“TThe narrator’s voice snaps you up,” reads The New York Times review of The Committed, by Viet Thanh Nguyen. “It’s direct, vain, cranky and slashing—a voice of outraged intelligence. It’s among the more memorable in recent American literature.”

This year’s seventh annual Amherst Litfest also snapped up, to use the Times’ phrase, Nguyen and other powerful writers, bringing them to a campus gone snow-bright after a recent blizzard. The guests included Pulitzer Prize winner Natalie Diaz; Katie Kitamura and Elizabeth McCracken, who were longlisted for 2021 National Book Awards; journalists Vann Newkirk and David Graham; and more.

From Feb. 24 to 27, the writers engaged with the campus community, speaking at Johnson Chapel, sitting in on classes and sharing their insights. The four novelists also plunged into close colloquy with students by giving “craft talks” on how they craft their narratives—while coaching students on how to make their own stories come alive. We covered two such talks, one offered by Nguyen (who slashed at the idea of “craft” altogether) and one by Kitamura, who had Amherst students probe current events for inspiration.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, wearing a kn95 mask, seated at a table, gestures while talking

Just a Writer. “I don’t do craft.” That’s the first thing Viet Thanh Nguyen declared to the 20-plus students gathered at Frost Library for his craft talk. Nguyen elaborated: Learning the craft, the techniques of fiction writing—narrative, plot, point of view, etc.—doesn’t necessarily teach you anything about how to write about ideas and personal passions related to race or politics, or, in Nguyen’s case, his own family history of being a Vietnam War refugee. “I also don’t call myself a creative writer,” Nguyen continued. “It seems kind of redundant. Why do you have to be a creative writer? If you’re a writer, you should be creative.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen contemplates the question posed by students gathered around a seminar talbe

The House of No Books. Students listened closely as Nguyen shares that he was raised in a religious home that was void of books, not even a Bible. Ngyuen forged his love for literature at the San José, Calif., public library. This passion led him to UC Berkeley, where he discovered books beyond the classic, literary canon, venturing into Asian American literature, African American literature and post-colonial literature. He also took a writing class taught by Maxine Hong Kingston, author of The Woman Warrior. There, Nguyen began to grapple with the non-technical issues of writing, issues related to implicit bias, representation and translation. How, he wondered, can he keep his own implicit biases out of his fiction writing?

Three students listen closely as a forth students ask a question of author Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Burden of Representation. Nguyen touched on issues of audience and translation. Writers who are “normatively identified in whatever way, whether it’s their race or their class or their gender, don’t get asked or really have to think about who they are writing for,” he told the students. Such writers can assume that their audience will understand their references and their culture, and so they don’t have to define or explain what’s going on. Nguyen’s advice? Don’t try to humanize your characters. They’re already human.

A female student in an orange shirts listens as another students speaks during a LitFest Craft talk.

The Spreadsheet. Nguyen spoke about the 17 years he spent writing The Refugees (yes, 17 years; more about persistence in a minute), and the massive Excel spreadsheet he created for its themes, characters, events and perspectives. This effort allowed him to deliberately develop a diverse set of situations and characters—young, old, gay, straight, male, female, Black, white, Asian— without slipping into representing or defining any one identity through a single lens or character. When asked how writers can heal from what they don’t know about their own personal history, Nguyen paused: “Wow. If I could answer that question, I’d never be out of business.” After the laughter subsided, he continued: “I don’t think of writing as a form of healing. I think of writing as a form of grieving, of mourning.” Individual grief doesn’t allow a culture to heal, he added. “Literature can show the possibility of healing, but it can’t heal. … Literature can’t change anything. Action can change things.” One student asked how he approaches writing from another identity. In response, he invoked author Alicia Elliot and fellow Litfest author Natalie Diaz. “Empathy is not enough,” said Nguyen. “Instead, you need to write with love.”

Students collect around Viet Thanh Nguyen for autpographs

What Craft Doesn’t Teach You. At the end of the session, many students stuck around for autographs. “None of my writing workshops ever taught how to write about history or theory or politics, or philosophy,” Nguyen told them. “I never understood why that was the case. Why is a writing workshop only devoted to craft, and why is craft only about … technical issues?” Early in his career, he didn’t consider himself to be a good writer. But was extremely stubborn. The only thing that makes you a good writer is to read and write a lot, he insists. “If you have to choose,” he said, “between talent and persistence, take persistence.”

Katie Kitamura, wearing a face mask, speaks during a craft talk at LitFest.

Testifying in The Hague. Katie Kitamura’s latest novel was sparked by something in the news, and today, here in a seminar room at Frost Library, she urged 13 Amherst students to forge fiction from the news, too. Back in 2009, Kitamura heard Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, on the radio, speaking at his trial at The Hague’s International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity. “It was one of those really destabilizing moments,” she told the students. “I could hear the ego and monstrosity of this person and I could also hear his incredible rhetorical skill. Something in that moral gray zone grabbed me.” The result was Intimacies, the unnerving story of a translator at the ICC. In Frost, Kitamura asked the students to take five minutes to find a news item that intrigues them, and then consider ways to alchemize it into fiction.

Katie Kitamura listens to a responds to students' question during the craft talk

Reparations in Zimbabwe. Takudzwanashe “Michael” Mhuru ’24 alighted on an item about a rally against proposed Zimbabwean reparations for white colonialists whose land was reclaimed by the country’s citizens. Kitamura asked what angle he’d take, what timeline he’d choose and how he’d confront the idea of colonialism. By the end of the session, Mhuru had decided he’d work with five characters, including a speaker at the rally, the speaker’s wife and a soldier who guards them, each with different opinions on reparations. “That’s incredibly rich,” Kitamura told Mhuru: “One of the things the novel is so good at is capturing the tension between the individual and the social structure they operate in.”

A student rests his head on his hand as he listens intently to Katie Kitamura.

Soliders in Ukraine. Josh Choi ’22 chose to work from an article about a Ukrainian man, living abroad, who went back home to fight Russia, plus a photograph of another, younger man, crying at the thought of fighting. The first man “had a very national pride, a defensive tone,” said Choi, while the younger man seemed overwhelmed. Choi wondered if he could fix a narrative by fitting these two characters together. “I like how you have two characters, and that schism,” said Kitamura. Later, Choi thought aloud about how to give each character agency. Said Kitamura: “Agency is something that can be won and lost in a piece of fiction—and tracking how that changes can be an interesting idea.”

Two students pose questions to writer Katie Kitamura

Crimes in Mexican Resorts. Natalie Landau ’22 latched onto an article about crimes at Mexican resort towns. She thought her characters could include an older couple on vacation and “a group of young highly irresponsible tourists who got involved with people outside of the hotel, maybe at the bar, and brought violence to the hotel.” She added that this outsider-insider clash could touch on race and class privilege. Kitamura wondered how Landau could show this unraveling, and Landau was concerned about how to keep the characters human, not stereotypical. “How do you keep characters from being instrumentalized?” Kitamura asked the class. “The answer is: complexity.” 

Junk Science About Black People. An article on the recent trial of Ahmaud Arbery’s killers led Victoria Okoro ‘22 to think of how Black people have been dehumanized, particularly through studies that erroneously purport Black women and men are oversexualized. “I’m taken aback that someone would go out of their way to make up a theory and pretend it’s science,” said Okoro. Said Kitamura: “You could really lean into the world of people who invent theories and how they get proliferated into media outlets.”

Katie Kitamura dispensing autographs and writer's advice at the end of her craft conversation.

What Provokes You? Other students toyed with conceiving a fictional treatment of Kamila Valieva, the Russian figure skater found to have a banned substance in her system; the Ukrainian woman who gave sunflower seeds to Russian soldiers; and a banana cake recipe that conveyed the story of the son who baked it for his mother (“I love the idea of using recipe language!” said Kitamura). “Try to think of a character or two and feel free to move as far away from your source material as you like,” she told the students, noting that she never wrote about Charles Taylor, specifically, and made another character the protagonist in Intimacies. The germination is the point: “Listen to whatever set of ideas the item may have provoked you.” Then she thanked the 13 students for being so generous, and sat down to sign copies of her book, which began when she turned on the radio 13 years ago.