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Former University professor wins Genius Grant

Writer John Keene awarded $625,000 grant through MacArthur Foundation

Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Jersey City, NJ. Sept 18th 2018. John Keene writer shot in and around Jersey City for the John D. and Catherine T. Macarthur Foundation.

When writer and former University professor John Keene received a call from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, he thought they were going to ask him for his opinion on other writers. Instead, they told him that he had won a MacArthur Fellowship ­— a $625,000 award to pursue his work with no strings attached.  “I just didn’t believe them,” Keene said. “I’m still actually in a state of astonishment.”

The MacArthur Fellowship — often called the Genius Grant — famously keeps members of its selection committee confidential and does not accept applications for the award. Keene was publicly named a fellow by the foundation Oct. 4, the New York Times reported.

Keene taught undergraduate creative writing courses as a visiting professor at the University during the 2001-02 academic year. He is now the chair of the Department of African American and African Studies and a professor of English and African American studies at Rutgers University Newark.

Keene was “a wonderful presence among us as a writer, professor and colleague,” in his time at the University, wrote Professor of Literary Arts Carole Maso in an email to The Herald. “His rethinking of the stories we tell ourselves about race and sexuality are filled with intelligence, grace, originality and beauty,” Maso wrote. “I can think of no better recipient of the MacArthur than John.”

In 2015, Keene published “Counternarratives,” a collection of short stories and novellas that the New York Times called “quietly acclaimed and undersung.” The book depicts re-conceptualized versions of true and fictional events which occurred throughout the Americas from the 17th century to the present.Writing the book “took a long time because (some of) the stories … were very challenging to write, and just getting the time and support to work on the collection was a challenge, too,” Keene said. “But it all came together.”

Keene also enjoys writing about people who are not usually centered in historical narratives, such as people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

“Representation ends up helping to shape the public discourse about who we are, what our society is like (and) what possibilities are open to people,” Keene said. “But also it shapes our interiority profoundly, and so it is absolutely crucial to have a range of representations.”

When writing, Keene said he aims to “pick the genre that’s appropriate for the work,” from poetry to fiction or hybrid text.

“No one’s writing like him,” said Forrest Gander, a professor emeritus of literary arts and comparative literature. Keene’s writing is “intellectual, conceptual, and at the sentence level it’s thrilling, and that combination of qualities is unique,” he added.

Gander said he was thrilled when he found out about Keene’s designation as a MacArthur Fellow.

“He really deserves it,” Gander said. “Often writers that work in more than one genre and who are taking a great deal of risk with (their) work as his does … don’t get as much attention as more mainstream writers.”

Keene said his year teaching at the University “was a really formative time … I had amazing students. Brown students are brilliant and incredibly creative and they pushed me.”

University faculty encouraged Keene to be more experimental in his writing, he added. “Even though I was teaching, I was learning from my colleagues and my students.”

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