Twenty-three new MacArthur fellows were named by the MacArthur Foundation, and on that list is 34-year-old Ethiopian-born Dinaw Mengestu, author of the novels ‘The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears’ and ‘How to Read the Air’.
They will each receive a no-strings-attached grant of $500,000 over the next five years – widely known as a “genius” grant – to allow them “unprecedented freedom and opportunity to reflect, create, and explore”. The fellows were all chosen “for their creativity, originality and potential to make important contributions in the future”.
Dinaw Mengestu was awarded his MacArthur grant for “enriching [the] understanding of the little-explored world of the African diaspora in America in tales distilled from the experience of immigrants whose memories are seared by escape from violence in their homelands”.
Each fellow is told of his or her grant in a phone call “out of the blue”, Mengestu said that when he received the phone call about the $500,000 (£310,000) grant, he was in Africa, at a books festival in Nairobi. “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,” he said.
Previous recipients of MacArthur awards include The Wire creator David Simon and the novelists Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Yiyun Li and Cormac McCarthy, with 873 people picked since the programme was set up in 1981. The fellows are selected following a series of formal suggestions by hundreds of anonymous nominators, with a committee of around 12 members – also anonymous – making final recommendations to the foundation.
Robert Gallucci, the president of the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, said that this year’s 23 fellows “demonstrate the power of creativity”.
“The MacArthur fellowship is not only a recognition of their impressive past accomplishments but also, more importantly, an investment in their potential for the future,” he said. “We believe in their creative instincts and hope the freedom the fellowship provides will enable them to pursue unfettered their insights and ideas for the benefit of the world.”