Cartoonist Gene Luen Yang, author of the YA graphic novels American Born Chinese and Boxers and Saints, both nominated for National Book Awards, was among 23 recipients of this year’s MacArthur fellowships – the so-called Genius Grants.
Yang and the other MacArthur fellows will receive $625,000 over the course of five years, with “no strings attached.” The fellowship is awarded to “individuals who show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future.” The grants are designed to give the recipients “flexibility to pursue their own artistic, intellectual, and professional activities,” according to the foundation’s guidelines.
In addition to being an acclaimed graphic novel artist, Yang was named National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature in January, a two-year position that focuses on highlighting the importance of young people’s literature and reading. In addition, Yang has recently launched a Reading Without Walls Challenge, an effort to encourage young readers to read books they otherwise would not.
Reached by phone in Washington D.C., where he is preparing to appear at the National Book Festival, Yang told PW that getting the MacArthur Fellowship has been “mind-numbing.” He received the call informing him of the award three weeks ago, while sitting in his car in his driveway preparing to drive to his studio to work. “When they told me, that was the end of work for that day,” he said.
“On the call they tell you all the details about the fellowship, and they read you a bio that they’ve written about you,” he said. The Foundation also arranges a video shoot of the Fellow talking about their works, which took Yang a day to shoot at Flying Colors Comics, a shop near his home in California. “They don’t ask you to do anything else after that,” said Yang, still sounding a bit incredulous.
The Fellows also receive $625,000 over five years. Yang said he’ll use some of the money on his family—he’s got four children—and will likely use some of the money to support the reading programs he oversees as the current National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.
Yang is the third graphic novelist to receive a MacArthur Fellowship: Alison Bechdel (2014) and Ben Katchor (2000) have also received the grant. (2016 Fellow Lauren Redniss, who creates eccentric visual narratives, is not categorized as a graphic novelist). Yang said his grant shows that comics have “turned a corner. It shows that comics are growing by leaps and bounds and that it's going to keep growing. Comics have solidified their place in the intellectual life of the country.”