Three prominent Black female authors in science fiction, young adult literature and essay writing are among the 21 winners of this year’s MacArthur Foundation “genius grants.”
N.K. Jemisin, the speculative fiction writer of the “Broken Earth” trilogy; Jacqueline Woodson, the author of children’s and young adult books including “Brown Girl Dreaming” and “The Other Side”; and Tressie McMillan Cottom, the author of the essay collection “Thick” were all named as 2020 MacArthur fellows.
The honor comes with a $625,000, no-strings-attached award paid out over five years. Since 1981, more than 1,000 people have earned the acclaim, including best-selling author Ta-Nehisi Coates and “Hamilton” playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Cecilia Conrad, the MacArthur Fellows managing director, praised the 2020 class of winners in a statement.
“In the midst of civil unrest, a global pandemic, natural disasters, and conflagrations, this group of 21 exceptionally creative individuals offers a moment for celebration,” Conrad said. “They are asking critical questions, developing innovative technologies and public policies, enriching our understanding of the human condition, and producing works of art that provoke and inspire us.”
One of those winners is Jemisin, 48, who won the Hugo Award for Best Novel from 2016 to 2018 for each of her books in the “Broken Earth” trilogy. Her most recent novel, “The City We Became,” imagines a New York City in which human avatars represent each city borough and features LGBTQ and non-White main characters.
In an interview with CNN Style earlier this year, she said she writes from her own perspective – just like any other author.
“I’m not doing anything different than what those old white men with beards living in middle America are doing with their fantasy stories,” she said. “They’re interjecting their white dude ethics and aesthetics into what they write, and I’m doing the same thing with my fiction. The only difference is that our society is configured to see one of those things as perfectly normal, and the other as pathology.”
As one of the most recognized Black female writers in fantasy, she has pressed the industry to promote works outside of the straight White male norm.
“Fantasy is enhanced by having different voices. But I’ve always said that Black and female and queer writers will know when we have arrived when our work doesn’t have to be exceptional. When our mediocre wish fulfillment fantasies get published as often as the white dudes’ fantasies get published,” she said.
The MacArthur Foundation praised her for “pushing against the conventions of epic fantasy and science fiction genres while exploring deeply human questions about structural racism, environmental crises, and familial relationships.”
Woodson, 57, has published nearly 30 works, including picture books, young adult novels and poetry, featuring the experiences of Black people, the foundation said.
“I write books that I hope young people can see themselves inside of and see their experiences inside of,” Woodson said. “And if they can’t, hopefully they’ll see other experiences.”
The MacArthur Foundation said they named her a fellow for “redefining children’s and young adult literature to encompass more complex issues and reflect the lives of Black children, teenagers, and families.”
Tressie McMillan Cottom, 43, is a sociologist, author and public scholar who works as an associate professor at the UNC School of Information and Library Science.
In her essay book, “Thick” – a National Book Award finalist – in her podcast with Roxane Gay and in her popular Twitter account, she explores issues around Black womanhood in American life.
“Public discourse benefits when we have a deeper, richer set of discursive tools to talk about social problems,” she said. “And my hope is that that will socialize and condition a listener to expect the voice of authority or the voice of expertise to be a complex, African American woman’s voice.”
The MacArthur Foundation said she was “shaping discourse on highly topical issues at the confluence of race, gender, education, and digital technology for broad audiences.”
Here’s the full list of 2020 winners:
- Isaiah Andrews, econometrician
- Tressie McMillan Cottom, sociologist, writer and public scholar
- Paul Dauenhauer, chemical engineer
- Nels Elde, evolutionary geneticist
- Damien Fair, cognitive neuroscientist
- Larissa FastHorse, playwright
- Catherine Coleman Flowers, environmental health advocate
- Mary L. Gray, anthropologist and media scholar
- N.K. Jemisin, speculative fiction writer
- Ralph Lemon, artist
- Polina V. Lishko, cellular and developmental biologist
- Thomas Wilson Mitchell, property law scholar
- Natalia Molina, American historian
- Fred Moten, cultural theorist and poet
- Cristina Rivera Garza, fiction writer
- Cécile McLorin Salvant, singer and composer
- Monika Schleier-Smith, experimental physicist
- Mohammad R. Seyedsayamdost, biological chemist
- Forrest Stuart, sociologist
- Nanfu Wang, documentary filmmaker
- Jacqueline Woodson, writer