Three Berkeley alums win MacArthur ‘genius’ awards

Three alumni of UC Berkeley are among the 24 amazing Americans revealed today as winners of the coveted MacArthur “genius” award.

MacArthurs, conferred annually, reward people whose work shows exceptional creativity, holds the promise of important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishments and where the MacArthur Foundation sees the potential for its fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work. Each fellowship comes with a $625,000 no-strings-attached stipend.

The three winners with roots at Berkeley are:

Viet Thanh Nguyen, a writer and cultural critic whose work “challeng(es) popular depictions of the Vietnam War and explor(es) the ways the war lives on for those it has displaced,” according to the MacArthur citation. Both his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2015 novel, The Sympathizer, and his 2016 nonfiction book Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, illuminate aspects of that war, and his 2017 story collection, The Refugees, explores the enduring effects of the loyalties and tensions of war.

Nguyen earned his B.A. at Berkeley in 1992, and his Ph.D. at Berkeley in 1997. He is a professor in the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity and the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California. He appeared at Berkeley in 2016, a guest of the Social Science Matrix, whose website carries a video of his presentation.

Trevor Paglen, a conceptual artist and geographer, documents “the hidden operations of covert government projects and examines the ways that human right are threatened in an era of mass surveillance,” according to the MacArthur citation. Paglen uses high-powered telescopes with cameras to photograph secret prisons and military bases, and works with amateur astronomers to document classified satellites orbiting the earth.

He earned his B.A. from Berkeley in 1998, and his Ph.D. at Berkeley in 2008. He splits his time between Berlin, New York and Berkeley, and was interviewed by Berkeley News during a 2009 visit to campus.

Yuval Sharon, an opera director and producer, has expanded “how opera is performed and experienced, through immersive, multisensory and mobile productions that are infusing a new vitality into the genre,” according to the MacArthur citation. He is the founder and artistic director of The Industry, a Los Angeles-based production company.

Sharon earned his B.A. at Berkeley in 2001. In 2018, he will be the first American to direct a production at the Bayreuth Festival.