UA's Manuel Muñoz wins MacArthur 'genius grant' for fiction writing

A University of Arizona professor of English has been tapped for the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship program — known as a “genius grant.” Manuel Muñoz was recognized for his fiction that depicts “with empathy and nuance the Mexican American communities of California’s Central Valley.”

“He roots his stories in the landscape and culture of his upbringing in a
Chicano family of farmworkers who made their living in the fields that
feed the rest of the country,” the MacArthur Foundation wrote of his work. “Muñoz’s nuanced depictions of this world
are populated by mothers and sons, U.S.-born citizens and immigrants
from Mexico, young gay men, and teenage parents.”

Muñoz said Wednesday that he is “completely overwhelmed” by the experience of being chosen.

“I’ve had to keep it a secret for four weeks — that’s the hardest part about knowing (before the public announcement) — but my phone has been blowing up this morning” with calls from friends, he told the Tucson Sentinel. The writer “burst into tears within five minutes” of being told he was picked last month, he said.

Read excerpts from ‘The Consequences’ »

Genius “is not the word they (MacArthur) use, but I looked at the other fellows this morning — I didn’t know who they were until now — and I’m astounded by what they do,” he said.

Muñoz is among 20 new recipients of the fellowship, which comes with an $800,000 no-strings grant over five years. Also announced Wednesday as a MacArthur fellow was U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón, along with scientists, artists and academics.

MacArthur fellows are nominated by their peers, and do not apply for the grant. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation reviews potential recipients without their knowledge, and only contacts them after their selection.

“It’s extraordinary to be singled out this way,” he told the Sentinel. While Muñoz is no stranger to recognition for his writing, “this is not strictly a literary prize. The whole cohort of fellows represent different fields of endeavor… who work to enhance the lives of those around them.”

‘Our lives belong in works of art’

“My community is too often regarded in narrow, shallow dimensions,” Muñoz said as part of the foundation’s public announcement. “The
short stories I write are proof to the world that we are as complex and
complicated as art demands and that our lives belong in works of art. My
stories are not essays or tracts, nor do they merely refute bias or
prejudice. They are evidence of our existence and the very human
emotions that coil around our lives.”

Muñoz, 51, has been a UA professor since 2008.

His most recent published work is last year’s collection “The Consquences,” which won the 2023 Joyce Carol Oates Prize.

“The moral intelligence of the author seemed to shine forth,” said Oates. “The work is suffused with information, exposition very artfully blended in with the narration… Living far away on the East Coast, I am not much familiar with the world of Mexican-American farm workers and their families, but Manuel has made them feel like kin to me.”

“As one who much appreciates the art of the short story, I was filled with admiration for a writer who creates an entire world within the space of a few pages, with seeming effortlessness,” she said.

A review in Oprah Daily said Muñoz’s latest “out-Steinbecks Steinbeck
in its manifestation of the human in places we too rarely dare look,” while the Washington Post said the author “once worked in the same fields, as did his parents and siblings, and his
empathetic stories convey a realistic sense of the toll such labor
takes on bodies and minds.”

His other works include the novel “What You See in the Dark” and short-story collections “Zigzagger” and “The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue.”

Muñoz has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (2004) and the New York Foundation for the Arts (2008). He has also been recognized with a Whiting Writer’s Award (2008), three O. Henry Awards (2009, 2015, 2017) and two selections in Best American Short Stories.

The son of farmworker parents in California’s Central Valley, he was a first-generation college student who attended Harvard University, and then received an MFA in creative writing from Cornell.

“I’m often asked about why I set so much of my work in what were formative years for me (the ’70s and ’80s),” he told the organizers of the Aspen Words Literary Prize earlier this year. “As time passes, I know that more and more readers may not recognize the currencies of those eras. I do it for two reasons.  First, because it helps to fill in an enormous gap in our literary history, in which the stories of my communities have been largely excluded. Second—and maybe more important—is that the time itself isn’t merely a precursor to the perils of our era, but a reminder that so little has actually changed.”

“I struggled writing this book. I’m still learning to accept that people will impose a limitation on who I write about and what I write about. I still feel that my communities don’t receive the same level of respect for complexity and craft in regards to our storytelling,” he said. “I’m glad that I persisted and that I continued to write the stories that were brown, working class, and queer: in no combination is that intriguing to most publishers (and I have all the rejections to The Consequences to prove it!).”

“Reading sustains me. The stories that haunt me in my reading seem to
hold the entire world in them, even as I know that a single short story
cannot contain everything,” Muñoz said. “That is the challenge of the story form and
why I write them. If a story can stir the senses with enough detail and
provoke an intense emotion, it might lead toward compassion. The stories
that shake me nearly always do that, as if touching a moral live wire:
once we encounter a story that might push us past the limits of our
imaginations, ignoring it is a deliberate choice.”

Of the national poet laureate Limón, Muñoz said “I’m not sure she’ll remember, but we did a reading together when we were both coming out with our first books” two decades ago.

Being named as a MacArthur “genius” will likely be a “life-changing experience,” he told the Sentinel. “It does not feel real.”

Muñoz praised his publisher, Graywolf Press.

“They’re a nonprofit, so they can be guided by the art” rather than focusing on profits, he said.

“After my second and third books, I parted ways with that publisher,” he said. “It was like starting over. It was a tough road, to try it with short stories again.”

Muñoz said “The Consequences” took years to complete because of the pressure of being without a publisher.

The fellowship gives him “some opportunity to talk about how the literary world is not financially lucrative for publishers,” he said.

Also named as a MacArthur fellow Wednesday was Arizona State University Prof. Amber Wutich, an anthropologist who researches the impact of water insecurity.

Last year, UA Prof. Jennifer Carlson was named as a MacArthur genius. A sociologist, Carlson studies gun politics, culture and trauma.