A U-M professor who is a poet-translator of Arabic poetry has been chosen for a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, also known as a “genius grant.”
Khaled Mattawa, associate professor of English language and literature, was recognized Wednesday by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as one of 21 exceptionally creative individuals with a track record of achievement and the potential for significant contributions in the future.
“I am thrilled, gratified and humbled,” he said. “I could not be happier for myself and the people who helped me along the way.”
Provost Martha Pollack said Mattawa’s creative and nuanced work — poetry, critical commentary, poetry in translation — provides important insight into life and lives in the 21st century.
“For Professor Mattawa, writing is the quintessential form of engagement, a passion he shares with his students and with the larger community drawn to his work,” she said. “It is wonderful that he is receiving the recognition a MacArthur Award brings.”
Fellows each receive a no-strings-attached stipend of $625,000 paid out over five years. Without stipulations or reporting requirements, the fellowship provides maximum freedom for recipients to follow their own creative vision.
Mattawa said the fellowship isn’t simply a boost in money, but also confidence.
“You can trust your intuition more” when receiving an honor such as the MacArthur Fellowship, he said. “I imagine one would be more willing to be bolder, to collaborate with other writers and artists, and to try to reach more people through your form of art.”
“Those who think creativity is dying should examine the life’s work of these extraordinary innovators who work in diverse fields and in different ways to improve our lives and better our world,” said Cecilia Conrad, vice president of the MacArthur Fellows Program. “Together, they expand our view of what is possible, and they inspire us to apply our own talents and imagination.”
Mattawa’s work gives “voice to a vast literature largely unknown in the Western hemisphere. In masterful translations that evoke the rhythm and cadence of Arabic, he renders the beauty and meaning of the poems accessible to an English reader,” the foundation wrote.
He has published English translations, many the first available, of the work of contemporary poets highly respected in the Arab world, such as Amjad Nasser (Jordan), Saadi Youssef (Iraq), Adonis (Syria) and Fadhil Al-Azzawi (Iraq), as well as women poets whose names may be less familiar, such as Iman Mersal (Egypt), Joumana Haddad (Lebanon) and Maram Al-Massri (Syria).
“His translations do not replicate the meter or rhyme of the original, nor do they mimic traditional English forms. Rather, they are creative reproductions with words translated or replaced, sentences and spaces rearranged, but with fidelity to the author’s spirit,” according to the foundation.
“The translated poems occupy a transitional space between two cultural traditions. Mattawa’s own poetry exhibits a similar quality, blurring time and space to impart the complexity of a transnational identity.”
Mattawa has also written essays on contemporary Arab and Arab-American poetry and co-founded the Arete Foundation of Arts and Culture to support and promote the creative arts in Libya.
He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, a Master of Arts and Master of Fine Art from Indiana University at Bloomington, and a Ph.D. from Duke University.
In addition to translating numerous volumes of Arab poetry, he is author of “Mahmoud Darwish: The Poet’s Art and His Nation”; co-editor of “Post Gibran: Anthology of New Arab American Writing” and “Dinarzad’s Children: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Fiction”; and the author of four collections of poetry, including “Tocqueville.”
Mattawa has been awarded the Academy of American Poet’s Fellowship Prize, the PEN-American Center award for poetry translation, a Guggenheim fellowship, the Alfred Hodder fellowship from Princeton University, an NEA translation grant and three Pushcart prizes.
“We in the Department of English are absolutely thrilled to see Khaled’s brilliant and courageous work as poet and translator acknowledged with this award,” said Michael Schoenfeldt, chair of the Department of English Language and Literature.
“Khaled, moreover, has been a vital cultural ambassador, helping his native Libya rebuild its cultural core, and making available and compelling the splendid work of contemporary Arab poetry for English-speaking readers.”
Members of this year’s MacArthur Fellowship class — which includes Tara Zahra, a University of Chicago history professor who obtained her Ph.D. from U-M in 2005 — join 897 other MacArthur Fellows the program has recognized since it began in 1981.
The fellows, which this year include a documentary filmmaker from Denmark, a civil rights lawyer from Boston and a playwright from New York, are selected through a rigorous process that has involved thousands of expert and anonymous nominators, evaluators and selectors over the years.