- Associated Press - Thursday, September 22, 2016

NEW YORK (AP) - Gene Luen Yang, a prize-winning author and the national ambassador for young people’s literature, and Claudia Rankine, one of poetry’s brightest and most innovative stars, are among this year’s 23 MacArthur fellows and recipients of the so-called “genius” grants.

The fellows were announced Thursday by the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which gives each honoree $625,000 over five years to spend any way he or she pleases, with no strings attached. More than 900 people have received the grants since 1981, with previous fellows including “Hamilton” playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda, author-journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates and dancer-choreographer Merce Cunningham. Fellows, brought to the foundation’s attention by an anonymous pool of nominators, do not apply for the money and are not informed they’ve been chosen until shortly before the awards are announced.

The idea behind the grants is to give people of “exceptional creativity” the “flexibility” to further pursue their ideas and projects.

“While our communities, our nation, and our world face both historic and emerging challenges, these 23 extraordinary individuals give us ample reason for hope,” MacArthur President Julia Stasch said in a statement. “They are breaking new ground in areas of public concern, in the arts, and in the sciences, often in unexpected ways. Their creativity, dedication, and impact inspire us all.”

Yang is an acclaimed graphic novelist whose books include “American Born Chinese,” which in 2006 became the first novel of its kind to receive a National Book Award nomination. Earlier this year, he was appointed young people’s literature ambassador by the Library of Congress. In an email to The Associated Press, he said he hoped the grant money would enable him to have a private work space. “Practically speaking, I haven’t had a studio for a while now. For the past few years, I’ve been working at local cafes and from a corner in my bedroom,” he told the AP.

Rankine is best known for her book-length tapestry of poems, prose and images about racism, “Citizen: An American Lyric,” a 2014 release which won the National Book Critics Circle prize and several other honors. More than 100,000 copies are in print, a remarkable total for poetry. During a recent telephone interview, Rankine said she planned to use at least some of the money to open a performing-creative-educational space in Manhattan that would challenge “the discourse that created this internalized hierarchy in white people.”

“We need a space where we can get together and put pressure on the language,” she said.

The foundation also selected author Maggie Nelson, New Yorker staff writer Sarah Stillman, composer Julia Wolfe, theater artist and educator Anne Basting and playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.

“I’ve had a very fortuitous year and I almost think I’ve learned the definition of an embarrassment of riches,” Jacobs-Jenkins said Thursday by phone. “I just feel like I’m in shock and I’m trying to understand what’s happening to me. I’m very happy to have it happen to me, whatever it is.”

Just 31, the Princeton-educated Jacobs-Jenkins has made a name for himself as an inventive theater writer. Two of his works tied for Obie Awards for Best American Play, and his play “An Octoroon” was finalist for The Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History.

His works include “Neighbors,” in which a family of minstrels in blackface moves in next to a contemporary mixed-race family; “Appropriate,” where a white family discovers its racist past; and “Gloria,” about a group of catty editorial assistants at a magazine whose lives change on a random day.

Jacobs-Jenkins learned of the MacArthur grant a few weeks ago in a phone call. “I was convinced I was hallucinating it for a while and then I happened to run into my college roommate and the street who confirmed to me that there was, in fact, a phone number in my recent call list,” he said.

Others chosen ranged from financial service innovator Jose A. Quinonez and human rights attorney Ahilan Arulanantham to linguist Daryl Baldwin and bioengineer Rebecca Richards-Kortum.

Also announced Thursday were computer scientists Subhash Khot and Bill Thies, synthetic chemist Jin-Quan Yu and biologist-inventor Manu Prakash, microbiologist Dianne Newman and geobiologist Victoria Orphan. Other fellows are sculptor Vincent Fecteau, art historian and curator Kellie Jones, cultural historian Josh Kun, author-writer Lauren Redniss, jewelry maker and sculptor Joyce J. Scott and video artist Mary Reid Kelley.


AP Drama Writer Mark Kennedy contributed to this report.

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