LitFest 2020: Illuminating great writing @ Amherst College's Literary Life

LitFest: Illuminating Great writing and Amherst College’s Literary Life

Thursday, February 27-Sunday, March 1, 2020 at Amherst College

Five book covers: Trust Exercise; The Other Americans; The World As It Is; Battle Dress; Sing, Unburied, Sing

Now in its fifth year, Amherst’s annual literary festival celebrates the College’s extraordinary literary life by bringing to campus distinguished authors and editors to share and discuss the pleasures and challenges of verbal expression—from fiction and nonfiction, to poetry and spoken-word performance. 

This year’s festival features Jesmyn Ward, winner of a 2017 National Book Award (NBA) for fiction; 2019 NBA Fiction Winner Susan Choi and finalist Laila Lalami, and memoirist Ben Rhodes, former speechwriter and deputy national security advisor to President Barack Obama, among others.

The schedule is below, followed by biographies of each guest. All events are free and open to the public, no tickets required. All LitFest events in Johnson Chapel will be live streamed. LitFest also includes many exciting student-only opportunities.



Literary Amherst: An exhibition celebrating Amherst College’s literary past and present
On view February 3 through March 2
Frost Library

Thursday, FEBRUARY 27

Spoken Word Slam for Amherst Students
Host: Daniel Gallant
8 – 10 p.m.
The Powerhouse
Interested students should register in advance.


Tours of the Emily Dickinson Museum: The Homestead and The Evergreens
11 a.m. – 4 p.m., tours on the hour and half-hour, final tour begins at 3:30 p.m. Free admission with identification as a LitFest attendee
Emily Dickinson Museum

A Conversation with 2019 National Book Award Winner Susan Choi and Finalist Laila Lalami
Host: Judith Frank
7:30 – 9 p.m.
Johnson Chapel*
Hosted in partnership with the National Book Foundation. Followed by Q&A and book signing.


Tours of the Emily Dickinson Museum: The Homestead and The Evergreens
11 a.m. – 4 p.m., tours on the hour and half-hour, final tour begins at 3:30 p.m. Free admission with identification as a LitFest attendee
Emily Dickinson Museum

Poets of Amherst: A Conversation with Karen Skolfield
Host: J. Riley Caldwell-O’Keefe
11 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.
Frost Library, Center for Humanistic Inquiry (2nd floor)
Light refreshments served. 

An Afternoon with Jesmyn Ward
Host: Jennifer Acker ’00
4 – 5:30 p.m.
Johnson Chapel*
Followed by Q&A and book signing.


Tours of the Emily Dickinson Museum: The Homestead and The Evergreens
11 a.m. – 4 p.m., tours on the hour and half-hour, final tour begins at 3:30 p.m. Free admission with identification as a LitFest attendee
Emily Dickinson Museum

Writing the White House: An Insider's Account
Obama aide Ben Rhodes, author of best-selling The World As It Is, and his Random House editor, Andy Ward ’94
Host: Cullen Murphy ’74
1 – 2:30 p.m.
Johnson Chapel*
Followed by Q&A and book signing.

 *Johnson Chapel seats 600 people. We recommend arriving early to get a seat. 

Amherst College is committed to making all of its programs, services and activities accessible for all. Contact the Office of Conferences and Special Events with questions and special requests. Our campus map notes the location of all venues and accessible parking spaces. For directions, parking, transportation and local lodging options, see Visiting Amherst.



Jennifer Acker ’00 is founder and editor-in-chief of The Common and author of the debut novel The Limits of the World. Her short stories, essays, translations and reviews have appeared in Amazon Original Stories, The Washington Post, Literary Hub, n+1, Guernica, The Yale Review and Ploughshares, among other places. Acker has an M.F.A. from the Bennington Writing Seminars and teaches writing and editing at Amherst College, where she directs the Literary Publishing Internship and LitFest.


Portrait of J. Riley Caldwell-O'Keefe J. Riley Caldwell-O’Keefe directs Amherst College’s Center for Teaching and Learning. She was recently elected to the Core Committee of the Professional and Organizational Development Network. Previously, Caldwell-O’Keefe was a faculty member in the Boise State University theater department and associate director of the general education program. She served 10 years in the U.S. Air Force and traveled the world as stage manager for Air Force Entertainment’s Tops in Blue, then drew on this experience for her master’s and doctoral work, which she completed at UC Santa Barbara with a feminist studies emphasis. Her current research focuses on implicit bias in course evaluations, students as pedagogical partners, and teaching and learning at small liberal arts colleges.

Choi, Susan Headshot

Susan Choi’s first novel, The Foreign Student, won the Asian American Literary Award for fiction. Her second novel, American Woman, was a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize and was adapted into a film. Her third novel, A Person of Interest, was a finalist for the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award.

In 2010 she was named the inaugural recipient of the PEN/W.G. Sebald Award. Her fourth novel, My Education, received a 2014 Lambda Literary Award. Her fifth novel, Trust Exercise, and her first book for children, Camp Tiger, came out in 2019. Trust Exercise won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2019. A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, Choi teaches fiction writing at Yale and lives in Brooklyn.

Portrait of Judith Frank Judith Frank is author of a book of criticism, Common Ground: Eighteenth-Century English Satiric Fiction and the Poor, and two novels, Crybaby Butch, which won a 2004 Lambda Literary Award, and All I Love and Know. In 2008, Frank received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. They have been a resident at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony and have published short fiction in The Massachusetts Review, Other Voices and Best Lesbian Love Stories 2005. They teach English and creative writing at Amherst College and are currently working on a novel about race, reproduction and queerness.

Daniel Gallant Headshot

Daniel Gallant is executive director of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and author of the short story collection Determined to Prove. His writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Time Out New York, the New York Post and six anthologies. He is the recipient of an Eisenhower Fellowship and fellowships from National Arts Strategies and the DeVos Institute. He has been featured in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Forbes, Adweek, Crains New York and New York Magazine, and on MTV, NPR, NY1, PBS and CNN. He has lectured and consulted for organizations including SXSW, the Kennedy Center, the PEN World Voices Festival, Arts Japan 2020, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and many more.

Lalami, Laila Headshot

Laila Lalami was born in Rabat and educated in Morocco, Great Britain and the United States. She is author of the novels Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award; Secret Son, which was on the Orange Prize longlist; and The Moor’s Account, which won the American Book Award, Arab American Book Award and Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, was on the Man Booker Prize longlist and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Her essays and opinion pieces have appeared in Harper’s, The Guardian, The New York Times and elsewhere. A recipient of British Council, Fulbright and Guggenheim Fellowships, she teaches creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. Her most recent novel, The Other Americans, was a Los Angeles Times best-seller, a best-of-2019 selection from NPR and Time and a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction.


Cullen Murphy ’74 is editor-at-large of The Atlantic, where he has spent most of his career, and a former editor-at-large of Vanity Fair. His most recent book is Cartoon County: My Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe, a memoir about the large cartoonist colony in Fairfield County, Conn. His other books include Are We Rome?: The Fall of an Empire and The Fate of America and God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World. For 25 years he collaborated with his father, illustrator John Cullen Murphy, on the comic strip Prince Valiant. Murphy was a longtime member of Amherst College’s board of trustees and chaired the board from 2012 to 2018. He lives in Massachusetts.

Ben Rhodes Headshot

Ben Rhodes is author of the New York Times best-seller The World As It Is; a contributor for NBC News, MSNBC and Crooked Media; and co-chair of National Security Action. From 2009 to 2017, Rhodes served as President Barack Obama’s deputy national security advisor, participating in nearly all key decisions and overseeing national security communications, speechwriting, public diplomacy and global engagement programming. He also led the secret negotiations to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba, and supported the negotiations to conclude the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. Before joining the administration, Rhodes was a senior speechwriter and foreign policy advisor to the Obama campaign. Rhodes has a B.A. from Rice University and an M.F.A. fromNew York University.

Karen Skofield Headshot

Karen Skolfield’s book Battle Dress won the 2018 Barnard Women Poets Prize. Frost in the Low Areas won the 2014 PEN New England Award in poetry and the First Book Award from Zone 3 Press. The poet laureate for Northampton, Mass., for 2019–2021, Skolfield has won the 2016 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in poetry from The Missouri Review, 2015 Robert H. Winner Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America and 2015 Arts & Humanities Award from New England Public Radio, among other awards and fellowships. Her poems can be found in dozens of journals and magazines. Skolfield is a U.S. Army veteran and teaches writing to engineers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she earned her M.F.A.

Andy Ward'94 Headshot

Andy Ward ’94 came to Random House in 2009 after working for almost 15 years as a features editor in magazines—first at Esquire, and then at GQ. Among the writers he has worked with as a book editor are George Saunders, Lena Dunham, Paul Kalanithi, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Wesley Morris, Emily Bazelon, Judd Apatow, Liana Finck, Michael Moss and Ben Rhodes. He is currently executive vice president and publisher of Random House. He lives in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., with his wife, Jenny Rosenstrach ’93, and their two daughters.

Jesmyn Ward Headshot

Jesmyn Ward is the first woman and first person of color to win the National Book Award for Fiction twice, for the novels Salvage the Bones (2011) and Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017). Her memoir, Men We Reaped, deals with the loss of five young men in her life. Ward edited the critically acclaimed anthology The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, a New York Times best-seller. In 2020, she will release Navigate Your Stars, an adaptation of her 2018 Tulane University commencement speech. A professor of creative writing at Tulane, Ward received the 2016 Strauss Living award and a 2017 MacArthur Fellowship, and was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people of 2018.

LitFest 2020 is sponsored by the Center for Humanistic Inquiry at Amherst College, The Common magazine and The Emily Dickinson Museum. It is made possible by the generous support of the Croxton Lecture Fund, established in 1988 by William M. Croxton ’36 in memory of his parents, Ruth L. and Hugh W. Croxton. Income from this fund is to be used to educate Amherst students and to bring publicity to the College by virtue of the renown of speakers underwritten by the fund.

A smiling woman in a white sweater holds a book

A LitFest Sampler:

Five Amherst College students read the opening of books by Susan Choi, Laila Lalami, Karen Skolfield, Jesmyn Ward and Ben Rhodes.