On the record with GU professor Dinaw Mengestu, recipient of MacArthur “genius” grant
Though there may be plenty of uncertified prodigies roaming Georgetown’s halls, it’s rare that an alumnus actually gets recognized as a verified Genius. Dinaw Mengestu (C ’00), Georgetown’s Lannan Chair of Poetics, was announced on Monday as one of 23 recipients of a $500,000 “genius grant” of from the MacArthur Foundation.
What was your first reaction upon hearing that you’d won the grant?
I started sobbing, but then I was by myself so there was no one to share it with so I was just kind of left to absorb it. The main thing, though, is I think I felt a lot of responsibility. I found out in Kenya two weeks ago, and it felt fitting there because I was doing a literary festival promoting literacy. It was the last place I lived before I came to America, and it really felt like the best place to hear about the award because it means I can spend more time in Africa and see how I can help small publishing houses there in Nairobi.
How have things changed for you since you found out?
I have known for a while but it was a secret so nothing has changed, and now everyone else knows so I have people to share it with – friends, family, colleagues. It’s also given me the freedom as a journalist to fund a story and report it well without having to worry about a publication affording it on the other end.
How did you feel about winning alongside Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz?
I was really honored. It would have been embarrassing if I had and he hadn’t, honestly.
I know you were the only two novelists who won the grant. What do you think made you stand out among other novelists?
I have no idea. All my friends are novelists and are great novelists. I have no idea why they chose me instead of somebody else.
How did studying English at Georgetown help propel your writing career?
I became committed to writing at Georgetown, because by the time I graduated from Georgetown I was convinced I wanted to be a writer and a lot of my professors here encouraged me to do that, so I was really indebted to the university. The Lannan Fellows program, which I did as a senior, helped me learn how to write poetry and that’s been intrinsic in my writing.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
I don’t think writing is inspiration. I’ve always wanted to write because I love language, and I think it’s more about assembling narratives and characters. There’s never an “aha” moment where I wanted to write, because I’ve always wanted to write.
I know you’ve reported for Rolling Stone and other publications. How do you find the difference between being a novelist and being a journalist?
Normally after I do a lot of journalism, I feel the need to go back to writing fiction because journalism is emotionally draining in a way that fiction isn’t because I’m forced to confront really difficult stories and I can’t make them up, whereas with fiction, I can spend years in my head making up a story. A lot of it is a critical distance that I don’t need to have as a journalist. When you’re a journalist, you’re physically there and you’re forced to do things on a much more human scale.
Do you look at the world any differently when you’re writing for different media?
I don’t look at it differently. I wrote journalism because I was a novelist and because I wanted to have that meaty experience and now they’re so deeply entwined I don’t separate them. They’re all a part of my repertoire.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned over your writing career?
Show up every day – no one else cares, so you’re going to have to care.
I know you’ve finished your third novel, All Our Names. What’s next for you?
Teaching here, as far as I can say. Right now, I’m just focusing on being here.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give to an aspiring writer?
It has to be necessary. If it’s not necessary, there really isn’t much reason to do it.
Photo from Georgetown University