Dinaw Mengestu, novelist, writer and 2000 Georgetown University graduate, received a call from the MacArthur Foundation two weeks ago notifying him that he had been awarded a half million-dollar MacArthur Fellowship ‘Genius’ Grant.
Mengestu, an Ethiopian immigrant to the United States, was at the literary Hay Festival Nairobi in Kenya when he received the call.
“I was just about to walk into the conference when the phone rang,” said Mengestu, who said he later broke into “joyous sobbing” over the surprise.
He “had to keep his mouth shut” until the Fellowship nominations of 23 individuals were made public this week.
Mengestu’s creative writing about the African diaspora and his American and detective journalism reporting on African conflicts like the war in Darfur published in Rolling Stone Magazine, Jane Magazine, Harpers, and The Wall Street Journal made him one of the anonymously nominated candidates for the grant.
Mengestu plans to use the $500,000 grant to further his work as a detective journalist covering African affairs. The half a million dollars will be given in four installments over five years with “no-strings-attached.”
MacArthur President Robert Gallucci said the fellowship candidates “demonstrate the power of creativity…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,” in a press release on Oct. 1.
Mengestu studied creative writing at Georgetown University and then went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction from Columbia University. He has written three novels on the African diaspora to America.
Mengestu’s first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, published in 2007, depicts the difficult life of an Ethiopian immigrant named Sepha Stephanos living in Washington, D.C. The novel won the 2007 Guardian First Book Award in England.
“Mengestu’s skillful sensitivity turned observations from his life into a broader narrative, earning him deserved accolades,” reported Miguel Syjuco of The New York Times on Oct. 8, 2010.
Excerpts from Mengestu’s second novel, How to Read the Air, were published in The New Yorker, and Mengestu’s third novel, All Our Names, is to be published by early 2014.
Mengestu began serving as Lannan Chair of Poetics of Georgetown University Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice and began teaching the course “The Writer’s Perspective” this fall.
Georgetown University English Professor, Carolyn Forche, left the Chair of Poetics position this year, but will return to the role next year.
“We’re immensely proud that our new Lannan Foundation Visiting Chair, Dinaw Mengestu, has been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship,” wrote Forche in an email to Patch on Tuesday. ”I would like to say that we were surprised by this news, but it is not at all surprising that such talent as his would be recognized in this way.”