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2012 ‘genius grants’ revealed

CHICAGO — Novelist Junot Diaz, writer Dinaw Mengestu and historian Dylan C. Penningroth are among 23 recipients of this year’s MacArthur Foundation “genius grants.”

The Chicago-based foundation awards $500,000 grants each year in a process shrouded with secrecy. Winners don’t know they’ve been nominated for the grants paid over five years until they win. Nominators must remain anonymous.

The grants, paid over five years, give recipients freedom to pursue a creative vision. Winners, who work in fields ranging from medicine and science to the arts and journalism, don’t have to report how they spend the money.

Northwestern University historian Penningroth said he now can expand his search for court records of property owned by slaves in the pre-Civil War South.

“This grant will make it possible for me to think big, to be more ambitious about the time period I cover and the questions I’m trying to answer, like, what’s the connection to the modern civil rights era?” Penningroth said.

For other winners — there have been 873 so far, including this year’s recipients — the grants bring prestige, confirmation and, in some cases, moments of profound reflection about life and fate.

“It left me thinking about my childhood,” said Diaz, who wrote the Pulitzer-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

“It would never have dawned on me to think such a thing was possible for me,” Diaz said, reflecting on his early years in New Jersey “struggling with poverty, struggling with English. … I came from a community that was about as hard-working as you can get and yet no one saw or recognized in any way our contributions or our genius. … I have to wonder, but for circumstances, how many other kids that I came up with are more worthy of this fellowship than me?”

According to the MacArthur Foundation website, Washington, D.C. writer Menegstu’s “novels and nonfiction pieces open a window into the little-explored world of the African diaspora in America.”

— Associated Press