NEWARK, NJ - John Keene was on his way to the post office when the call came. The Rutgers University-Newark professor and author was in disbelief.
“I said about three or four times, ‘Is this real?’” Keene remembered.
It was. The caller informed Keene he had just received a $625,000 MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called “genius grant.” This no-strings-attached award is given each year to about 25 people who show exceptional creativity, originality, insight and potential across an array of fields. Recipients are nominated anonymously and considered by an anonymous selection committee.
The MacArthur Foundation isn’t very keen on calling recipients of the fellowship geniuses, and, neither is Keene.
“God, no. That’s bizarre,” the author responded when asked about carrying the weight of the title “genius” now. “I wouldn’t use a term like that about myself.”
Instead, the foundation emphasizes that the award is given to those who show extraordinary creativity. Keene, an author of two novels, certainly fits the bill.
His 1995 semi-autobiographical novel, "Annotations," tells the story of an African-American child growing up during the 1970s in St. Louis, exploring questions of identity from many angles, including race to social class to sexuality. His second book, "Counternarratives" is a series of short stories that puts a spin on historical events and figures from as far back as the 1600’s.
Keene also published poetry in "Seismosis," "GRIND" and “Playland” and has translated a novel from Portuguese.
His work, according to Rutgers-Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor, reflects on the past while capturing important issues facing the nation at present. She couldn’t have been more excited to hear of Keene’s recognition too.
“It’s hard to imagine someone more deserving of this award than John,” Cantor in a statement.
“The work he has been doing for years at the intersection of history, race, memory, voice, presence, and absence encapsulates some of the most critical issues we are facing today in our nation and in the world—as well as the core of what Rutgers-Newark is all about. We could not be more thrilled that he is being recognized in this way.”
Keene, a Jersey City resident, is the chair of the Department of African American and African Studies at Rutgers-Newark. He teaches English and African American studies and is also a professor in the graduate creative writing program.
The key to Keene’s writing is part reading, researching and, of course, imagination. All the research in the world, however, is not going to answer the question of what it actually feels to live in another time, Keene explained. That’s where his creative side comes in.
“We’re all human,” he said of his work. “That’s the most powerful thing literature reinforces over and over.”
Much like the character in his first book, Keene grew up in St. Louis. He had a love for reading, writing and even drawing at a young age, but didn't think it was possible to be an author until he attended Harvard University.
There, he began to meet other writers. He took a class with the famed poet and author Ishmael Reed, who in 1998 received a MacArthur Fellowship too.
Keene also joined a group of young writers while in Cambridge, Mass., known as the Dark Room Collective, which consisted of burgeoning African American writers who would write and read together. The group eventually blossomed to included different forms of art and moved from a living room to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.
“That was another kind of education in writing,” he said of his writers’ collective days. He would later go on to earn his MFA from New York University.
Now, Keene is not too sure what he will do with the money he received from the fellowship. The grant isn't necessarily a lifetime achievement award. Rather, the goal of the program is to enable recipients to use their creative instincts to benefit society.
“I love teaching, I love my students, I love my colleagues,” he said. “I have some things to figure out. I have to think more about the work, what people are writing and talking about and dreaming about.”
Keene said getting his work published hasn’t been easy and feels very fortunate about where he is today. His advice to any would-be writers who think that their craft will not result in a big paycheck or much notoriety was this:
“The most important thing is to read as much as you can, work on your writing, to try to engage in your community with people who you can share your work with and learn from. And also realize there’s no guarantee.
“If you are a creative person, to have faith in yourself and faith in your readers. And of course, just never give up.”
Twenty-four others received $625,000 from the MacArthur Foundation. Their work came from fields including science, music, law, math, filmmaking and journalism.