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Alum Known for Novels of Distant Future Earns MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’

Through Speculative Fiction, Lauded Author N.K. Jemisin M.Ed. ’97 Turns Lens on Present-day Inequality

By Maryland Today Staff

N.K. Jemisin M.Ed. ’97 portrait

Photo by John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Author N.K. Jemisin M.Ed. '97, shown in her home city of New York, was named a MacArthur fellow, an honor that includes a no-strings-attached $625,000 grant designed to allow promising writers, artists, scientists, musicians and others the freedom to follow their creative urges.

Author N.K. Jemisin M.Ed. ’97, the first writer to win the Hugo Award for best science fiction or fantasy work three years in a row, has been named a 2020 MacArthur Foundation fellow and a recipient of a no-strings-attached $625,000 “genius grant.”

She is one of 21 MacArthur fellows this year—a group that also includes conductor Marin Alsop, recently appointed the first music director of the University of Maryland’s National Orchestral Institute + Festival—along with other scientists, scholars, artists and engineers chosen for their exceptional creativity and potential for making important advances with the aid of the grant money. 

Jemisin’s work, including her Hugo Award-winning “Broken Earth Trilogy,” is often set in precisely imagined alternate worlds or future visions of Earth, where race, caste and other carryovers from our own society deeply influence the lives and struggles of her characters. 

Her most recent novel, “The City We Became,” tells a story of present-day New York, Jemisin’s home base, in which the five boroughs are represented by personified avatars. Although not intended as polemics—she says she’s just telling the kind of stories she wishes someone had written for her—her books can’t help but reflect her experiences as a Black woman in America.

“Marginalized people writing about marginalized lives is sometimes perceived as groundbreaking, or challenging, or threatening, because we live in a world in which women and Black people are inherently politicized,” she said in a video interview with the MacArthur Foundation.

Jemisin, who studied in the UMD College of Education's Department of Counseling, Higher Education, and Special Education, has since grappled with the often-white male power structures in sci-fi and speculative fiction publishing and has spoken of the limitations of being a contract author. She told The New York Times that she would use the grant to pursue the writing that is most meaningful to her.

“I will write my books first and sell them as I feel like selling them,” she told the Times. “It presents me with a lot of freedom.”

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