Professor Wins Genius Grant
Published: Friday, October 5, 2012
Updated: Friday, October 5, 2012 02:10
Lannan Chair of Poetics Dinaw Mengestu (COL ’00) was honored with a MacArthur Genius Grant Tuesday.
MacArthur Fellows are chosen by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation each year based on their potential to make important contributions in the future. Winners receive a no-strings-attached $500,000 grant over a five-year period that allows them to dedicate themselves to their work.
Mengestu is one of this year’s 23 MacArthur Fellows, which include writers, scientists and musicians.
Mengestu said he was shocked to find out he was a fellow after receiving a call from the MacArthur Foundation two weeks ago.
“It feels heartstoppingly good,” he said. “It feels like finding you have an extra room in your studio apartment.”
A former writer-in-residence at the Lannan Center in 2007, Mengestu said the award will allow him to pursue his literary endeavors without worrying about funding.
“It means I can write the stories I want to write without having to worry if I have someone supporting me or not, which is less true about fiction but more true about non-fiction,” he said. “As a journalist I can write now freely. I can spend three months writing a story on someplace in Africa without having to worry about whether or not I have a magazine to fund it.”
In addition to his fictional pieces, which focus primarily on African immigrants, Mengestu has written articles on African conflicts in areas such as Sudan, eastern Congo and Uganda. He said that the MacArthur grant’s recognition gives his work additional clout.
“It validates what I write about. It says that the people I write and the way I write about them are important, that it’s worth writing about,” he said.
Director of the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice Henry Schwarz said the grant was the equivalent of a Nobel Prize.
“It’s surprising that he’s so young, but his career has been meteoric,” Schwarz said. “For Dinaw it could be a career-changing or life-changing event. He’s already done extraordinarily well, but this validates the achievement in a way that opens the future.”
College Dean Chester Gillis added that it was a privilege for the university to have Mengestu as both an alumnus and a teacher.
“The fact that we invited him back to teach as the Lannan Fellow is fortuitous, not anticipating that he would win the MacArthur fellowship, but he’s a wonderful teacher and a great novelist,” Gillis said. “The students whom he has are very fortunate to have someone of this caliber teaching in our classrooms.”
Mengestu is not the only Georgetown alumnus to receive the prestigious grant. Carol Padden (COL ’78) won a fellowship in 2010 for her work on sign language.
With the award, Mengestu will likely raise the Lannan Center’s profile.
“Great honor accrues around this award,” Schwarz said. “Our center already has a wonderful profile but this is so much icing on the cake – it’s another cake.”
Mengestu has not yet decided if he will remain at the university at the end of his yearlong chair position, though he said that he will likely stay.
“I think there’s a good chance I’ll stay a bit longer,” he said. “This is my alma mater. I’m very close to the university and it’s felt like home to me for a very long time.”