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Two L.A. Writers Win MacArthur 'Genius' Grants

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Maggie Nelson and Josh Kun (Photos courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)
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On Wednesday night, the winners of one of America's most prestigious—and mysterious—awards were announced: the newest class of MacArthur "Genius" Fellowships. The so-called genius grants, bestowed on individuals who show exceptional “originality, insight and potential,” come with a no-strings-attached award of $625,000 and endless bragging rights. Five of the 23 indivudals anointed by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation this year were from Los Angeles, including writers Josh Kun and Maggie Nelson.

Author, cultural historian, and USC professor Josh Kun's work has focused on cross-cultural exchange through popular culture, with particular attention to racial identity in music, as well as the history of our fair city.

"The MacArthur Foundation confirms what everyone in L.A. already knew about Josh: he's a creative genius," Nathan Masters, an L.A. historian and host of Lost LA (a KCET and USC Libraries-produced documentary series), told LAist.

Even if you don't know his name, you've likely come across two of Kun's biggest projects, To Live and Dine in LA: Menus and the Making of the Modern City and Songs in the Key of Los Angeles. The former looked at the vibrant history of eating in L.A., and the latter drew on the Los Angeles Public Library’s collection of Southern California sheet music from the 1840s to the 1950s; both projects produced books, as well as exhibitions and numerous public events.

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"Through projects like To Live and Dine in LA and Songs in the Key of LA, Josh has pioneered new ways to bring the raw stuff of L.A. history—library collections and archives - to life in ways that are relevant and engaging to all Angelenos. For anyone who works with Southern California history professionally, his work is a ever-flowing fount of inspiration," Masters said.

Essayist Maggie Nelson transcends the ordinary boundaries between the personal and the intellectual. Her work delves into pressing issues with a deep lyricism and an unblinking commitment to higher truths. She won a 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award for The Argonauts, a probing work that blended memoir and critical theory to explore the meaning and limitations of language, love, and gender (read the first chapter here!). At its core, the book is a love story, centering on Nelson's relationship with the fluidly gendered artist Harry Dodge, and the joys and complexities of "genderqueer family making."

Three other Angelenos were also awarded MacArthur grants: Ahilan Arulanantham, an attorney working to secure the right to due process for individuals facing deportation; Victoria Orphan, a geobiologist whose research sheds new light on microbial communities in extreme environments; and Dianne Newman, a microbiologist investigating the role that bacteria have played in shaping the Earth. Last year's MacArthur grant winners included Ta-Nehisi Coates and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

And in other news, 2016 is now officially just another year that you didn't win a MacArthur or finish Infinite Jest.