In 2004, at the age of forty-seven, Barb Johnson decided to take time away from her carpentry business and pursue an MFA in fiction at the University of New Orleans. Shortly thereafter, Hurricane Katrina wiped out Johnson's business and forced her to live on the balcony of her apartment in the evacuated city. She kept writing, and by the time she graduated, in 2008, she had a book deal for a story collection, More of This World or Maybe Another, forthcoming from HarperCollins in November. Last week, she won the fifty-thousand-dollar Gift of Freedom Award from the nonprofit A Room of Her Own Foundation.
In her application for the biennial award, which is given to a woman writer who has a specific two-year goal (winners are chosen on the basis of talent and motivation), Johnson wrote, “We write to say, You are not alone. We write the thing that can’t be said…the thing that will be a bright moment for a stranger, the way another’s writing was a bright moment for us.… We pass what we have to those who are hungry for it because we, ourselves, have been hungry.”
With financial help from the award, Johnson will spend the next two years completing a novel titled "St. Luis of Palmyra," which picks up where her forthcoming story collection leaves off. The finalists for this year's award are Bridget Birdsal, CM Burroughs, Nathalie Handal, Gail Kramer, and Rashaan Alexis Meneses.
Previous recipients of the award, which was created in 2002, are Jennifer Tseng, Jeannine Harkleroad, Meredith Hall, and Summer Wood.