Yesterday the wide world learned that novelist and journalist Dinaw Mengestu was one of this year’s 23 MacArthur Fellows—-recipients of so-called “genius grants.” But Mengestu himself has had the better part of two weeks to ponder the prize, and after keeping the news to himself for a while, he’s enjoying being able to talk about it. “The past 24 hours have been a bit hectic, but it actually been kind of a relief to be sure that you didn’t just invent this and that it’s real,” he says.
Mengestu is the author of two fine novels, 2007’s D.C.-set The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, and 2010’s How to Read the Air (which made my top 10 list of books for the year), both stories largely about African immigrants building new lives in America. He’s recently moved back to D.C. from Paris to teach at Georgetown—-audio of a Sept. 25 lecture at the Lannan Center went online yesterday—-but he received the good news well away from the District. He was in Nairobi, Kenya, for a literary festival, and he says he’s thinking about how he can use the prize to help support publishing in Africa.
“It felt like the best place to hear about the award,” Mengestu says. “I was there with a couple of friends who have a small publishing house in Nairobi, and we were talking about ways to encourage the growth of indigenous publishing inside of Africa…and what we can do to grow the small houses that they are already a part of. [The fellowship] definitely feels like it’s going to be attached to that. It means I can spend more time in Africa to see how I can help that process.”
Mengestu has reported on Africa for Rolling Stone and Granta, and he’s hoping the award allows him to spend more time as a journalist. “It gives me the freedom to fund a story, to go to someplace and spend the time that it takes to report it well without having to worry about whether there’s a publication that can afford it on the other end,” he says. “For a journalist, that’s definitely the greatest thing.”
As for fiction, his third novel has been done for nearly three months. The book is split between Africa and the United States around the early ’70s, tracking the disillusionment that followed in the wake of political movements on both continents. “In some ways it’s the coda for the first two books, a novel that I feel wraps up the strings between what was happening in The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and How to Read the Air.” Titled All Our Names, the novel is tentatively scheduled to be published in late 2013.