sitting at her computer, holding her infant daughter when the call came a week ago.

“I am extremely grateful,” Danticat told the Herald. “I am still wrapping my brain around it, trying to see how I can do it justice.”

One Comment leave one →
  1. rachel permalink
    September 23, 2009 12:08 pm

    I think it is just wonderul, and kind of astonishing, that such things as the MacArthur Fellowship exist not only for scientists and the like, but also for artists. And I find it all the more impressive that you cannot apply for it.

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