Hey Genius, MacArthur’s Calling

One call, out of the blue, $500,000, and no strings attached. Wouldn’t that be nice? Unfortunately, this only happens to geniuses…

I’m talking about the MacArthur Foundation‘s ‘genius grant,’ which yesterday was awarded to 23 recipients. Among them were authors Junot Diaz, writer of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and the more recent This is How You Lose Her, and Ethiopian born Dinaw Mengetsu, whose two published novels are The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and How to Read the Air.

Dinaw Mengetsu

Both authors have had the chance to share their jubilation upon receiving the news, and what it means to them. Mengetsu was as far afield as Nairobi when he received his call:

It was obviously amazingly overwhelming and at the same time felt remarkably appropriate to be there and to be in a community that I felt I was desperately trying to reach out to… Part of what the MacArthur fellowship does is remind me that the work I’ve done is relevant – not necessarily what I write about, but the people who populate my work. That those people have a significance and meaning that sometimes might be overshadowed or lost in the larger narrative of the world, and it’s important to keep writing out of those experiences.

Interestingly, both writers are immigrants to the US, Mengetsu as a toddler and Diaz as a teen. That seems to have influenced their writing and style, and in turn caught the Foundation’s eye, which said of Diaz that he creates “nuanced and engaging characters struggling to succeed and often invisible in plain sight to the American mainstream.” Diaz reflected on the honor of the award in an interview with AP:

It left me thinking about my childhood … It would never have dawned on me to think such a thing was possible for me … struggling with poverty, struggling with English. … I came from a community that was about as hard-working as you can get and yet no one saw or recognized in any way our contributions or our genius. … I have to wonder, but for circumstances, how many other kids that I came up with are more worthy of this fellowship than me?

Junot Diaz

The Columbian author also said the grant would be “transformational” for him and his work. “It allows you to focus on your art with very little other concerns. It’s kind of like a big blast of privilege.”

For those who’ve never heard of the grant or its criteria, the Foundation’s website offers some information for aspiring geniuses:

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation supports creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world… [It] awards five-year, unrestricted fellowships to individuals across all ages and fields who show exceptional merit and promise of continued creative work.

A full list of the recipients and their bios can be found at the MacArthur Foundation’s page for the fellows of 2012. Among them is the creator of “The Wire,” two filmmakers, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Boston Children’s Hospital, and  a certain mandolin player who incredibly thought this life-changing call was a robocall. You can read more on that, here.

eNotes Study Guides for Junot Diaz:

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao


“Fiesta, 1980”

“The Sun, The Moon, The Stars”