Calling all book lovers: LitFest 2020 brings award-winning writers and editors to Amherst College

  • Ben Rhodes, author of the bestselling memoir “The World As It Is” about his time in the Obama adminstration, speaks March 1 at LitFest 2020 Image courtesy LitFest 2020

  • Jesmyn Ward is a two-time winner of the National Book Award for fiction — the first woman to win the award twice. Photo by Beowulf Sheehan/courtesy LitFest 2020

  • Jesymn Ward, who speaks at LitFest 2020 on Feb. 28, won the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction for “Sing, Unburied, Sing.”

  • Susan Choi won the 2019 National Book Award for Fiction. Image courtesy LitFest 2020

  • Susan Choi’s newest award-winning novel is “Trust Exercise.”

  • Laila Lalami was a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award for Fiction  and also previously was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Photo by April Rocha/courtesy LitFest 2020 

  • Laila Lalami’s newest novel in “The Other Americans.”

Staff Writer
Thursday, February 13, 2020

Late February can seem a terrible drag, with winter hanging on and better weather probably still at least a month away.

But if you like books, a literary festival now in its fifth year in the Valley might perk you up.

LitFest 2020, from Feb. 27 to March 1, will bring a full panel of talented writers and editors to Amherst College for a series of talks, workshops and other events that celebrate fiction, nonfiction, poetry and a few things in between. From National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward, to Pulitzer Prize finalist Laila Lalami, to bestselling political memoirist Ben Rhodes, the visiting speakers are part of an effort to build what organizers call “literary community” among students, faculty, staff and the public.

It’s become a popular event, drawing upwards of 1,700 people to a school that boasts a long resume of successful writers from both from the student body and the ranks of faculty: Robert Frost, Richard Wilbur, David Foster Wallace, Robert Stone, Charles Mann and many others.

Litfest 2020 also takes place during the 10th anniversary of the start of The Common, the bi-annual literary journal based at Amherst College. Jennifer Acker, the lead organizer for LitFest 2020 and editor-in-chief of The Common, says the festival began as a collaboration between the journal, the college and the National Book Foundation, which presents the annual National Book Awards and also brings nominees of those awards to colleges to speak (that program is called National Book Awards on Campus).

It’s been a fruitful partnership, Acker told the Gazette last year. “We really liked the idea of having those writers come here, but we also thought we could expand on that. And bless her literary soul, [Amherst President] Biddy Martin was very quick to offer her support.”

In an email, Acker said this year’s LitFest will include a conversation between Andy Ward, Amherst class of 1994 and now executive vice president and publisher of Random House, and Rhodes, author of “The World As It Is,” a memoir of his time in Washington, D.C., as Deputy National Security Advisor to Barack Obama.

“We did think it would be fascinating to get an insider’s account of the Obama White House,” said Acker, who noted that author Cullen Murphy, Amherst class of 1974 and editor at large of The Atlantic, will moderate the discussion. The conversation, Acker said, will also be in homage to the late editor Richard Todd of Ashfield, yet another Amherst graduate and a revered figure in the writing field who worked for years with the Valley-based writer Tracy Kidder. Todd died last year at age 78.

Talking books and writing

The conversation with Ben Rhodes will take place Sunday, March 1, at 1 p.m. Another headline event takes place Friday, Feb. 28, at 7:30 p.m. when Amherst English professor Judy Frank speaks with novelist Susan Choi, winner of a 2019 National Book Award for her newest work, “Trust Exercise,” and Laila Lalami, a finalist for a 2019 National Book Award for her novel “The Other Americans.”

Choi has won a number of previous awards, including the Asian-American Literary Award for fiction, and The National Book Foundation calls her new novel “As captivating and tender as it is surprising … [it] will incite heated conversations about fiction and truth, and about friendships and loyalties.”

Meantime, the Foundation calls the new book by Lalami, who was born and raised in Morocco and now lives in California, a “timely and powerful novel about the suspicious death of a Moroccan immigrant — at once a family saga, a murder mystery, and a love story, informed by the treacherous fault lines of American culture.”

Acker says another LitFest highlight will be her talk with Jesmyn Ward on Saturday, Feb. 29 at 4 p.m. “The conversation with Jesmyn will focus on her award-winning fiction, writing about her foundational place of DeLisle, Mississippi, and her unique brand of fantastic realism,” Acker said. And after that talk ends at 5:30 p.m., there will be a reception with Ward, complete with a birthday cake “to mark The Common’s 10th publishing year,” Acker noted.

Ward is a two-time winner of the National Book Award for Fiction, for the novels “Salvage the Bones” (2011) and “Sing, Unburied, Sing” (2017). She’s the first woman and first person of color to win two National Book Awards for Fiction, which puts her in the company of writers such as William Faulkner, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Philip Roth and John Updike.

Raised primarily in southern Mississippi not far from the Louisiana border, and now teaching at Tulane University in New Orleans, Ward has written fiction, nonfiction and memoir that The New York Times Book Review has called “raw, beautiful and dangerous.” Much of her writing has explored the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as she and her family were forced from their house by flooding during the disaster.

Also on the agenda at LitFest 2020 is a talk by Karen Skofield, Northampton’s current poet laureate and a writing teacher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In addition, there will be free tours of the nearby Emily Dickinson Museum Friday through Sunday for LitFest attendees.

Most other events will be held at Johnson Chapel and the Frost Library (a spoken word slam for Amherst students only takes place Thursday, Feb. 27, at The Powerhouse, a campus building used for theater, movies, art exhibits and other events).

And, Acker says, there’s one other feature of LitFest 2020: “Special 5th-anniversary commemorative swag will be available to audiences on a first come, first served basis this year, so that’s an exciting inducement, in addition to the wonderful talent.”

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

For more information on LitFest 2020, visit amherst.edu/amherst-story/literary-amherst/litfest.