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.



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
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
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 MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and teaches writing and editing at Amherst College, where she directs the Literary Publishing Internship and LitFest.


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 Lammy Award. Her fifth novel, Trust Exercise, and her first book for children, Camp Tiger, came out earlier this year. A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, she teaches fiction writing at Yale and lives in Brooklyn.

Daniel Gallant Headshot

Daniel Gallant is the Executive Director of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and the 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, six anthologies from Applause Books and Vintage Books and elsewhere. He is the recipient of an Eisenhower Fellowship and fellowships from National Arts Strategies and the Devos Institute; he was also recently named to the Fulbright Specialist roster.

He has been featured in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Forbes, Adweek, Crains New York, Inc., New York Magazine, and on MTV, NPR, NY1, PBS, CNN’s United Shades of America and NPR's Planet Money. He has lectured and consulted for organizations including SXSW, the Kennedy Center, PEN World Voices Festival, Arts Japan 2020, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Banff Arts Centre, the 92nd Street Y, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Opera America, Fourth Arts Block, The Field, and many more.

Lalami, Laila Headshot

Laila Lalami was born in Rabat and educated in Morocco, Great Britain, and the United States. She is the 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, the Arab American Book Award, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. It was on the Man Booker Prize longlist and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Her essays and opinion pieces have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington PostThe NationHarper’s, the Guardian, and the New York Times.  The recipient of a British Council Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, she is currently a professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside. Her new novel, The Other Americans, was published by Pantheon in March 2019.


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, Connecticut. 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 twenty-five years he collaborated with his father, the illustrator John Cullen Murphy, on the comic strip Prince Valiant. Murphy, who graduated from Amherst in 1974, was a longtime member of the College's board of trustees and was the chair of the board from 2012 to 2018. He lives in Massachusetts. 

Ben Rhodes Headshot

Ben Rhodes is the author of the New York Times bestseller The World As It Is; a contributor for NBC News, MSNBC, and Crooked Media; the co-chair of National Security Action; and an advisor to former President Barack Obama. From 2009-2017, Ben served as a Deputy National Security Advisor to President Obama. In that capacity, he participated in nearly all of President Obama’s key decisions and oversaw the President’s national security communications, speechwriting, public diplomacy and global engagement programming. He also led the secret negotiations with the Cuban government that resulted in the effort to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba, and supported the negotiations to conclude the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. Prior to joining the Administration, Ben was a senior speechwriter and foreign policy advisor to the Obama campaign. From 2002-2007, he worked for former Congressman Lee Hamilton, supporting his work on the 9/11 Commission and Iraq Study Group. A native New Yorker, Ben has a B.A. from Rice University and an M.F.A from New York University.

Karen Skofield Headshot

Karen Skolfield her book Battle Dress (W. W. Norton, 2019) won the Barnard Women Poets Prize. Her book Frost in the Low Areas (Zone 3 Press) won the 2014 PEN New England Award in poetry and the First Book Award from Zone 3 Press, and is a Massachusetts “Must Read” selection. She is the poet laureate for Northampton, Massachusetts, for 2019-2021. Skolfield is the winner of the 2016 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in poetry from The Missouri Review, the 2015 Robert H. Winner award from the Poetry Society of America, and the 2015 Arts & Humanities Award from New England Public Radio. She’s received fellowships and awards from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, Split This Rock, Ucross Foundation, Hedgebrook, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Vermont Studio Center. Her poems can be found in 32 Poems, Alaska Quarterly Review, Baltimore Review, Boulevard, Carolina Quarterly, Cimarron Review, The Cincinnati Review, Crab Orchard Review, Crazyhorse, Guernica, Indiana Review, Iowa Review, Memorious, Missouri Review, New Ohio Review, Pleiades, Ploughshares, POETRY Magazine, RHINO, Shenandoah, Sixth Finch, Slice, Sugar House Review, Superstition Review, Washington Square Review, Waxwing, and elsewhere. Skolfield is a U.S. Army veteran and teaches writing to engineers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she earned her Master of Fine Arts.

Andy Ward'94 Headshot

Andy Ward ’94 came to Random House in 2009 after working for almost fifteen years as a features editor in magazines – first at Esquire, and then at GQ. He is currently Senior Vice President and Editor in Chief of the Random House imprint. In addition to overseeing the Random House list, he edits and publishes 8-10 books of his own each year. Among the writers he has worked with are George Saunders, Lena Dunham, Paul Kalanithi, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Wesley Morris, Emily Bazelon, Judd Apatow, Liana Finck, Michael Moss, and Ben Rhodes. He lives in Dobbs Ferry, New York, with his wife, Jenny Rosenstrach, and their two daughters.

Jesmyn Ward Headshot

Jesmyn Ward is the author of fiction, nonfiction, and memoir that The New York Times Book Review called “raw, beautiful and dangerous”. In 2017, she became the first woman and first person of color to win the National Book Award for Fiction twice—joining the ranks of William Faulkner, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Philip Roth, and John Updike. Ward’s novels, primarily set on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, are deeply informed by the trauma of Hurricane Katrina. Salvage the Bones, winner of the 2011 National Book Award, is a troubling but ultimately empowering tale of familial bonds set amid the chaos of the hurricane. Her memoir, Men We Reaped, deals with the loss of five young men in her life—to drugs, accidents, suicide, and the bad luck that follows people who live in poverty. Ward edited the critically acclaimed anthology The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, a New York Times bestseller. Her newest novel, the critically acclaimed Sing, Unburied, Sing, won the 2017 National Book Award. Named “a searing, urgent read for anyone who thinks the shadows of slavery and Jim Crow have passed” (Celeste Ng), Sing was named one of the best books of 2017 by The New York Times, Time, The Washington Post, and Publisher's Weekly. The novel was also nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Aspen Words Literary Prize. In 2020, Ward will release Navigate Your Stars, an adaptation of her 2018 Tulane University Commencement speech that champions the value of hard work and the importance of respect for oneself and others. A professor of creative writing at Tulane University, Ward received the 2016 Strauss Living Award and a 2017 MacArthur Genius Grant, 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.