Two UC Berkeley alumni had their morning routines interrupted earlier this month by an unexpected phone call bearing good news — they had been selected among this year’s class of MacArthur Fellows.
Josh Kun, a cultural historian, and Gene Luen Yang, a graphic novelist, are among 23 individuals recognized by the MacArthur Foundation for their creative contribution across a variety of artistic and academic fields. The distinction, which was announced publicly Thursday, awards each recipient a $625,000 grant over the next five years to spend however they wish.
“I was in a state of shock, then euphoria, then shock…on-and-off for (the next) three weeks,” Kun said.
Kun’s interdisciplinary work has examined physical and cultural borders, such as that between Mexico and the United States, as well as marginalized cultural history through mediums such as music, food and literature. Now a professor in the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, Kun said among other commitments he is currently developing a project that would use music to explore issues of gentrification in San Francisco.
The other UC Berkeley alumnus to receive the fellowship, Yang, has written and illustrated works dealing with diversity and identity and incorporated computer coding in narrative. He was chosen this year as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature — the first time a graphic novelist was selected.
Yang graduated in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and a minor in creative writing. He said his time on campus heavily influenced his work afterwards.
“I really felt like I came of age,” Yang said. “All the discomfort I had in my own skin when I was young, I was able to put a name on it when I was at (UC) Berkeley.”
Kun earned his doctorate in ethnic studies at UC Berkeley in 1999.
“Being a student of ethnic studies (at UC Berkeley) was absolutely formative to the work that I’m doing now,” Kun said. “The mentorship of faculty members, the collegiality and collaborative work with fellow grad students… (and) most importantly, the political and social mission of the faculty to third world liberation and social justice made me who I am today.”
Kun’s former professor of ethnic studies, José David Saldívar, remembered Kun was already writing for Rolling Stone and Spin Magazine as a student.
“(Kun) has a rare enthusiasm that runs like a charged current in his mind,” Saldívar said, reading from a past recommendation letter he wrote. “It animates his intelligence. He was one of the best graduate students I had worked with in some 20 years of teaching.”
Thaisa Frank, a former visiting associate professor who taught Yang’s honors English creative writing class, said his most famous work, “American Born Chinese,” was novel in exploring issues of Asian American identity.
“Gene Yang stands out among about five that I would count as being talented enough and imaginative enough to break the tired mold of most American fiction,” Frank said in an email.
Yang said he might use his grant money toward a college fund for his four children, his work as an ambassador for children’s literature and comic ventures. He added that he is currently planning a new book, Dragon Hoops, which is about a varsity high school basketball team’s journey to the state championships drawing from his experience as a teacher at Oakland’s Bishop O’Dowd High School.