Haitian Author Named MacArthur Genius

The MacArthur Foundation named its latest round of MacArthur Fellows. One of this year's 24 "genius grants" was awarded to Haitian-born novelist Edwidge Danticat. Ms. Danticat, a finalist for several prestigious book awards, discusses the high honor and what she's planning to do with the no-strings-attached $500,000 grant.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Today, The MacArthur Foundation named its latest round of Fellows, commonly called Genius Grants. This year's 24 Genius Grants go to everyone from a digital artist to a geriatric physician to an ornithologist to a papermaker. Also on the list is Haitian-born novelist, Edwidge Danticat.

Ms. Danticat has been a finalist or won many of this country's most prestigious book awards. Her works include "Breath, Eyes, Memory," "Krik Krak," "The Farming of Bones," "The Dew Breaker" and a 2007 memoir "Brother, I'm Dying," about the deaths of her father and uncle and the birth of her daughter. Here, she reads an excerpt.

Ms. EDWIDGE DANTICAT (Novelist): On Sunday, October 24, 2004, my Uncle Joseph woke up to the clatter of gunfire. There were blasts from pistols, handguns, automatic weapons, whose thundering rounds sounded like rockets. It was the third of such military operations in Belair in as many weeks. But never had the firing sounded so close or so loud. Looking over the windup alarm clock on his bedside table, he was startled by the time for it seemed somewhat lighter than it should have been at 4.30 on a Sunday morning. During the odd minutes it took to reposition and reload weapons, you could hear rocks and bottles crashing on nearby roofs.

Taking advantage of the brief reprieve, he slipped out of bed and tip-toed over to a peephole under the staircase outside his bedroom. Parked in front of the church gates was an armored personnel carrier, a tank with mounted submachine guns on top. The tank had the familiar circular blue and white insignia of the United Nations Peacekeepers and the letters U.N. painted on its side. Looking over the trash store now leave that framed the building, he thought for the first time since he had lost his wife, (unintelligible), that he was glad she was dead. She would have never survived the gun blast that had rattled him out of his sleep. She certainly would've been frightened to death.

MARTIN: That is newly named MacArthur Fellow Edwidge Danticat reading from her memoir, "Brother, I'm Dying." And she joins us now from member station WLRN in Miami. Welcome. Congratulations.

Ms. DANTICAT: Thank you.

MARTIN: It doesn't seem big enough, but congratulations.

Ms. DANTICAT: Oh, thank you so much.

MARTIN: Forgive me, it's such a cliche. I have to ask: How did you get the news? Was it the classic are you sitting down?

Ms. DANTICAT: Yes. I think everyone is asked if they're sitting down, and for good reason, because you might fall over. I was at my computer with my daughter, who's nine months old, and I, you know, I was asked: Are you sitting down? And I said, well, I'm sitting down, but I'm holding my baby. And Dan Socolow, who - from the foundation, then says put the baby down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DANTICAT: So he was concerned, naturally, about my daughter's safety, because, of course, your head starts spinning when you hear that.

MARTIN: What does fill your head when you get these words? What goes through your mind?

Ms. DANTICAT: Well, this is, in many ways, you know, the big one. There are not many like it. So the first thing, you know, is just, you know, you can't believe it. And then suddenly, I have - you know, I have a very strong immigrant work ethic, and I just - and then I start thinking I have to work really hard to prove myself worthy of it.

So it's - I'm still trying to wrap my brain around it. It's pretty unbelievable. I just keep thinking of people I know who have had the honor, and it's just extraordinary to be in their company.

MARTIN: What will it mean to you? You've already won, as many of our listeners will know, you've won some wonderful awards, and you've been recognized for your work. You were an Oprah Book Club selection a couple of years ago, which had to have been helpful for you. You've won the American Book Award. You've come very close on a number of others. So what does this mean? Is it another feather in your cap, or will this just - will this make a difference, really, in your life?

Ms. DANTICAT: Well, you know, none of them are feathers, really. It's an exceptional gift, and all these - as all these others were, because what I've always tried to do over the years is really just pace myself so I can earn myself the time to write, you know. We try to live simply and do things just so that I don't have too much exceptional obligations beyond the ordinary daily ones so I can have this privilege to be able to do my work.

So it's a great gift in that now it allows you to worry less about certain things. You know, for one thing, one of the first things I thought about - you know, which is timely given the health-care debate - is, like, oh, now we can upgrade our health insurance, because both my husband and I are self-employed.

So things like that. You know, it makes, I think, some very basic, daily things a lot easier that then free up your time and your ability to write.

MARTIN: Well, as a mother of a very young child, your time has already been - your command over your time has already been changed very greatly. Will this help with that, in a way? Give you a little bit more peace of mind or space?

Ms. DANTICAT: Well, one of the things that I promised in my little daughter's ear that morning is that I'm not going to abandon you, girl.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DANTICAT: But it does, you know, it frees you up a little more in terms of - I'm relishing the time that I have with my girls. I have two young daughters now, and all that feeds into your work, but it does allow a mother of young children - you know, we know so many mothers of young children in literary history who struggle with that, and it does allow you a little more time. It buys some babysitting hours, that's for sure.

MARTIN: Well, you mentioned that you're hoping that one of the things you can do is upgrade your health insurance, and, you know, I hate to think of that as a splurge. But are there any other splurges in the offing, a fabulous pair of boots, perhaps?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DANTICAT: Well, you know, I've never been a fabulous-pair-of-boots kind of gal, but maybe a massage or something like that, like a spa visit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Just one? I understand that you get $500,000 over five years. Surely more than one.

Ms. DANTICAT: Well, I have to pace myself with that. I have to - again, it's my sort of frugal immigrant work ethic because, you know, seriously, this is the kind of work that when you're an immigrant child, you're told, you know, you have to do safe work. So this is also for the parents of immigrant children and immigrant people who - young people who want to be artists, you know, there are things that are possible that - so - it's - I just feel - it already feels like such a great blessing to have had it.

So I will splurge here and there, but I - for the most part, I'll keep myself sane.

MARTIN: I think I read once - and apologies to John Steinbeck if I got this wrong - that when he became successful, it's almost as if he couldn't tolerate it because he was so used to being poor that he couldn't - or not having a lot of money, that's almost as if he had to get rid of it so he could kind of feel like himself. And I wonder if you had any fear that having this cushion will somehow dull your edge, that it will somehow change your vision as a writer?

Ms. DANTICAT: No, not at all because I've - you know, writers have ebbs and flows in fortune in this. You know, when you have a book deal, you can have a good deal of money, and then you have to live on that for five or 10 years. So I've - you know, I'm used to this kind of peace. You know, in a way, you know, the life I've had so far has been good training for it because I've had - you know, you can have - like when I had the Oprah experience, it was great. It sort of carried me over all these many years, also. And so I'm used to, you know, balancing, and so I don't think that I risk feeling too rich, really.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. And finally, may I ask: Any clue about what you're working on now? Will you give us a little sneak peek about what's on your mind? What's on that keyboard? What's banging away on that keyboard?

Ms. DANTICAT: Well, I just finished a collection of essays, and I'm working on a novel that, you know, in terms of vision, I feel like maybe the reach will be bigger. You know, I think if anything, I will try to do more ambitious work.

MARTIN: Edwidge Danticat is one of the winners of this year's round of MacArthur Fellowships, the so-called genius grants, and she was kind enough to join us from WLRN in Miami. Thank you so much for speaking with us, and congratulations again.

Ms. DANTICAT: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.