Pulitzer-Winner Junot Diaz Gets $500,000 MacArthur Grant

Junot Diaz
Junot Diaz, a 2012 MacArthur Fellows recipient, is the author of "Drown" and "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." Photographer: Tsar Fedorsky/Home Front Communications via Bloomberg

While in Chicago last month promoting his latest book, fiction writer Junot Diaz was invited to visit the offices of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Diaz figured that staff members at the nonprofit wanted just to talk to him about possibly nominating future candidates for its coveted “genius” awards. Instead, Daniel Socolow, the MacArthur Fellows program director, walked Diaz into a conference room and told him that he was a winner of one of the $500,000 grants.

“I guess I’m going to try to write a crazy monster book now,” said Diaz, 43, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008 for his novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” “This award grants me extraordinary leeway.”

Diaz, the Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Writing and Humanistic Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the prize will allow him to spend more time at the computer and less time teaching. He’ll still take his time writing the next manuscript as he has done with past works.

Diaz put 11 years into completing “Oscar Wao” after publishing his debut fiction work in 1996, “Drown.” His new book is a collection of short stories titled “This Is How You Lose Her.”

“I have to make my characters’ family before they can address me,” he said. “I have to be steeped in them a very long time. I’m counting on having more time, which I will need for this next book.”

Chris Thile

Among the 22 other recipients of the grants, which are paid in quarterly installments over five years with no conditions, was mandolin player Chris Thile. At 31, he is the youngest MacArthur Fellow this year.

A genre-hopping musician with roots in bluegrass, Thile has composed for symphony orchestras and recorded with Yo-Yo Ma. The award citation said he was chosen for creating “a distinctly American canon for the mandolin and a new musical aesthetic for performers and audiences alike.”

“My first reaction when I got the news was: Good God, I really have to do something great now,” Thile said by phone. “I don’t want to be the dud on the list.”

Dinaw Mengestu

Other winners in the arts include Natalia Almada, a 37-year-old filmmaker whose work focuses on history, politics and culture; Claire Chase, 34, executive director of the Brooklyn-based International Contemporary Ensemble; An-My Le, 52, a photographer and professor at Bard College in New York; the Ethiopia-born Dinaw Mengestu, 34, a Washington-based novelist whose writings have explored the African diaspora; and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, whose work has explored the consequences of military conflict.

Uta Barth, 54, a conceptual photographer in Los Angeles, said the award will allow her to cut back on time spent teaching, focus more on her art and allow her to digitally archive her past works.

“I am incredibly grateful and also humbled knowing the company I am in,” Barth said in an e-mail. “The incredible financial generosity of this award took more than a week to sink in.”

Computer Science

Scientists were also well-represented among the winners. Daniel Spielman, 42, a professor of theoretical computer science at Yale University, was chosen for research that could affect how the environment and behavior can be measured and regulated.

Other MacArthur Fellows in the sciences include: Eric Coleman, 47, a geriatrician at University of Colorado School of Medicine; Sarkis Mazmanian, 39, a medical microbiologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena; Terry Plank, 48, a Columbia University geochemist; and Nancy Rabalais, 62, a marine ecologist at Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium.

John D. MacArthur owned and developed Bankers Life & Casualty Co. (now a unit of CNO Financial Group Inc.) and had numerous real-estate holdings in New York and Florida. His wife, Catherine, served as a director of the foundation and held positions in many of his companies.

For a complete list of the winners, please go to http://www.macfound.org.

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