MacArthur ‘genius’ Fellows include Junot Diaz and Dinaw Mengestu

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On Monday, news of who would be named the 2012 MacArthur Fellows leaked out early in reports by the Associated Press and elsewhere. Two writers are among the 23 artists, scientists and thinkers on the list: Junot Diaz and Dinaw Mengestu.

Diaz is the author of, most recently, the short story collection “This Is How You Lose Her,” published in September. Mengestu’s most recent work is the 2010 novel “How to Read the Air.” Both are published by Riverhead.

Each author will receive a no-strings-attached “genius grant” of $500,000. All MacArthur Fellows are awarded $100,000 a year for five years.


Although the two writers will receive the same awards, they are at different places in their careers. After publishing the well-regarded short story collection “Drown,” Diaz worked for about a decade on his first novel. “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” made a splash and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

Mengestu has not yet achieved the same level of name recognition. That’s despite the fact that his work has been recognized for its excellence; his debut, “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears,” won the L.A. Times Book Prize for first fiction in 2007, and he was named one of the New Yorker’s 20 under 40 in 2010.

Congratulations to both authors. The complete list of MacArthur Fellows as reported by the Associated Press is below.

— Natalia Almada, 37, Mexico City. Documentary filmmaker who captures complex and nuanced views of Mexican history, politics and culture.

— Uta Barth, 54, Los Angeles. Conceptual photographer who explores the nature of vision and the difference between seen reality and how a camera records it.

— Claire Chase, 34, Brooklyn, N.Y. Arts entrepreneur who engages audiences in the appreciation of contemporary classical music and opens new avenues of artistic expression through her International Contemporary Ensemble.


— Raj Chetty, 33, Cambridge, Mass. Economist at Harvard University who studies how policy decisions affect real-world behavior.

— Maria Chudnovsky, 35, New York. Mathematician at Columbia University whose work is deepening the connections between graph theory and other major branches of mathematics, such as linear programming and geometry.

— Eric Coleman, 47, Denver. Geriatrician at University of Colorado School of Medicine who is improving health care by focusing on patient transitions from hospitals to homes and care facilities.

— Junot Díaz, 43, Cambridge, Mass. Fiction writer at MIT who uses raw, vernacular dialogue and spare, unsentimental prose to draw readers into the various and distinct worlds that immigrants must straddle.

— David Finkel, 56, Washington, D.C. Washington Post journalist whose long-form newswriting has transformed readers’ understanding of military service and sacrifice.

— Olivier Guyon, 36, Tucson, Ariz. Optical physicist and astronomer at University of Arizona who designs telescopes and other astronomical instrumentation that play a critical role in the search for Earth-like planets outside this solar system.


— Elissa Hallem, 34, Los Angeles. Neurobiologist at University of California, Los Angeles, who explores the physiology and behavioral consequences of odor detection in invertebrates and identifies interventions that may eventually reduce the scourge of parasitic infections in humans.

— An-My Le, 52, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. Photographer at Bard College who approaches the subjects of war and landscape from new perspectives to create images rich with layers of meaning.

— Sarkis Mazmanian, 39, Pasadena. Medical microbiologist at the California Institute of Technology who studies the role intestinal bacteria may play in a broad range of human diseases.

— Dinaw Mengestu, 34, Washington, D.C. Writer whose novels and nonfiction pieces enrich understanding of the little-explored world of the African diaspora in America.

— Maurice Lim Miller, 66, Oakland. Social services innovator who designs projects that reward and track self-sufficiency among residents of low-income neighborhoods in Oakland, San Francisco and Boston.

— Dylan C. Penningroth, 41, Evanston, Ill. Historian at Northwestern University who is unearthing evidence from scattered archives to shed light on shifting concepts of property ownership and kinship among African American slaves and their descendants.


— Terry Plank, 48, New York. Geochemist at Columbia University who probes the usually invisible but remarkably powerful thermal and chemical forces deep below the Earth’s crust that drive the motion of tectonic plate collisions.

— Laura Poitras, 48, New York. Documentary filmmaker revealing the consequences of military conflict abroad in documentaries that portray the lives and intimate experiences of families and communities largely inaccessible to the American media.

— Nancy Rabalais, 62, Chauvin, La. Marine ecologist at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium who documents the environmental and economic consequences of dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico.

— Benoit Rolland, 58, Boston. Stringed-instrument bow maker who experiments with new designs and materials to create violin, viola and cello bows that rival prized 19th century bows and meet the artistic demands of today’s musicians.

— Daniel Spielman, 42, New Haven, Conn. Computer scientist at Yale University who connects theoretical and applied computing to resolve issues in code optimization theory with real-world implications.

— Melody Swartz, 43, Lausanne, Switzerland. Bioengineer who enhances understanding of the dynamic processes of tissue vascularization and immune responses to tumor invasion using concepts and methods from biophysics, cell culture, molecular genetics, engineering and immunology.


— Chris Thile, 31, New York. Mandolinist and composer who is creating a new musical aesthetic and a distinctly American canon for the mandolin through a lyrical fusion of traditional bluegrass orchestrations with a range of styles and genres.

— Benjamin Warf, 54, Boston. Pediatric neurosurgeon at Children’s Hospital of Boston who is revolutionizing treatment of hydrocephalus and other intra-cranial diseases in young children and advancing standards of and access to health care in both the developed and poorest regions of the world.


Book review: “How to Read the Air” by Dinaw Mengestu

Book review: “This Is How You Lose Her” by Junot Diaz

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