Genius Grants

  • March 1, 2011

Darrell Delamaide looks at writers who have won MacArthur "genius grants."

by Darrell Delamaide

After reading two novels in quick succession by genius grant writers (The Vagrants by Yiyun Li and The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon), I thought it might be interesting to take a look at other fiction writers who won the MacArthur Foundation fellowships.

It struck me reading their bios that both Li and Hemon were born abroad, Li in Beijing and Hemon in Sarajevo, and that English was not their native language – though you would never know it from their writing. Li was a 2010 MacArthur fellow and Hemon a 2004 fellow. I wondered if this represented a pattern in the awards.

The Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation – the same one that provides a lot of support to NPR – selects two dozen or so fellows each year, placing the emphasis on creativity in the winners’ chosen field. Virtually from the first class in 1981, these awards have been known as “genius grants,” and now consist of $500,000 paid out over a five-year period. They are awarded not for past accomplishment so much as an investment in individuals who have demonstrated creativity, to support them in their future accomplishment.

Although the awards include artists, musicians, scientists, architects, historians and poets among others, each annual group of fellows almost invariably includes a fiction writer. I confined my own scrutiny to the past 10 years, though Wikipedia provides a list of genius grant winners that makes it easy to track down any of them.

Sure enough, it turned out that the writer chosen in 2009 was Edwige Danticat, the 42-year-old Haitian-American writer, and the 2008 writer fellow was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 33, a Nigerian writer residing in the U.S. As I delved further back, however, there were a number of writers born in America as well. But it was clear that the foundation likes to highlight minorities as well as innovative and experimental writing.

Other patterns that emerged were a sort of favoritism for short story writers (though most are also novelists), a slight bias for writers with a Chicago connection (where the MacArthur Foundation is based), and what is probably a coincidence of spending time in residence at Wesleyan University.

Prizes are not necessarily the most reliable way to choose what to read, though most of us are seduced by “National Book Award Winner” or “Man Booker Prize Winner”, or Pulitzer, or Nobel. A genius grant award is probably as good a way as any to identify writers worth reading. Here are the other winners over the last decade:

●    2010 Yiyun Li. Born in 1972, Li grew up in Beijing and moved to the 1996 after receiving her bachelor’s degree there. She studied writing in Iowa, getting MFAs in both nonfiction and fiction writing. She now lives in Oakland. It was the story about her and the genius grant winners in September that got me started on this kick.

●    2009 Edwige Danticat. Born in Haiti, Danticat’s mother tongue is Creole. Her family emigrated to Brooklyn when she was 12. Her breakthrough came when her 1994 novel Breath, Eyes, Memory became an Oprah’s Book Club selection. I have her 1998 novel, Farming of the Bones, on my shelf and will probably read that first.

●    2008 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Born and raised in Nigeria, Adichie attended college in the United States. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, was published in 2003. She was writer in residence at Wesleyan in 2008. Her second book, Half of a Yellow Sun, is about the Biafran War and is probably the one I would pick first to read. It won the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction.

●    2007 Stuart Dybek. Older at 68, Dybek was born in Chicago and still lives at teaches in the area. He is primarily a short story writer and has published two collections of poetry. I’m not a big fan of short stories, but I would probably be happy to dip into The Coast of Chicago, a 1990 collection, at some point.

●    2006 George Saunders. Another short story writer raised in Chicago, Saunders has an interesting background in environmental engineering. His stories are said to be satirical in the vein of Kurt Vonnegut, and he was writer in residence in Wesleyan in 2010. His collection CivilWarLand in Bad Decline has been optioned by Ben Stiller and I would probably start with that.

●    2005 Jonathan Lethem. A Brooklyn native, Lethem merges science fiction of the Philip K. Dick variety and detective fiction in what has been called a hip and postmodern way. I would probably start with Motherless Brooklyn, a prizewinning 1999 novel about a hero with Tourette’s syndrome who investigates a murder. Fortress of Solitude would be a second choice.

●    2004 Aleksandar Hemon. A native of Sarajevo, Hemon was already a published author in what was then Yugoslavia when he was stranded in the U.S. in 1992 when the Bosnian war broke out. Because he only learned English as an adult, Hemon has been compared to Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov. I had The Lazarus Project, a finalist for the National Book Award, sitting on my shelf for sometime and decided to pick it up because I liked the Yiyun Li book.

●    2003 Lydia Davis. A postmodernist short story writer who was once married to Paul Auster, Davis has some stories that are only one or two sentences long. She has been called the successor to Donald Barthelme, who I never liked. Not ruling her out, but I’m not likely to be in a rush to read her work.

●    2002 Colson Whitehead. A native New Yorker and a Harvard graduate, Whitehead wrote for the Village Voice after getting out of college. His first novel, The Intuitionist, published in 1999, was showered in praise, and his second novel, John Henry Days, also got a lot of notice. I’ve been curious about The Intuitionist, where a “colored” protagonist evaluates the safety of elevators through intuition, since it came out and would probably start with that.

●    2001 Andrea Barrett. A Massachusetts native and resident, Barrett has won a National Book Award and was shortlisted for a Pulitzer. I found the description of Servants of the Map, short stories about naturalists and maps (the Pulitzer finalist), so beguiling I ordered it and read it right away. Loved it, and it makes me think reading McArthur fellows is not such a bad idea. Adding Barrett’s Ship Fever and The Voyage of the Narwhal to my list.

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