2017’s Literary Geniuses

October 11, 2017 | 31 2 min read

The winners of this year’s MacArthur Fellowship “Genius grant” have been announced. The grant awards $625,000 with “no strings attached” to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Along with scientists, artists, community leaders, and social justice organizers, there are new geniuses from the literary world. Here are this year’s literary fellows:

covercoverViet Thanh Nguyenthe cultural critic, scholar, and fiction writer—won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his debut novel, The SympathizerIn Claire Mussad‘s 2015 Year in Reading, she described Nguyen’s first novel as “rich, surprising, and often darkly funny.” Nguyen often writes about the Vietnam War—attempting to portray a more balanced, complete portrait of it and its aftermath—and the way war reverberates in our lives and memory. You can read Nguyen’s Year in Reading which included works by Helen MacdonaldVu Tran, and 2016 MacArthus Genuis Claudia Rankine (he felt “pinned down by the power of [her] language, politics, and vision”). His 2016 nonfiction book, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, was a National Book Award Finalist. His newest book, a collection of short stories called The Refugees, was included in our Great 2017 Book Preview.

covercoverJesmyn Ward, novelist, writes extensively about the lives of African Americans in the rural south. Ward’s newest novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, is a 2017 National Book Award Finalist for Fiction (her previous novel Salvage the Bones (2011) won the same award).  The novel, which mixes the real and magical in rural Mississippi, follows Jojo—a 13-year-old of mixed race—and his drug addicted mother as they drive to pick his father up from prison. Our review described Ward’s newest novel as an exploration of the “legacy of trauma” in a deeply divided society “where the oppressor and the oppressed share a legacy.” In an interview with The Millions, Ward said that she is constantly thinking about the intersection of race, violence, the South, and the ways history “bears on the present.” She said, “I’m always thinking about how black people survive. How people are marginalized in the South and the way they still survive that oppression.”

The single playwright among the fellows is Annie Baker, coverwho won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “The Flick,” which follows three employees at a run-down movie theater in Massachusetts. The foundation describes her work as “exploring the complexities of human behavior and the ways in which language is often inadequate to build true understanding between people.”

Nikole Hannah-Jones works as a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine where she investigates racial injustice. In 2015, she helped found the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, which seeks to increase investigative opportunities for reporters and editors of color. She writes extensively about segregation and integration, particularly in education, for ProPublicaNPR, and The New York Times Magazine. Her piece, “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City,” is part-memoir, part-reported piece that reveals “school segregation is not an isolated phenomenon but rather a defining factor of most cities across the country.”

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