Dinuba-born author earns ‘genius grant’ fellowship

A Mexican-American author born to farmworkers in Dinuba receives the MacArthur Fellowship for exceptional creativity with his work in fiction writing

Dinuba-raised author Manuel Muñoz holding a journal and pencil as he contemplatively looks towards his left. Photo courtesy of John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Serena Bettis
Published October 7, 2023  • 
10:00 am

DINUBA – A locally-born author and English professor is one of 20 people nationwide to receive the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, known as the “genius grant.” 

Manuel Muñoz, who is from Dinuba and graduated from Dinuba High School, was named a MacArthur Fellow by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation on Oct. 4. The fellowship is an $800,000 “no-strings-attached grant for individuals who have shown exceptional creativity in their work and the promise to do more,” according to the foundation. 

“I write a lot about places,” Muñoz said in a video for the fellowship. “Just about all of my fiction is set in California’s Central Valley in the small towns where I grew up. … Those are the kinds of places that I never saw in books, and the less I saw of it, the more I started to love it in my own way.”

Muñoz comes from a family of Mexican-American farmworkers, and though he currently lives in Tucson, Arizona, he has said he frequently visits his relatives in the Central Valley. He attended Harvard University, graduating in 1994, and received a Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing from Cornell University in 1998. Since 2008, Muñoz has worked at the University of Arizona.

Muñoz’s published works include a novel, “What You See in the Dark,” published in 2011, and three short-story collections: “Zigzagger” (2003), “The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue” (2007) and “The Consequences” (2022). According to a press release from the University of Arizona, Muñoz’s work is “inspired by the world he knows, and that of his childhood.” 

His stories feature the Central Valley landscape and culture of his upbringing in a Chicano family of farmworkers, something he did not find in literature when he was growing up. Prominent elements of his work include the relationships between mothers and sons and the experiences of young gay men in Mexican-American families. 

“Sometimes my work is considered about poverty, or it’s about only the community on the surface, but really it is about survival,” Muñoz said in the video. “It is about how people under different difficult circumstances figure out a way, because essentially that was the way of my family.”

When it comes to how he anticipates to make use of the fellowship grant funds, Muñoz’s plans are not yet finalized; however, he hopes to work with Reedley College and Dinuba High to potentially establish scholarships in his parents’ names or find other ways to help local students at places that are “vital resources” to the community, according to a press release.

This isn’t the first time Muñoz’s work has been recognized for his work. The Dinuba-raised author has received multiple awards for his writing, including the 2023 Joyce Carol Oates Prize and the 2008 Whiting Writers Award in fiction.

Other recipients of the MacArthur Fellowship include writers, artists, humanists, teachers, scientists and individuals in other fields, with or without institutional affiliations, according to the MacArthur Foundation. Fellows can use the grant money to “advance their expertise, engage in bold new work or, if they wish, to change fields or alter the direction of their careers,” the foundation said.

Serena Bettis
General Assignment Reporter