LitFest 2020 brought distinguished authors and editors to Johnson Chapel--illuminated in purple for the occasion--for a weekend-long celebration of words and writing, from fiction and nonfiction to poetry and spoken-word performance.
This festival featured, from left, 2019 National Book Award winner Susan Choi and finalist Laila Lalami; memoirist and former Obama speechwriter Ben Rhodes; 2017 NBA winner Jesmyn Ward; poet Karen Skolfield; and book editor Andy Ward ’94; among others. (Bonus: Hear 5 students read from 5 LitFest authors.)
The book-loving crowd in Johnson Chapel included students, faculty, staff, alumni and local community members.
Judith Frank, Amherst’s Eliza J. Clark Folger Professor of English (at right), led an evening conversation with writers Susan Choi (left) and Laila Lalami (center). Choi read an excerpt from her novel Trust Exercise, which won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2019, and Lalami read from The Other Americans, a finalist for the award that year.
Questions from the professor and from audience members delved into the authors’ use of different narrative perspectives, the role of anger or rage in their writing, the reasons various groups put their members through actual “trust exercises,” what it means for a work of fiction to be labeled “political” and the concept of an “ideal reader.”
When Frank asked about taking editors’ suggestions in revising their novels, Lalami said she “spent a week weeping” because she had to throw much of a draft away, but she ended up being “so grateful” for the guidance. Choi recalled her editor telling her, “I think there’s an unswept corner”—meaning that Trust Exercises needed to wrap up differently. “I wrote four endings. By the time I got to the fourth, was like, ‘It’s this corner!’” Choi said. “It was a very clean house by the end.”
2017 National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward (left), in a conversation with Jennifer Acker ’00, founder and editor-in-chief of Amherst’s literary magazine The Common, spoke about the themes of surviving and thriving that run through her novels set in a fictional Mississippi town feeling the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“I think a lot about my parents, grandparents and great grandparents … of how more difficult their lives were because they were black and because they lived in Mississippi, attempting to survive in the ’50s and ’60s,” Ward said, adding, “I think about everything that they had to endure and how they still had joy, how they still expressed themselves creatively.”
“So that is what gives me hope,” Ward continued. “I would feel as if I were disrespecting them and not honoring their legacy if I did not acknowledge the role that hope played in their lives.”