Annual Literary Festival

Thursday, February 25–Sunday, February 28, 2021

A row of five books: A Burning; Fantasia for the Man in Blue; Postcolonial Love Poem; Twilight of Democracy; Interior Chinatown

Now in its sixth year, Amherst’s annual literary festival celebrates the College’s extraordinary literary life by inviting 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 Charles Yu, winner of a 2020 National Book Award (NBA) for fiction; 2020 NBA fiction nominee Megha Majumdar; 2020 NBA poetry finalists Tommye Blount and Natalie Diaz; and Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Applebaum, among others.

The schedule is below, followed by biographies of each guest. This virtual LitFest is open to the Amherst community and the general public. Registration is required and recordings of events open to the public will be made available following the festival. LitFest also includes many exciting student-only opportunities. Books by LitFest authors are available for purchase from Amherst Books.

Please note that all events will take place online.


LitFest 2021 wordmark



Spoken Word Slam for Amherst Students
Host: Daniel Gallant
8 – 10 p.m.
Interested students should register in advance for this student-only opportunity.


Writing for Performance: Alumni Performances & Panel
4 – 5:30 p.m.
The Loeb Center will host a virtual panel with unconventional writers Claire Kiechel ’09, Nina Shallman ’18 and Kate Sisk ’14. Interested students should register in advance for this student-only opportunity.

A Conversation with 2020 National Book Award Winner Charles Yu and Nominee Megha Majumdar with a Welcome from President Biddy Martin *
Host: Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint
7 – 8 p.m.
Hosted in partnership with the National Book Foundation. (A recording of this event will be posted for 30 days after the conclusion of LitFest 2021. Please allow five business days for the video to be processed.)


A Conversation with 2020 National Book Award for Poetry Finalists Tommye Blount and Natalie Diaz *
Host: John Hennessy
11 a.m. – noon
(A recording of this event will be posted after the conclusion of LitFest 2021. Please allow five business days for the video to be processed.)

Emily Dickinson’s Amherst College *
Host: Jane Wald
2 – 3 p.m.
In partnership with Amherst College’s Bicentennial, join Museum staff for a talk about the impact of the College on the life of poet Emily Dickinson. The Dickinson family was instrumental to the College during its first 75 years, beginning with Samuel Fowler Dickinson’s part in its founding and continuing with Edward and Austin’s combined 60 years of service as treasurers. The College was an early and lasting influence in Emily’s life, playing an inestimable role in her early education and friendships, and later connecting her to an ever-widening local and global community. Through original photographs and archival documents, encounter some of the people and places that defined the Dickinsons’ 19th-century Amherst College, including students, professors, workers and alumni. (A recording of this event will be posted after the conclusion of LitFest 2021. Please allow five business days for the video to be processed.)

Classroom Discussions featuring Tommye Blount, Natalie Diaz, Megha Majumdar and Charles Yu *
2 – 3 p.m.
Distinguished LitFest authors will host virtual classroom discussions. Interested students should register in advance for these student-only opportunities.

Readings by The Common's Literary Publishing Interns: Amherst Students Share Their Own Creative Work *
Host: Jennifer Acker ’00
4:30 – 5 p.m.
Readings by Olive Amdur '23, Sofia Belimova '22, Eliza Brewer '22, Whitney Bruno '21, Elly Hong ’21 and Isabel Meyers ’20 (A recording of this event will be posted after the conclusion of LitFest 2021. Please allow five business days for the video to be processed.)

Alumni Authors Cocktail Hour Reading 
Host: Jennifer Acker ’00
5 – 6 p.m.
Brief readings by Calvin Baker '94, Chris Bohjalian '82, Dan Chiasson '93, Edward A. Farmer '05, Michael Gorra '79, Kirun Kapur '97, Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne '01 and Ismée Williams '95. A Q&A to follow. (A recording of this event will be posted after the conclusion of LitFest 2021. Please allow five business days for the video to be processed.)


The Poet’s Prose: Rereading Joseph Brodsky’s Essays Today *
Hosts: Professors Polina Barskova and Catherine Ciepiela ’83, in conversation with Christopher Benfey, Sven Birkerts and Jonathan Galassi 
11 a.m. – noon
Hosted in partnership with the Amherst Center for Russian Culture. (A recording of this event will be posted after the conclusion of LitFest 2021. Please allow five business days for the video to be processed.)

A Conversation with Pulitzer Prize Winner Anne Applebaum *
Host: Cullen Murphy ’74 H’19
1 – 2 p.m.
(A recording of this event will be posted after the conclusion of LitFest 2021. Please allow five business days for the video to be processed.)

* Denotes public events where live closed captioning will be available.

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.


Jennifer-Acker 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.

A photo of Anne Applebaum Anne Applebaum is a staff writer for The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, where she runs a project on 21st-century disinformation. She was a Washington Post columnist for 15 years and a member of the editorial board. She is the author of several history books, including Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine; Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956; and Gulag: A History, which won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. Her newest book, Twilight of Democracy, appeared in July 2020. Her writing has also appeared in many publications, including The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy, among many others.

head shot of Calvin Baker, turning to look at the camera Calvin Baker ’94 is the author of four novels, including Grace and Dominion, which was a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Award. He teaches in Columbia University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and has also taught in the English department at Yale University; the University of Leipzig, where he held the Picador Chair in American Studies; Long Island University’s Graduate Department of English, where he was a Distinguished Visiting Professor; Bard College; and Middlebury College. His nonfiction work has appeared in Harper’s and The New York Times Magazine. He lives in New York City.

Barskova outside turning to look at camera Polina Barskova is a poet and a scholar, author of 12 collections of poems and two books of prose in Russian. She has also authored a monograph, Besieged Leningrad: Aesthetic Responses to Urban Disaster (2017), and edited three scholarly volumes. Her collection of creative nonfiction, Living Pictures, received the Andrei Bely Prize in 2015; it was published in German by Suhrkamp Verlag and is forthcoming in English from New York Review Books. Barskova edited the Leningrad Siege poetry anthology Written in the Dark (Ugly Duckling Presse) and has four collections of poetry published in English translation: This Lamentable City (Tupelo Press), The Zoo in Winter (Melville House), Relocations (Zephyr Press) and Air Raid (forthcoming from Ugly Duckling Presse). She has taught at Hampshire College, Amherst College and Smith College. Starting in 2021, she will be teaching Russian literature at the University of California, Berkeley.

Chris Benfey head shot Christopher Benfey is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College. He is the author of five books about the American Gilded Age, including A Summer of Hummingbirds, which won both the 2009 Christian Gauss Award of Phi Beta Kappa and the Ambassador Book Award. A frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, Benfey is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 2013, he won the Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which is given to a writer whose work merits recognition for the quality of its prose style.

Birkerts wearing a black shirt in a black & white photo Sven Birkerts is the author of 11 books, most recently an appreciation of Nabokov’s Speak, Memory (Ig Publishing). He co-edits the literary journal AGNI at Boston University, and was for many years the director of the Bennington Writing Seminars. He interviewed Joseph Brodsky for The Paris Review.

A photo of Tommye Blount Tommye Blount is the author of Fantasia for the Man in Blue (Four Way Books, 2020)—a finalist for the National Book Award—and the chapbook What Are We Not For (Bull City Press, 2016). A Cave Canem alumnus and graduate from Warren Wilson College, he has been the recipient of a fellowship from Kresge Arts in Detroit and the John Atherton Scholarship from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Blount’s work has been featured in Magma, Poetry, New England Review, Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day, Ecotone, Ninth Letter, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Born and raised in Detroit, Blount now lives in the nearby suburb of Novi, Mich.

Bohjalian in front of a bookshelf Chris Bohjalian ’82 is the #1 New York Times best-selling author of 21 books. His new novel Hour of the Witch, a historical thriller set in 1662 Boston, arrives April 20, 2021. His 2018 novel The Flight Attendant is now an HBO Max television series. His most recent novel, The Red Lotus, is in development for TV. The 25th-anniversary edition of his 1995 magical realist novel about global climate, Water Witches, was published this summer, and he had a story in this autumn’s Suffragette City collection. Bohjalian has adapted his novel Midwives (an Oprah’s Book Club selection) into a play and is also author of the play Wingspan. His books have been chosen as Best Books of the Year by such publications as The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews, among many others. His numerous awards include the Walter Cerf Medal for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts; the ANCA Freedom Award, for his work educating Americans about the Armenian Genocide; and the New England Book Award. He is a Fellow of the Vermont Academy of Arts and Sciences and has written for a wide variety of magazines and newspapers.

A photo of Dan Chiasson Dan Chiasson ’93 is the author of The Math Campers (2020) and five previous books. He is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. Chiasson is the Lorraine C. Wang Professor of English at Wellesley College.

Catherine Ciepiela Catherine Ciepiela ’83 is a scholar and translator of Russian poetry who teaches at Amherst College. She is the author of The Same Solitude, a book on Marina Tsvetaeva and Boris Pasternak; co-editor, with Honor Moore, of the anthology The Stray Dog Cabaret; and editor of Relocations: Three Contemporary Russian Women Poets. Her translations have appeared in The Nation, The Massachusetts Review, Seneca Review, The Common, Pequod and elsewhere. Her translation of Polina Barskova’s book of poetic essays will appear in the coming year from the New York Review of Books.

A photo of Natalie Diaz Natalie Diaz is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe. Her first poetry collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec, was published by Copper Canyon Press, and her second book, Postcolonial Love Poem, was published by Graywolf Press in March 2020. She is a MacArthur Fellow, a Lannan Literary Fellow, a United States Artists Ford Fellow and a Native Arts & Cultures Foundation Artist Fellow. Diaz is director of the Center for Imagination in the Borderlands and is the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry at Arizona State University. She lives in Phoenix, Ariz.

A photo of Edward A. Farmer Edward A. Farmer ’05 is the author of the debut novel Pale, published in May 2020 by Blackstone Publishing. His novel has been compared to the work of the late Ernest J. Gaines in a starred review by Library Journal, called “important” by Booklist and listed as one of the best indie e-books of 2020 by Barnes & Noble Press. A native of Memphis, Tenn., Farmer journaled and cultivated stories his entire childhood. He now lives and writes in Pasadena, Calif.

reg e gaines reg e gaines is author/lyricist of the Tony Award-winning musical Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk and is in his ninth year as artistic director of the Downtown Urban Theater Festival in New York. Most recently, reg directed Through the Looking Glass for Center Theatre Group and Rock WILK’s Brooklyn Quartet. He is currently writing and directing two musicals: The 88 and FREE. His spoken-word career began at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, where he was named Grand Slam Champion.


Galassi in front of a bookshelf Jonathan Galassi has been at Farrar, Straus & Giroux since 1986 and currently serves as president. His most recent publication is a translation of Eugenio Montale’s selected poems (part of the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets Series, 2020).

A photo of Daniel Gallant Daniel Gallant is the executive director of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, the author of the short story collection Determined to Prove, and a playwright, theatrical producer, actor and teacher. His writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Time Out, the New York Post, the Daily News, 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, and was recently named to the Fulbright Specialist roster. He has been featured in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Crain’s New York, Forbes, Adweek, Inc., The Washington Post and Voice of America; and on CNN, MTV, NPR, NBC, NY1, CBS, Univision, the BBC and other networks.

A photo of Michael Gorra Michael Gorra ’79 returned to the Pioneer Valley in 1985, after getting his Ph.D. at Stanford, for a job in the Smith College English department. He is now the college’s Mary Augusta Jordan Professor of English, and his teaching focuses on the history of the novel. Gorra’s books include The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War (2020), described by John Banville as “momentous and thrilling,” and Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece (2012), a finalist in the biography category for the Pulitzer Prize. A 2007 Guggenheim Fellow, he has also received two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, including a Public Scholar Award, and a Balakian Citation from the National Book Critics Circle for his work as a reviewer. He is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and other journals. Earlier books include The Bells in Their Silence: Travels Through Germany (2004); After Empire: Scott, Naipaul, Rushdie (1997); and The English Novel at Mid-Century (1990). As an editor, Gorra has produced volumes for the Library of America (Elizabeth Spencer: Novels and Stories, 2021) and Penguin Books (The Portable Conrad, 2007) along with three Norton Critical Editions. Born in New London, Conn., Gorra lives in Northampton, Mass., with his wife, the art historian Brigitte Buettner. They have one grown daughter. 

A photo of John Hennessy John Hennessy is the author of two poetry collections, Bridge and Tunnel and Coney Island Pilgrims, and his poems appear in The Believer, Best American Poetry, Harvard Review, The New Republic, Poetry, The Poetry Review (UK), Poetry Ireland Review, and other journals and anthologies. He is the co-translator, with Ostap Kin, of A New Orthography, selected poems by Serhiy Zhadan, longlisted for the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, 2021; Hennessy and Kin won the John Frederick Nims Memorial Prize for Translation from Poetry magazine for work included in this book. A former Amy Clampitt Resident Fellow, Hennessy is the poetry editor of The Common and director of undergraduate creative writing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

A photo of Kirun Kapur Kirun Kapur ’97 is the winner of the Arts & Letters Rumi Prize for Poetry and the Antivenom Poetry Award for her first book, Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist (Elixir Press, 2015). Her second collection, Women in the Waiting Room (Black Lawrence Press, 2020), was a finalist for the National Poetry Series and was included in the Best Books of 2020 by Kirkus Reviews. Kapur was named an “Asian-American poet to watch” by NBC News, and her work has appeared in AGNI, Poetry International, Prairie Schooner, Ploughshares and many other journals. She has taught creative writing at Boston University and Brandeis University, and has been granted fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Vermont Studio Center and MacDowell Colony. Kapur serves as poetry editor at the Beloit Poetry Journal and currently teaches at Amherst College.

Kiechel head shot Claire Kiechel ’09 is a Los Angeles-based TV writer and former New York-based theater maker. She writes to unleash unuttered feelings, to excavate deliberately forgotten histories and to queer traditional story structures. Her plays span genres from existential cabaret to cosmic sci-fi to childhood horror, but their relationship with an audience remains at the forefront of their construction. Kiechel has received commissions from Actors Theatre of Louisville, South Coast Repertory and the Alley Theatre, and has an MFA from The New School of Drama. In her television work, she is drawn to shows that offer alternative myths, histories and timelines. She’s been lucky enough to write for The OA: Part II, HBO’s Watchmen and Circe (based on Madeline Miller’s book). Currently she is writing for Drew Goddard’s sci-fi Hulu show, developing an Amazon pilot based on her play Pilgrims (a grounded sci-fi pilot about motherhood and doubles) and creating a Gimlet/Spotify fictional podcast entitled A Heroine’s Guide to a Hero’s Journey.

A photo of Megha Majumdar Megha Majumdar was born and raised in Kolkata, India. She moved to the United States to attend college at Harvard University, where she was a Traub Scholar, followed by graduate school in social anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. She works as an associate editor at Catapult and lives in New York City. A Burning, her first book, was longlisted for the National Book Award and was named a top book of the year by the New York Public Library and NPR. 

Cullen-Murphy Cullen Murphy ’74 H’19 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.

A photo of Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint is the author of a novel, The End of Peril, the End of Enmity, the End of Strife, a Haven, which won a 2018 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature. Her second book, Names for Light: A Family History, was the winner of the 2018 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and is forthcoming from Graywolf Press this August. Myint was the recipient of a Fulbright grant to Spain and holds an M.F.A. from the University of Notre Dame and a Ph.D. in creative writing from the University of Denver. She is currently a visiting writer at Amherst College.

J.F. Seary J.F. Seary is a Nuyorican poet and actor who has toured nationally in New York City; Chicago; Philadelphia; Los Angeles; Grand Rapids, Mich.; Atlanta; and Orlando, Fla. She has also performed in San Juan, Puerto Rico; London; and Seoul. She has performed in King Lear, Is There Room in Your Heart, Vivisection, Soledad Speaks, Of Mothers and Men, HerStory and Is There Such a Thing as Love?. Seary is currently writing for the web series The New York Effect and recently joined Emit Theatre for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and An Isle Full of Noises. She is humbled by and eternally grateful for the continued love and support.

Nina Shallman head shot Nina Shallman ’18 is a singer-songwriter, musician and poet based in Los Angeles. She has been writing songs since she was 12 and has performed at the Hotel Café, The Mint and Americana Lounge in Los Angeles; Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, Mass.; the World Café in Philadelphia; and Rockwood Music Hall in New York City. She released her self-titled album in 2015 and a jazz EP called On Love in 2019. She has explored various genres, including indie-folk, dream pop and jazz. With her poetry, Shallman was chosen to represent Amherst in both the Five College Student PoetryFest in 2015 and Mount Holyoke College’s Kathryn Irene Glascock ’22 Intercollegiate Poetry Competition in 2016. Shallman was also invited to read her poetry at the first Emily Dickinson Open Mic in 2016. She is currently working on a few different projects, including an EP and a long-form poem exploring the relationship between early humans and Neanderthals.

Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne head shot outside Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne ’01 is a writer whose nonfiction has been published in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The New Republic and Amherst magazine, among other venues. Her short fiction has appeared in Broad River Review and Barren Magazine. Her debut novel, Holding On To Nothing (Blair, 2019), was an Okra Pick of the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance and won a Gold Medal at the Independent Publisher Book Awards for Best Regional Fiction from the South. She is a graduate of Amherst College and Grub Street’s Novel Incubator program. She is an East Tennessee native and mother of four children.

Kate Sisk head shot Kate Sisk ’14 is an NYC-based stand-up comic, writer and improviser. Following graduation, Sisk played soccer professionally with the Puerto Rico Women’s National Team before moving to New York to pursue a career in comedy. Sisk has performed stand-up in rooms all over New York City, as well as at clubs and festivals around the country. Most recently, Sisk was one of seven comedians selected to participate in the prestigious NBC Late Night Writers Workshop. As a comic, Sisk is known for stand-up about gender identity and life as a retired athlete, which has led to appearances in HBO’s Women In Comedy Festival and the Finals of the Boston Comedy Festival. In addition to stand up, Sisk was formerly a house team improviser at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and is currently a contributor at Awf Magazine and The Onion. Sisk is a former Amherst College Roland Wood Fellow.

Jane Wald Jane Wald has been executive director of the Emily Dickinson Museum (owned by Amherst College) since 2006. During that time, she has led efforts to expand public and educational programs and to preserve and restore the two Dickinson family homes and landscape. Her research and publications have focused on the cultural and material context of Dickinson’s life and work. She holds an A.B. from Bryn Mawr College and an M.A. from Princeton University, and she completed advanced study at The College of William and Mary.

A photo of Ismée Williams Ismée Williams ’95 is the critically acclaimed author of the YA contemporary #OwnVoices books Water in May (2017) and This Train Is Being Held (2020), a Junior Library Guild selection, published by Amulet Books. Williams has been an invited speaker at the Virginia Festival of the Book, the NYC Teen Author Festival, The Southern Kentucky Book Fest and the Bronx Book Festival, among others, and is one of the founders of the Latinx Kidlit Book Festival 2020. Williams is a pediatric cardiologist who trained and worked in New York City for over 20 years. She is the daughter of a Cuban immigrant and was partially raised by her abuelos. Follow her on Twitter and IG @IsmeeWilliams and

A photo of Charles Yu Charles Yu is the author of four books, including Interior Chinatown, winner of the 2020 National Book Award. He received the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award and was nominated for two Writers Guild of America Awards for his work on the HBO series Westworld. He has also written for shows on FX, AMC and HBO. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. 

LitFest 2021 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.