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.''
Source: The New York Times