Junot Diaz and other writers are awarded MacArthur genius grants

Pulitzer Prize-winner Junot Diaz, reporter David Finkel, and writer Dinaw Mengestu were honored by the MacArthur Foundation, each receiving a $500,000 grant.

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    Recipients of the MacArthur genius grants included David Finkel (l.), Dinaw Mengestu (center), and Junot Diaz (r.).
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Two writers and a journalist-cum-author are among the 23 academics, artists, and scientists awarded MacArthur “genius” grants this week: Dominican-American Pulitzer-Prize winning writer Junot Diaz, Ethiopian-born writer Dinaw Mengestu, and David Finkel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post journalist specializing in military service and sacrifice.

Along with a pediatric neurosurgeon, mandolinist, geochemist, economist, photographer, mathematician and others, these writers were chosen “for their creativity, originality, and potential to make important contributions in the future,” according to the MacArthur Foundation. Each will receive a $500,000 no-strings-attached grant over the next five years to allow them “unprecedented freedom and opportunity to reflect, create, and explore.”

The Foundation said Dominican-born Diaz offers “powerful insight into the realities of the Caribbean diaspora, American assimilation, and lives lived between cultures” in his Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” and two short story collections, “Drown” and “This Is How You Lose Her.” (Here's our review of “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.")

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Called “vibrant and soulful,” “screamingly funny,” and “always searching,” Diaz is known for introducing American readers to largely ignored and overlooked communities of immigrants, especially Dominicans, through his raw, vernacular-laden books. The author reveals the immigrant life, said the Foundation in its award announcement, by creating “nuanced and engaging characters struggling to succeed and often invisible in plain sight to the American mainstream.”

Diaz, himself once “invisible in plain sight,” once lived in an apartment with “almost no furniture and garbage bags for window shades…I was going nuts from my lack of success,” he told the Barnes and Noble Review, as reported by Chapter & Verse.

“It would never have dawned on me to think such a thing was possible for me,” Diaz told Fox News Latino. “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?”

He called the award “transformational" and said “It allows you to focus on your art with very little other concerns,” he said, as reported by the Guardian. “It’s kind of like a big blast of privilege.”

Thirty-four-year-old Mengestu is also known for writing about the immigrant experience and the African diaspora. Author of novels “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears” and “How to Read Air,” Mengestu was awarded the 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,” said the Foundation.

“The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears,” his debut novel about Ethiopian immigrants forging a new life in Washington, D.C., won the L.A. Times Book Prize for first fiction in 2007 and Mengestu was named one of the New Yorker’s 20 under 40 in 2010.

“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,” Mengestu said of the award. “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.”

Washington Post journalist David Finkel is author of “The Good Soldiers,” for which he spent eight months embedded with an American Army infantry battalion that went to Iraq as part of the American troop “surge” in 2007.

“His work is typically the product of months of grueling reporting from remote and harsh locales – Kosovo, Iraq, Yemen, Central and South America and parts of the United States,” writes the Washington Post.

Finkel pushes “beyond the constraints and conventions of traditional news writing” to produce stories “that heighten the reality of military service and sacrifice in the  public consciousness,” said the Foundation. “As newspapers continue to contract and move away from immersion-based, long-form reporting, Finkel remains committed to crafting sustained narratives with an uncommon candor that brings poorly understood events and ordeals” to public attention.

“They’re not just endorsing my work in particular but a type of journalism,” Finkel told the Post. “I like to think this is an endorsement of long-form journalism, in which you stay long enough to tell the story.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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