Instructor Don Mee Choi receives MacArthur 'Genius Grant'

  • Published Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Longtime Renton Technical College Instructor Don Mee Choi received a coveted MacArthur Foundation Fellow "Genius Grant.”

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced the recipients of this year’s prestigious fellowships this morning. The foundation awards fellowships to talented individuals who have shown exceptional originality and dedication to their creative pursuits. Fellows receive $625,000 stipends that are bestowed with no conditions. Nominated anonymously by leaders in their respective fields and considered by an anonymous selection committee, recipients learn of their selection only when they receive a call from the MacArthur Foundation just before the public announcement. 

"This doesn't feel real to me," said Choi, who teaches in the College and Career Pathways high school completion programs. "I think I'm still in shock. I'm grateful and very fortunate to have this tremendous support that will enable me to keep doing my creative work."  

A highly acclaimed poet and translator who grapples with the effects of military violence and U.S. imperial legacies on the Korean Peninsula, she also has been a full-time instructor in RTC's High School Completion programs since 2004. While her creative works have garnered much attention, she has remained committed to teaching at the college and her students.

"It is very rewarding to work with our CCP high school-plus students, who are always striving for a better future for themselves and their families while juggling work, parenting, and life challenges," said Choi, who goes by DonMee at the college.

She has worked at the Downtown Seattle partnership site, working with instructor Richard Nicholls, at the YWCA. She has worked closely with DSHS, Goodwill, and other nearby community organizations in the Seattle area in to serve students who are historically underprivileged and underrepresented. For the past several years, she worked closely with CCP's HS+ team on developing and implementing the college's highly successful high school completion program for adults. She is on sabbatical in Germany this quarter.

"This tremendous recognition reflects DonMee's important work both inside and outside of the college," RTC President Kevin McCarthy said. "I could not be more proud that one of our own was selected for a MacArthur Fellowship."  

Born in Seoul during the military dictatorship of Park Chung Lee, Choi immigrated first to Hong Kong and then to the United States. In her three volumes of poetry and numerous essays, she explores themes of dislocation, fractured identities, trauma, and memory, while amplifying civilian voices that have been obscured by the history and looming threat of war in her homeland. She won the 2020 National Book Award for poetry for DMZ Colony, which chronicled her return to Korea. She also received a 2021 Guggenheim Fellowship.

Choi employs a mixed-media approach in her two most recent collections. She intersperses sections of text with typographical experiments, handwritten documents, maps, drawings, archival materials, and photographs taken by her father, who covered war zones and uprisings in Korea and Vietnam as a photojournalist.

Throughout her writing, she foregrounds the challenge of using English, the language of a dominant global power, to convey the experiences of those subjected to that power. She often intermixes English and Korean expressions as an interlingual mode of making meaning.

A prolific translator, Choi's intertwined practices as poet and translator bear witness to otherwise unspeakable histories and expand the range of expressive possibilities for writers from diasporic and multilingual backgrounds

She also wrote Hardly WarThe Morning News Is Exciting, and several pamphlets of poems and essays. She also received a Whiting Award, Lannan Literary Fellowship, Lucien Stryk Translation Prize, International Griffin Poetry Prize (Translation), and DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Fellowship.

Press contact: Katherine Hedland Hansen, Executive Director of College Relations & Marketing

Photo courtesy of the MacArthur Foundation.