As a fifteen year old, Khaled Mattawa left Libya and came to the United States barely able to speak English. Just a few years later, he became a political science major at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and today he is a renowned translator, poet, and cultural ambassador.
Dr. Mattawa ’89, Associate Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, has been honored by The Academy of American Poets and has just been named by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to its 2014 class of MacArthur Fellows. He is recognized as “one of 21 exceptionally creative individuals with a track record of achievement and the potential for significant contributions in the future.”
Fellows will each receive a no-strings-attached stipend of $625,000, paid out over five years. The Fellowship comes with no stipulations or reporting requirements, and allows recipients maximum freedom to follow their own creative visions.
“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, MacArthur Fellows Program. “Together, they expand our view of what is possible, and they inspire us to apply our own talents and imagination.”
In a video produced by the MacArthur Foundation, Mattawa explains that he writes his own poems and translates mostly contemporary Arabic poetry.
“There were many great Arabic poets who were not available in English, so it seemed important for me to bring them to the American reader,” he said in the video. Watch the video.
Mattawa has translated numerous volumes of Arab poetry, he is author of Mahmoud Darwish: The Poet’s Art and His Nation (2014); co-editor of Post Gibran: Anthology of New Arab American Writing (1999) and Dinarzad’s Children: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Fiction (2004, 2009); and is the author of four collections of poetry, including Tocqueville (2010).
He has also co-founded the Arete Foundation of Arts and Culture to support and promote the creative arts in Libya.
During his undergraduate days at UTC, Mattawa made an impression on his professors, including Dr. David Carrithers, who teaches in the Department of Political Science, Public Administration and Nonprofit Management. Carrithers recalls:
Khaled Mattawa was one of the most dedicated students I have had the privilege to teach at UTC. Although it was hardly his area of special interest, Khaled enrolled in a senior-level seminar I was then teaching on American death penalty jurisprudence, and I vividly recall the skill and attentiveness that he brought to the nuances and details of complex Supreme Court decisions regarding capital punishment. Quite an achievement for a student drawn more to poetry than to prose! It was very apparent that Khaled had set very high goals for himself and was already embarked on a path that would lead to superior accomplishments.
Khaled was the sort of student who sought out his professors for conversation on a wide variety of subjects, and I learned a good deal about his life in Libya prior to his coming to the United States. Conversations with him were always very interesting and enlightening. His clear focus and his sense of his identity and goals were impressive.
Earlier this year, The Academy of American Poets announced that Mattawa had been elected as one of two Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets. This honorary position has been held by some of the most distinguished poets in the United States, including Marianne Moore, W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Lucille Clifton, Adrienne Rich, Yusef Komunyakaa, and John Ashbery.
As a member of the Board of Chancellors, Mattawa consults with the organization on matters of artistic programming, serves as judge for the organization’s largest prizes for poets, and acts as ambassador of poetry in the world at large. Mattawa was selected by the 15 members of the Academy’s current Board of Chancellors, and will serve for a period of six years.
Dr. Richard Jackson, UTNAA Professor of English at UTC, has kept in touch with Mattawa, who has returned to be on the staff of the Meacham Writers’ Workshop, held every semester at UTC. Jackson remembers:
Khaled was a student in the Poetry Workshop and is a natural writer: in fact some of the poems he wrote while an undergrad at UTC appeared in his first book. He has gone on to be an incredible poet, THE translator of Arabic poetry, and a superb teacher…Being a chancellor is a great honor: the academy feels it is important to represent the diverse spectrum that American poetry is. The academy promotes literature and has many programs for schools and libraries: it is the major organization in the country.
Mattawa is the recipient of the 2010 Academy of American Poets Fellowship, a Guggenheim fellowship, a translation grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Alfred Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University, and the PEN American Center Poetry Translation Prize, among others.
After he earned a B.A. at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Mattawa went on to earn an M.A. and M.F.A. (1994) from Indiana University at Bloomington, and a Ph.D. (2009) from Duke University.
As a member of this year’s class of MacArthur Fellows, Mattawa joins 897 others whom the Program has recognized since it began in 1981. Fellows are selected through a rigorous process that has involved thousands of expert and anonymous nominators, evaluators, and selectors over the years. The Foundation does not accept unsolicited or outside nominations.
About the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
The MacArthur Foundation supports creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. In addition to selecting the MacArthur Fellows, the Foundation works to defend human rights, advance global conservation and security, make cities better places, and understand how technology is affecting children and society. More information is at www.macfound.org.