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Georgetown Alumnus, Poetics Chair Wins MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant

October 2, 2012 – Award-winning author Dinaw Mengestu (C’00), Georgetown’s Lannan Chair of Poetics, has won a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation.

The foundation officially announced today that Mengestu, author of the widely lauded The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (Riverhead, 2008) and How to Read the Air (Riverhead, 2010), is among this year’s 23 MacArthur Fellows.

Mengestu is the second Georgetown alumnus to receive a MacArthur grant in just two years. Carol Padden (C'78) won the award in 2010 for her research on sign languages.

MacArthur Fellowship recipients receive a phone call “out of the blue” that they will each receive $500,000 in no-strings-attached support over the next five years.

Mengestu was headed to a press conference during the literary Hay Festival Nairobi in Kenya when he received the call from the foundation.

Profound Validation

“Personally, I feel [the award] is a profound validation that the things and the people I write about are valid and deserve to be written about,” he says. “Just writing about … people who were half African, migrants or immigrants ... confirms that they are much more than that.

“They are a part of this cultural literary tradition in America,” adds Mengestu, who began his one-year term as Georgetown’s Lannan Chair of Poetics this fall. “I think this award acknowledges that they are a part of our literary heritage now.”

Extraordinary Individuals

The author’s first two novels are about the Ethiopian immigrant experience, and he is finishing up a third novel.

All Our Names is set in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States and in a so far unnamed African country at a point when optimism from independence starts fading into violence and totalitarian governments.

Mengestu is recognized by the foundation along with a diverse group of recipients that include a pediatric neurosurgeon, a marine ecologist, a journalist, an optical physicist, a stringed-instrument bow maker and an arts entrepreneur.

Each year, the MacArthur Foundation selects fellows based on their creativity, originality and potential to make important contributions in the future.

“These extraordinary individuals demonstrate the power of creativity," said Robert Gallucci, president of the MacArthur Foundation, and former dean of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. “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.”

GREAtest freedom

“I think the grant will give me more freedom to do more long-form literary essays without worrying about the resources to do them,” says the newly minted MacArthur Fellow. “It’s the greatest freedom as a writer, but you also feel a sense of responsibility to come up with something that merits the award.”

Mengestu hopes the fellowship will allow him more time to directly contribute to literacy in Africa – particularly East Africa, the region of his native country, Ethiopia.

He hopes to do that through events such as the literary festival he attended in Nairobi, where he taught two classes, gave a reading and a talk.

“I’m not sure what form my work will take, but I think that’s the next part for me,” he says. “I want to figure out how to translate [my] literary work into something actual that gives back to the community directly.”

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