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NPR's Podcast Host Is A 2021 MacArthur Fellow

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The 2021 class of MacArthur Fellows was announced today. It's an honor that bestows not only the label of genius but also a $625,000 grant for fellows based on their exceptional creativity and promise for important future advances in their fields. And among the impressive list of names, there is one that might be very familiar to some of our listeners - Daniel Alarcón. He's the host of NPR's Radio Ambulante and so much more. He was a writer before going into audio journalism. He's written four books. He's a frequent contributor to the New Yorker magazine and an assistant professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism.

Daniel Alarcón, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, and congratulations.

DANIEL ALARCÓN, BYLINE: Thank you, Leila. It's great to be here.

FADEL: So how did you feel when you first heard the news that you were one of this year's grant winners?

ALARCÓN: You know, there was a lot of nervous laughter. I couldn't even believe it. Honestly, I was just kind of floored. I think I laughed from disbelief for an embarrassing amount of time. And I think I'm still processing it.

FADEL: So Radio Ambulante was born in 2012. Today, it is a well-known podcast among the Latinx community in the U.S. and around the world. It's also part of NPR's lineup of podcasts. But it started with you and your wife in a room, right?

ALARCÓN: Yeah, it started at a coffee shop with an idea that we should try to do this radio thing that we'd been talking about for a long time. And I was at a pretty low point in my writing, struggling to finish my second novel. And it just seemed exciting to try something completely different. And to be stepping away from the thing I knew and into something I didn't know was incredibly exciting - you know, just to learn from nothing, not even know the rules we were breaking.

FADEL: Yeah.

ALARCÓN: And it was just very, very cool.

FADEL: You're also an assistant professor at Columbia Journalism School - Columbia University. What does it mean to you to be training the next generation of journalists as someone who has such a rich, multifaceted trajectory?

ALARCÓN: I've been blessed with really great students. It's exciting to work here. But you know, it's - if I ever have doubts about my work or about what - you know, what I'm doing, I come into the classroom with this - these really talented and ambitious young people - and I say ambitious in the best sense of the word - and I'm reminded of why I do what I do.

FADEL: I want to talk about your background for a second. You are multicultural, if you will - born in Peru, grew up in Alabama. How much does that influence the way you approach storytelling?

ALARCÓN: Well, I grew up in the 1980s in a very nice sort of quiet suburb of Birmingham, Ala., at a time when Peru was going through a cataclysmic war and terrorism and violence. And the juxtaposition of those two experiences really left a mark on me. I feel like I emerged from adolescence with a kind of survivor's guilt wondering by what accident of migration my family had been spared something that was really traumatic for my family directly. And so I guess I was always, especially in my early fiction, trying to figure out who I would have been if I'd stayed - if we'd stayed - and then more to the point as a journalist, trying to sort of extrapolate that to other countries and try to understand other realities. So it's always there in my work.

FADEL: I mean, did it influence - is it the reason that you tell stories?

ALARCÓN: Yes. Yes, for sure. Absolutely.

FADEL: Can you expand on that a little bit?

ALARCÓN: Yeah. I don't think that I would be the writer or storyteller or journalist that I am today without a couple of things. One is just a curiosity about other people's lives - trying to understand people for who they are, not for who you wish they were. And because the mystery that was closest at hand for me as a young man, as an adolescent, was that other place - you know, was Lima, Arequipa, my family, my cousins. And it just - a sense of wanting to belong there as well, you know. And it was always taking me in my imagination, in my daydreams, to this other place. And you could, you know, spend hours imagining other versions of your life. And that's been with me since I was a kid.

FADEL: Daniel Alarcón, author, writer, podcast host and one of the newly named 2021 MacArthur Genius Grant recipients, thank you so much for your work. And congratulations again.

ALARCÓN: Thank you, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.