This weekend, the college hosted LitFest, the annual literary festival featuring award-winning writers and opportunities for students to share and cultivate their writing. This year’s guest speakers included Pulitzer Prize winners Hilton Als and Tyehimba Jess, MacArthur Fellowship winner Valeria Luiselli, National Book Award finalists Ingrid Rojas Contreras and Megan O’Rourke, and Guggenheim Fellowship winner Victoria Chang.
Spoken Word Slam for Amherst Students
LitFest began with a two-round Spoken Word Slam in the Eighmy Powerhouse on Thursday night. The competition was hosted by Daniel Gallant from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York City and judged by four staff members. The judges rated students’ performances out of 10 points, which they wrote on a whiteboard and held up after each performance. After the two rounds, students each had a total possible score of 80 points. Though rules allowed for the audience to “boo” judges for giving low scores, all performers scored highly and the crowd was very energetic and cheerful. Refreshments including pizza, cookies, and apple cider, were provided for attendees.
There were around 15 performers, including two students who were featured but did not compete. The judges each read a quote from a banned book, then Mikayah Parsons ’24, who was not part of the competition, performed to calibrate the judging. Following that, each performer read one original piece of poetry, prose, or monologue, with a three-minute limit. During the intermission, there was impromptu additional competition where haikus were written and performed based off of interesting prompts like “snack stuck in vending machine” and “not letting scores define you.” Afterward, the second round of the spoken word slam began where students read another original piece.
The first place prize for the Spoken Word Slam was a spot as a guest of honor at the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York City with travel expenses covered by the college. The second place prize was an iPad. Tristan Moore ’24 placed first, Max Pasakorn ’24 placed second, and Emily Wykoff ’26 placed third.
“God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin”
An exhibit in the Mead Art Museum curated by Hilton Als — art curator; University of California, Berkeley professor of English; and staff writer of The New Yorker — called “God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin” opened on Friday night. The reception featured opening remarks by Siddartha Shah, director of the Mead, Jennifer Acker ’00, founder and editor-in-chief of The Common, and Als himself. The exhibit will remain on display through the summer.
The exhibit combines visual art such as short film, sculpture, painting, and photography. It also includes various eclectic artifacts from Baldwin’s life, such as rocks from his terrace in France and first edition copies of books he wrote. One part of the exhibit features a sculpture of Baldwin’s head, and adjacent to it is a photograph of Baldwin face-to-face with the sculpture.
The exhibit is broken into three rooms, and each one highlights a different aspect of Baldwin’s life. The first room is an exploration of Baldwin’s childhood and early adulthood, including photos and depictions of his parents. It also includes his mentors, painter Beauford Delaney and Orilla “Bill” Miller. The second room explores his connection to New York City and his queer identity. In his opening remarks, Als said, “It was very important to me to give [Baldwin] back his identity as a gay man.” The third section of the exhibit highlights Baldwin’s lifelong unrealized desire to work in the film industry.
Als remarked, “All of these rooms are about possibilities and each room is about my hope or understanding of where Baldwin came from and what he aspired to do.”
Conversation with Meghan O’Rourke and Ingrid Rojas Contreras
Meghan O’Rourke and Ingrid Rojas Contreras, both National Book Award finalists, discussed their views on writing — from the meaning of truth, to the role of mortality, to the possibility of healing, and more — in Johnson Chapel last Friday evening.
The conversation was moderated by Lecturer in English Dennis Sweeney, and it featured opening remarks by President Michael Elliott, The Common Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Acker, and National Book Foundation Executive Director Ruth Dickey.
Both authors began by reading passages from their featured books: Contreras from “The Man Who Could Move Clouds,” a memoir about her family’s supernatural powers, and O’Rourke from “The Invisible Kingdom,” a personal investigation into the contemporary chronic illness epidemic.
Afterward, Sweeney began to pose questions to the authors, who took turns answering. Despite the superficial differences between their books, the authors’ responses often built on each other.
Both agreed that the act of writing is less about solving problems than it is about finding language to express those problems. “If we try to solve the mystery, … the meaning is lost,” Rojas Contreras said. O’Rourke added that “the work language can do … is in many cases political,” emphasizing that the language used by those who are sick is often discounted by the medical system but is nonetheless an important aspect of their experience.
The authors also talked about the extensive research involved in writing their books. For Rojas Contreras this research was personal, as she was telling a story about her own family. But when she attempted to do archival research she came to a realization: “People like us are not in the record,” she said. Rather, it is more of a “history of colonization.” So she instead focused on having conversations with her family members about their experiences.
O’Rourke said her research was both personal — based on her own diagnosis with an autoimmune illness — and externally focused, as she also spoke to many other people who suffered from similarly under-described conditions. She began to recognize a similar story emerging over and over. “The thing that connects us all is our mortality and our fragility,” she added.
Addressing the possibility of healing via writing, O’Rourke said that the process can be therapeutic, but that isn’t why she writes. She just wanted to find “a container” for what she had experienced. “We need stories in order to live,” she said, quoting Joan Didion. As Rojas Contreras put it, “Sometimes, healing is living with whatever happened to you.”
Phosphorescence: A Poetry Event with Victoria Chang and Tyehimba Jess
The Friendly Reading Room in Frost hosted a poetry reading with Victoria Chang and Tyehimba Jess on Saturday. The reading was a special LitFest edition of a monthly poetry event, “Phosphorescence,” typically held at the Emily Dickinson museum.
Chang kicked off the event with selected poems from her books “Obit,” “Dear Memory,” and “The Trees Witness Everything.” Many of Chang’s poems from “Obit” and “Dear Memory” explore her grief following the death of her parents and the many questions she was left to contemplate after their passing. Chang read aloud, “I used to think that a dead person’s words die with them. Now I know that they scatter, looking for meaning to attach to, like a scent.”
Jess read from his book “Olio,” which explores the lives of Black figures from the 19th century whose legacies have been neglected by history. Several poems are written about John William “Blind” Boone, ragtime composer and musician, whose eyes were surgically removed as a cure for encephalitis when he was an infant. One poem, written from the perspective of Boone as a child imagines a conversation between him and his mother, addressing the question “Mommy, what happened to my eyes?” as Jess explained.
The readings were followed by a question-and-answer session with the poets. They discussed their inspirations, their methods of conducting research on historical subjects, and their experimentation with using physical space on a page to convey poetry. Chang and Jess share an interest in history and use their work as opportunities to learn about and share stories that have been overlooked.
LifFest Craft Talks
On Saturday and Sunday, several of the guest writers hosted “craft talks.” These events were round-table opportunities for students to get to know the writers more personally, to discuss the creative process, and participate in informal writing exercises.
As the exhibit curated by Hilton Als had just opened in the Mead the night before, his craft talk was about the relationship between “visual information” and storytelling. Als explained that when he curates an exhibit, he typically has a specific narrative in mind. For instance, he expounded the thought process underlying an exhibit he curated based on a little-known Toni Morrison work, “The Black Book,” which details the Black experience in America. The exhibit’s works included photos of Morrison, but also paintings and sculptures from contemporary artists that Als thought reflected the writer’s work. The key point of the talk was that visual art, like words, can be used to convey stories in creative ways.
Ingrid Rojas Contreras’s craft talk was focused on both fiction and nonfiction. The theme of the discussion was dreams: how we can interpret them as another facet of our lives and what place they take in both fiction and nonfiction. She read a dream passage from her newest book, a memoir entitled “The Man Who Could Move Clouds,” and spoke about the effect that they had on her own life. We then did an exercise that entailed us writing down all of our dreams with the statement “I remember,” to try and reframe the way that we perceived them.
Valeria Luiselli’s craft talk took place on Sunday because travel delays prevented her from being on campus on Saturday. After going around the room and introducing themselves, students were asked to write short autobiographies, and then to read them aloud. Some people wrote very formal biographies, while others were more creative and fluid in their approach. Then, Luiselli asked them to write another autobiography — this time, without using the letter “e.” After reading the new autobiographies out loud, the group discussed the value of putting constraints on writing.
In the craft talk led by Victoria Chang, participants first read an essay about what motivates a person to write before spending some time writing about what motivates them to write. Then, they read two poems, and wrote poetry inspired by the style of what they had read. Chang explained that when one is a writer at heart, no matter what they do in life or where they go, they will be pulled back to writing.
Meghan O’Rourke focused on the role of the palimpsest voice, which is nonfiction with two layers of narration — one from the past and one from the present. O’Rourke discussed the importance of metacognition, or using present-day knowledge to help write about the past. The group read passages from O’Rourke’s “The Invisible Kingdom” and works including Joan Didion's “Goodbye to All That” and James Baldwin's “The Fire Next Time.” O’Rourke advised the group to use language economically when writing nonfiction, and to both show and tell a story.
Readings by Amherst Alumni Authors and The Common Student Interns
On Saturday, The Common hosted an event featuring their student editorial interns reading alongside Amherst alumni authors. Hosted by The Common’s Literary Editorial Fellow Sofia Belimova ՚22, the reading began with Thomas E. Wood ՚61 Fellow Olive Amdur ՚23 reading from her yet-untitled creative thesis. Journalist Ted Conover ՚80 followed with an excerpt from his newest book, “Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders at America’s Edge.”
Intern Sophie Durbin ՚25 followed with part of her creative nonfiction piece “Inconvenience Store,” which she wrote over the summer. Author Marti Dumas ՚98 then read from the first novel in her middle grade fantasy series, “Wildseed Witch.”
Intern Kei Lim ՚25 read two parts of their three-part poem “Evergreen,” and author and Coordinator of the Creative Writing Center Catherine Newman ՚90 read from her new novel, “We All Want Impossible Things.” Finally, Intern Sarah Wu ՚25 followed with an excerpt from her story “The Tiger,” and author and journalist Mark Vanhoenacker ՚96 finished the reading with three passages from “Imagine a City: A Pilot’s Journey Across the Urban World.” A reception and book signing followed.
Valeria Luiselli in Conversation with Jennifer Acker ՚00
On Saturday evening, acclaimed author Valeria Luiselli joined Jennifer Acker ’00, founder and editor-in-chief of The Common, for a conversation in Johnson Chapel. They discussed Luiselli’s writing process, creating a sense of place, and the role of her bilingualism in writing. Luiselli, a MacArthur Fellow, has written both fiction and nonfiction and has written in both English and Spanish.
Luiselli was born in Mexico City and grew up in South Korea, South Africa, and India. “It has always been through the process of writing a place that I am able to make myself at home in it, to some degree,” she explained. She extends this association with place to reading as well, often remembering the places where she read a book better than the plot itself.
She has found inspiration in “the electricity generated by children’s imaginations” — specifically, exploring how a child’s imagination processes reality and affects the adults around them. She was also moved by the refugee crisis in Europe in 2014, and felt that she “could not write about anything else” because the topic had overtaken her thoughts.
Her books are often written in short fragments, usually with several small sections on a single page. “I have made peace with the fact that I can concentrate very well on short fragments,” she admitted. Luiselli described her sometimes years-long creative process: She writes countless “notes” in both English and Spanish, “take them apart and put them back together,” until one of these fragments captures her attention and she feels compelled to see it through. Ultimately, though, she said her piece-meal writing process is dictated by “real-life circumstances” and “how many minutes I might get [to write].”
The conversation was followed by a question-and-answer session and a book signing.
President’s Colloquium on Race and Racism
On Sunday, Assistant Professor of English Frank Leon Roberts led the President’s Colloquium on Race and Racism with Pulitzer Prize-winning essayist, curator, and theater critic Hilton Als. He is known for his contributions to The New Yorker, as well as his essay collections “White Girls” and “My Pinup.” The Mead is also currently showing his exhibition “God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin.”
President Michael Elliott introduced him and Roberts, who began their discussion by talking about the impact of Baldwin on Als’s life. Als first came into contact with Baldwin through “Notes of a Native Son,” and his conversation with Frank, who teaches a course at Amherst about James Baldwin, was conversational and free-flowing. They discussed Black and queer identities through both the lens of Baldwin and in contemporary America. When asked about the state of Black writing now, and any advice for Black writers, Als simply answered: “Keep working.”
The conversation also had light-hearted moments, such as when Als described his encounters with the singer Prince and his morning routine, faithfully accompanied by The Wendy Williams Show. He discussed where his name came from, as described in “White Girls,” and then opened the floor for questions from the audience.