Recapping LitFest 2018: The Art of Writing

Junot Diaz teaching a Master Class

If you want to be a writer, Junot Díaz suggests putting down your pen and going out into the world. “Writing is an art,” he said to a class of 32 students gathered at the Emily Dickinson Museum during LitFest 2018, the College’s third annual literary festival. “And art comes out of your relationship with the world.”

Díaz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and the international bestsellers Drown and This Is How You Lose Her, began the class with remarks about the intrinsic nature of creative writing courses. “When a class doesn’t jell, you really feel that as a loss,” he said. “On the rare occasion when a class works, you remember it forever.” The hour-long session was likely an experience many students will never forget. Diaz offered tips on using voice as a strategy and creating characters that feel vivid and alive. But perhaps his most important advice was this: “It is only through our understanding of the world that any of our characters take on any meaning," he said. "Put down your pen, and experience the world.”

The master class preceded the LitFest 2018 headline event: a reading and conversation with Díaz hosted by Jennifer Acker, editor-in-chief of The Common literary magazine at Amherst. Aimed at celebrating the College’s literary history as well as exceptional writing and writers, the festival welcomed 1,700 students, faculty, staff and community members March 1–3. 

The festival included discussions with 2017 National Book Award finalists Min Jin Lee and Carmen Maria Machado; 2017 National Book Award winner and Amherst professor Masha Gessen and her brother, author and n+1 co-founder Keith Gessen; and acclaimed Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Additional activities included master classes with Lee and Machado, a poetry slam by Amherst students, conversations with book editors and with poet Rafael Campo ’87, and tours of the Emily Dickinson Museum.

There was also a workshop for students interested in publishing careers. It featured alumni experts and was hosted in partnership with the Loeb Center for Career Exploration & Planning. In addition, there was an exhibition in Frost Library, Literary Amherst, aimed at illuminating the College’s literary past and present and celebrating its role as a premier writing college.

Below are five snapshots from LitFest 2018.

A Conversation with Min Jin Lee & Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen Maria Machado (left); Min Jin Lee (right) One writer joked that, at her college, “English majors had the best hair.” The other called out a well-mic’d “bless you!” when an audience member sneezed. In an irreverent, real, intimate conversation on Thursday night, Carmen Maria Machado (Her Body and Other Parties), Min Jin Lee (Pachinko) and the noted book reviewer Parul Sehgal sat in big blue leather chairs at Johnson Chapel and traded insights on narrative styles, world history, their childhoods, love, sex, mentors, success, college, missionaries and mental health. Meanwhile, references skittered forth: Jane Eyre, Katherine Boo, the BBC, Allan Gurganus and M*A*S*H. And they had the audience laughing. Often.

Bits of autobiography spilled out, too: Machado thought she’d be a journalist but then, she quipped, “I realized I hate talking to people.” Lee had been a lawyer. Sehgal said she was “so honored to be with two writers I worship” and asked each to describe how they approach their work. “I push up at what I dread and what I dream about,” answered Machado. Lee, who calls herself a social realist and favors the omniscient narrator, said, “What I like about fiction is it allows the reader to experience empathy. When you read Tolstoy, you feel Russian. When I read Jane Austen, I was English.” Then she gestured to the diverse audience of several hundred and cracked: “I’m actually trying to make you all Korean!”

An Evening with Junot Díaz

Junot Diaz In front of a packed house in Johnson Chapel on Friday night, Díaz discussed the inspiration for his forthcoming children’s book, Islandborn, about a young girl who can’t remember “The Island” her family is from. Díaz said the story was inspired by his niece, whose experience is likely familiar to many young immigrants: “What does it mean to belong to an immigrant community where you don’t remember what many refer to as ‘home’?”

Immigration and familial experiences are also at the heart of Drown, Díaz’s debut collection of short stories. “I was trying to figure out how to represent my family Christmas Eve dinner,” said Díaz, who was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey. “If I wasn’t in this family, I wouldn’t believe this family,” he said, describing some members as phenotypically black and others as phenotypically white. The resulting stories illustrate various voices, personalities, actions, ideas and languages, connecting and spanning multiple generations.

A Conversation with Masha Gessen & Keith Gessen

Masha Gessen (left); Keith Gessen (right) The final day of LitFest covered not only the sins of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump and the dangers of authoritarianism, but also the merit of apologizing to your big sister. “I remember an incident … I must have been 6 or 7. I was so mad at you. I said, ‘You’re a fascist,’” Keith Gessen said to Masha Gessen. Smiling, he continued, “I want to take this opportunity to say I’m sorry. I don’t think you’re a fascist.”

The two exchanged jokes and praise, as well as thoughts on writing, during a wide-ranging conversation moderated by Cullen Murphy ’74, Vanity Fair editor-at-large and chair of the College's Board of Trustees.

Murphy asked the elder Gessen about the inspiration behind her National Book Award-winning The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. “I set out to write a book about, in a way, things that didn't happen,” she said. “How Russia didn't become a democracy. How Russian society didn't embrace freedom. How Russian society didn't reckon with the past.”

The younger Gessen spoke about starting up the literary magazine n+1, which he jokingly described as “like Partisan Review, except not dead.” He also spoke about his forthcoming novel, A Terrible Country, which he “tenuously based” on a year he spent in Russia, where he wrote about Russian society while helping his aging grandmother.

A Conversation with Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o

Ngugi Wa Thiong'o “Imagination is the greatest democratic equalizer,” Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o told the crowd in Johnson Chapel during the final LitFest event. “Imagination knows no age.” 

But Ngũgĩ—one of Kenya’s most influential postcolonial writers, who taught at Amherst in the early 1990s—was back to mark his 80th birthday. Hosted by Visiting Writer Peter Kimani, the conversation was part of the English department’s “Ngũgĩ@80” event series, which also included a staged reading by Five College students of Ngũgĩ’s play This Time Tomorrow and a screening of the documentary Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o: The River Between African and European Languages.

In Johnson Chapel, the author began by reading from his childhood memoir Dreams in a Time of War and novel Wizard of the Crow. He discussed being a university student in the mid-20th century and finding inspiration in rights movements and struggles for independence around the world. He answered audience questions about, among other topics, his later-career commitment to write in his native Kikuyu rather than English.

“Monolingualism is the carbon monoxide of culture,” he said. “Multilingualism is the oxygen of culture.” When languages interact, not in an imperialist hierarchy but in an egalitarian network, they help each other breathe.

The event culminated with surprise birthday cake for all to share. Members of the Amherst College Gospel Choir led a round of “Happy Birthday” in English and two celebration songs in Kikuyu.

Literary Amherst: An Exhibition Celebrating the College’s Literary Past and Present

Exhibit in Frost Library

This year’s festival included a special exhibition in Frost Library, on view Feb. 2 through March 5, illuminating aspects of the College’s literary life and celebrating its role as a premier writing college. The exhibit featured some of the College’s outstanding faculty and alumni authors; its award-winning literary magazine, The Common; its special connection to beloved poet Emily Dickinson; its ties to the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.; the incredible collections of literary works in College Archives and Special Collections, which recently acquired a collection of groundbreaking works by female writers from the archives of the Paris Press in Ashfield, Mass.; and LitFest. A new website accompanied the exhibition.

Amherst’s annual literary festival is sponsored by The Common, the Center for Humanistic Inquiry 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.