Logo with purple background and white font that says, LitFest 2018 Illuminating great writing & Amherst College's literary life

LitFest 2018: Illuminating great writing and Amherst College’s literary life

Thursday, March 1–Saturday, March 3, 2018, at Amherst College

Covers of books by Diaz, Machado, Lee, Gessen, and Thiong'o

Now in its third 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 Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz, 2017 National Book Award finalists Carmen Maria Machado and Min Jin Lee, 2017 National Book Award winner and Amherst professor Masha Gessen, and acclaimed Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, among others. 

The schedule is below, followed by biographies of each guest. All events are free and open to the public, no tickets required.



National Book Awards on Campus: A Conversation with 2017 Finalists Carmen Maria Machado and Min Jin Lee
Host: Parul Sehgal
7:30–9 p.m.
Johnson Chapel*
Hosted in partnership with the National Book Foundation. Followed by Q&A and book signing.

Poetry Slam by Amherst students
Host: Daniel Gallant
10 p.m.–midnight
The Powerhouse


Tell Us What You Think: The Pleasures and Perils of Writing about Books, with Parul Sehgal and Christopher Benfey
Host: Judith Frank
11 a.m.–12 noon
Frost Library, Center for Humanistic Inquiry (2nd floor)
Followed by Q&A. Light lunch served.

An Evening with Junot Díaz
Host: Jennifer Acker ’00
7:30–9 p.m.
Johnson Chapel*
Followed by Q&A and book signing.


Emily Dickinson and her Amherst Literary Milieu, a walking tour
9:30–10:30 a.m. and 3–4 p.m.
Emily Dickinson Museum
Sign-up during prior festival events required.

Poets of Amherst: Readings by Rafael Campo ’87 and Tess Taylor ’99 and a tribute to Richard Wilbur ’42
Host: Amelia Worsley
11 a.m.–12 noon
Frost Library, Center for Humanistic Inquiry (2nd floor)
Light lunch served. 

Writing in America: Siblings Masha Gessen and Keith Gessen on their literary lives and work
Host: Cullen Murphy ’74
1–2:30 p.m.
Johnson Chapel*
Followed by Q&A and book signing.

Ngũgĩ@80: This Time Tomorrow, with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
Host: Peter Kimani
3:30–5 p.m.
Johnson Chapel*
Followed by Q&A.


Literary Amherst: An exhibition celebrating Amherst College’s literary past and present
On view Feb. 20–March 5
Frost Library

*Please note: The venue for events featuring Junot Díaz, Masha Gessen, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Carmen Maria Machado and Min Jin Lee is Johnson Chapel, which 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.


Portrait of Jennifer Acker

Jennifer Acker ’00 is founder and editor-in-chief of The Common. Her short stories, essays, translations and reviews are forthcoming from, or have appeared in, Amazon Original Stories, The Washington Post, n+1, Harper’s and Ploughshares, among other places. She has an M.F.A. in fiction and literature from the Bennington Writing Seminars and teaches literature and editing at Amherst. Her debut novel, The Limits of the World, will be published in fall 2018.

Portrait of Christopher Benfey

Christopher Benfey is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College. A frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books and The New York Times Book Review, he also served as the long-time art critic for the online magazine Slate. He is the author of seven books, including A Summer of Hummingbirds and Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2012. In 2013, he won the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award.

Rafael Campo

Rafael Campo ’87 is the author of eight highly acclaimed books and the recipient of many honors and awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, an honorary doctor of literature degree from Amherst College, a National Poetry Series award and a Lambda Literary Award for his poetry. His third collection of poetry, Diva, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His volume of new and selected poetry, Comfort Measures Only, will be published in 2018. He teaches and practices medicine at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, and currently serves as director of literature and writing programs for the Arts and Humanities Initiative at Harvard Medical School.

Portrait of Junot Diaz

Junot Díaz was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey. He is the author of the critically acclaimed Drown; The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award; and This Is How You Lose Her, a New York Times bestseller and National Book Award finalist. He is the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, PEN/Malamud Award, Dayton Literary Peace Prize, Guggenheim Fellowship and PEN/O. Henry Award. He is a co-founder of the Voices of Our National Arts Foundation. A graduate of Rutgers University, Díaz is currently the fiction editor at Boston Review and the Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Writing at MIT.

Portrait of Judith Frank

Judith Frank holds a B.A. from Hebrew University and an M.F.A. and Ph.D. from Cornell University. She is the author of Crybaby Butch, which won a Lambda Literary Award in 2004. In 2008 Frank received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship for All I Love and Know. She has been a resident at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and has published short fiction in The Massachusetts Review, Other Voices and Best Lesbian Love Stories 2005. She teaches English and creative writing at Amherst College, and lives with her partner and two children in Amherst.

Portrait 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 the recipient of a 2016 Eisenhower Fellowship. He is also a playwright, theatrical producer, actor and teacher. His plays and monologues have appeared in five separate volumes of Hal Leonard’s Best American Short Plays anthology series, as well as anthologies from Vintage Books and Theater Communications Group. Daniel previously served as the director of theater and talk programming at the 92nd Street Y’s Makor and Tribeca centers. He has been featured in The New York Times, Crain’s New York, the Daily News, New York magazine and Voice of America; and on MTV, NBC, NY1, CBS, NPR, Univision, the BBC and other networks.

Portrait of Keith Gessen

Keith Gessen is a co-founder of n+1 and the author of All the Sad Young Literary Men. His book reviews and journalism, mostly focused on Russia and the post-Soviet space, have appeared in The Atlantic, the London Review of Books and The New Yorker, among other venues. He teaches journalism at Columbia, and his next book, A Terrible Country, will be published by Viking in the summer of 2018.

Portrait of Masha Gessen

Masha Gessen is the author of the National Book Award-winning The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin and several other books. A staff writer at The New Yorker and the recipient of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Carnegie Fellowship, Gessen teaches at Amherst College and lives in New York City.

Portrait of Peter Kimani

Peter Kimani is an award-winning Kenyan poet and author of, most recently, Dance of the Jakaranda, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He was one of three international poets commissioned by National Public Radio to compose a poem for Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. He is a founding faculty member of the Graduate School of Media and Communications at Aga Khan University in Nairobi, Kenya, and is currently the Visiting Writer at Amherst College.

Portrait of Min Jin Lee

Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko was a 2017 National Book Award finalist, a national bestseller, a New York Times Editor’s Choice and a top read for more than a dozen leading publications. Lee’s debut novel Free Food for Millionaires was a No. 1 Book Sense Pick, a New York Times Editor’s Choice and a national best-seller. Lee attended Yale University, where she was awarded both the Henry P. Wright Prize for Nonfiction and the James Ashmun Veech Prize for Fiction. She attended law school at Georgetown University and worked as a lawyer for several years in New York prior to writing full time. From 2007 to 2011, Lee lived in Tokyo, where she researched and wrote Pachinko. She lives in New York with her family.

Portrait of Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties was a 2017 National Book Award finalist. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta and NPR, among other places. Her short story “The Husband Stitch” was nominated for the Shirley Jackson and Nebula Awards, awarded a Pushcart Prize Special Mention, and longlisted for the James Tiptree Jr. Literary Award. She holds an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the Copernicus Society of America, The Elizabeth George Foundation, the CINTAS Foundation, the Speculative Literature Foundation, the University of Iowa, Yaddo, Hedgebrook and The Millay Colony for the Arts. She is the artist-in-residence at the University of Pennsylvania, and lives in Philadelphia with her wife.

Cullen Murphy

Cullen Murphy ’74 joined Vanity Fair as editor-at-large in 2006. He had previously served as the managing editor, for more than two decades, of The Atlantic Monthly, where he also reported and wrote articles. Murphy is the author of a number of books, including 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 wrote the comic strip Prince Valiant, which was drawn by his father, the illustrator John Cullen Murphy. His most recent book, Cartoon County: My Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe, a memoir, has just been published. Murphy has been a member of the board of governors of the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Emily Dickinson Museum, and is a member of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. He is the chair of the board of trustees of Amherst College.

Parul Sehgal

Parul Sehgal is a book critic at The New York Times. She was previously a columnist and senior editor at The New York Times Book Review. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Slate, Bookforum, The New Yorker, Tin House and The Literary Review, among other publications. She was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation from the National Book Critics Circle for her criticism. She has been a featured speaker at TED and teaches at Columbia University and the Center for the Humanities at CUNY.

Tess Taylor

Tess Taylor ’99 is currently the poetry reviewer for NPR's All Things Considered and was most recently a Distinguished Fulbright U.S. Scholar at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Her second book, Work & Days, was called “our moment’s Georgic” by critic Stephanie Burt and named one of the 10 best books of poetry of 2016 by The New York Times.

Portrait of Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is a novelist, essayist, playwright, journalist, editor, academic and social activist, born in Kenya in 1938. He published his first novel, Weep Not, Child, in 1964. In the wake of his 1977 novel Petals of Blood and play Ngaahika Ndeenda, both critiques of neo-colonial inequalities, he was incarcerated at Kamiti Prison. In prison, he committed to writing in his first language, Gikuyu. He argues in Decolonizing the Mind, a collection of his influential essays, that the reclaiming of native languages as literary languages is one of the strategies for contesting colonial power. Exiled from Kenya, he was Five Colleges Visiting Distinguished Professor of English and African Literature in 1991. His most recent novel is Murogi wa Kagogo/Wizard of the Crow. In the past decade, he has published three memoirs: Dreams in a Time of War, The House of the Interpreter and Birth of a Dream Weaver. He is currently Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine. His books have been translated into more than thirty languages.

Amelia Worsley

Amelia Worsley is an assistant professor of English at Amherst College. She has a Ph.D. from Princeton University and a B.A. from the University of Cambridge. This year she is completing her first book, Lonely Poets and their Publics, which explores the history of the concept of loneliness and questions why it was so attractive to British Romantic poets. She has written articles on William Shakespeare, John Milton, William Wordsworth, Charlotte Smith and the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott.

LitFest 2018 is sponsored by The Common literary magazine, The Emily Dickinson Museum and the Center for Humanistic Inquiry at Amherst College. 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.