Where authors take center stage: Amherst College’s Litfest returns this weekend with talks, reading, more


Staff Writer

Published: 02-23-2023 8:49 PM

February has its national landmarks: Presidents Day, the Super Bowl, Groundhog Day, Valentine’s Day.

In the Valley, February also means it’s time for Amherst College’s LitFest.

Now in its eighth year, the college’s literary festival brings acclaimed and up-and-coming writers to campus to talk about their craft and celebrate the written word, from fiction to nonfiction to poetry.

This year, the public sessions begin Friday, Feb. 24 and run through Sunday, Feb. 26. Among the highlights will be a talk with National Book Award finalists Meghan O’Rourke and Ingrid Rojas Contreras, as well as readings by Amherst “alumni authors” such as Ted Conover, who’s written several nonfiction books including “Newjack,” winner of a 2000 National Book Critics Circle Award.

Also on tap is a reception at the Mead Art Museum to mark the opening of a new exhibit, “God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin,” which profiles the noted writer through collected artworks and photographs. The exhibit was originally organized by Hilton Als, a staff writer and theater critic for The New Yorker who’s won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Books Critics Circle Award, both for criticism.

That reception takes place Feb. 24 at 6 p.m. and will include remarks by Als, who also will be in conversation Feb. 26 at 1 p.m. at Johnson Chapel with Frank Lee Roberts, an Amherst professor of English and Black Studies. The session, “President’s Colloquium on Race and Racism,” will be introduced by the college’s president, Michael A. Elliott.

Litfest is open to the public, both in person and virtually, but it’s also a key event for Amherst students, notably those interested in a career in writing. The festival is sponsored in part by The Common, the college’s literary journal, and a number of interns with the journal will give readings Feb. 25 at 4 p.m. in Frost Library.

LitFest started as a collaboration between The Common, the college and the National Book Foundation, which presents the annual National Book Awards and also brings nominees and winners of those awards to colleges to speak (that program is called National Book Awards on Campus).

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As Jennifer Acker, editor in chief of The Common and the principal founder of Litfest, previously told the Gazette, “The idea was to draw on the college’s literary tradition and to expand on having National Book Award writers coming to campus.”

Indeed, the school can lay claim to a long list of acclaimed writers drawn from the student body and faculty: Robert Frost, Richard Wilbur, David Foster Wallace, Ted Conover, Robert Stone, Chris Bohjalian, Charles Mann and many others.

O’Rourke and Contreras, two of the principal visiting writers this year, were both finalists for a 2022 National Book Award: O’Rourke for “The Invisible Kingdom,” an exploration of the rise of chronic illness and autoimmune diseases, and Contreras for “The Man Who Could Move Clouds,” a family and personal memoir that also examines Colombian history.

Other featured writers at Litfest 2023 are poets Victoria Chang, a Los Angeles Times Book Prize winner, and Tyehimba Jess, a 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner. There’s also Valeria Luiselli, a novelist and essayist who has twice been a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Litfest events are free, but attendees are encouraged to register. You can do so at amherst.edu/about/literary-amherst/litfest.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.