When MacArthur called, N. K. Jemisin figured it was spam.
She had been getting a lot of those kinds of calls lately — peddling car insurance and such — so she didn’t pick up. It took a text from someone at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to make her realize that she needed to answer the phone.
“I was delighted, excited, shocked, a whole bunch of other adjectives,” Ms. Jemisin, a speculative-fiction writer, said of her reaction after being told that she had been selected for a MacArthur fellowship.
Ms. Jemisin is no stranger to receiving major, career-altering awards. In 2016, she became the first African-American woman to win a Hugo Award for best novel (for the first book in her Broken Earth trilogy). Then, in 2018, she became the first author to win a Hugo for every novel in a trilogy. But this award, with its no-strings-attached grant of $625,000, has the potential to fundamentally change her writing process.
Ms. Jemisin, 48, said she typically writes under contract, meaning that her books are held to an agreed-upon timeline. But with the financial freedom that the grant offers, she said that she now has the option to forgo those strictures and write on her own schedule.
“I will write my books first and sell them as I feel like selling them,” she said. “It presents me with a lot of freedom.”
That freedom is particularly tantalizing as Ms. Jemisin writes the second book in her Great Cities series, which imagines her home of New York City as being represented by sentient human avatars. Over the past several months, the upheaval in New York has also upended the plot that she had imagined. (For one, she decided to move up a story point about the New York Police Department “going rogue and attacking the city.”)
Ms. Jemisin was announced on Tuesday as one of the 21 MacArthur fellows who are being honored this year for their “exceptional creativity” in a wide range of fields. Known colloquially as the “genius” grant (to the annoyance of the foundation, which sees “genius” as a much different concept than creativity), this year’s fellows include writers, performing artists, scientists and academics.
There is a wide range of specialties encompassed in the list. Catherine Coleman Flowers, 62, is an environmental activist focused on bringing attention to inadequate waste and water sanitation infrastructure in rural America. Nels Elde, 47, is an evolutionary geneticist who studies host-pathogen interactions. Jacqueline Woodson, 57, is a writer of children’s and young adult literature that centers on Black families.
[See the full list of MacArthur grant winners.]
The goal of the grant money, which is distributed over five years, is to give these luminaries a boost at a moment in their careers where it could make a difference. For Larissa FastHorse, a playwright focused on bringing Native American perspectives to theater, the grant gives her and her husband, who is a sculptor, a kind of financial security that they have not had before.
“We’re still just trying to grapple with the fact that everything won’t be a struggle,” said Ms. FastHorse, who is best known for writing “The Thanksgiving Play,” a satire about a drama teacher trying to organize a culturally sensitive Thanksgiving pageant.
Ms. FastHorse said the grant means that she can stop taking every writing job that will help pay their bills and focus more on the projects that are important to her.
Other fellows in the arts include Fred Moten, 58, a cultural theorist and poet; Ralph Lemon, 68, a dancer and choreographer who creates cross-disciplinary performances; Nanfu Wang, 34, a documentary filmmaker who directed the recent movie “One Child Nation”; and Cécile McLorin Salvant, a singer and composer who, at 31, is the youngest of the fellows.
The scientific contingent of the fellowship group also includes Paul Dauenhauer, 39, a chemical engineer focused on making products like plastic and rubber out of organic materials; Damien Fair, 44, a cognitive neuroscientist who studies how regions of the brain communicate with one another; and Polina V. Lishko, 46, a cellular and developmental biologist who is seeking new avenues for human infertility treatment.
To most recipients, the news comes as a shock. Potential fellows do not apply but are suggested by a network of hundreds of anonymous nominators across the country, and then selected by an anonymous committee of about a dozen. So, when the fellows get the call, they’re not always prepared for it.
Forrest Stuart, 38, a sociologist at Stanford University, happened to be in the shower at the time. He saw a call come in from a number from Chicago (where the MacArthur Foundation is based) and assumed it was from one of his contacts in the city, where he did ethnographic field work examining how social media has transformed the social organization of gangs. He often gets phone calls from young, gang-affiliated men, who sometimes call with bad news, which is why he hopped out of the shower to answer the phone.
After he realized the call from the MacArthur Foundation wasn’t a prank being played by one of his colleagues, the reality of what the recognition meant began to sink in.
In the field of sociology, Mr. Stuart said, ethnographic field work is sometimes looked down upon because it is not as data-focused as other approaches. But he sees that intimate, painstaking work of building relationships with communities — the kind of work that he did in Chicago — as critical to understanding broader trends.
“It’s a great recognition that I can share with my students,” he said of the award, “that the stuff we’re doing is important, it matters to the world.”
Like Mr. Stuart, many of the recipients work at universities, though fellows are not required to be connected to an institution.
For Natalia Molina, 49, a historian and an American studies professor at the University of Southern California, the grant gives her a bigger megaphone that she can use to promote her scholarship, which revolves around uncovering connections among different racial groups across history. For example, she said, the way Americans talk about undocumented Latino immigrants today can be compared with attitudes toward Chinese immigrants in the late 19th century.
“There is a lot to be learned from each other’s experiences,” Ms. Molina said. “What I try to do is make those connections more visible.”