Viet Thanh Nguyen visited Amherst College in February 2022 in the joint roles of Presidential Scholar and LitFest headliner. In his live conversation with The Common’s editor-in-chief Jennifer Acker, he deployed humor and refreshing honesty to discuss his path to publishing his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer and its best-selling sequel The Committed. The conversation touched on the complexities of Vietnamese diasporic identity as well as his desire to expand the world of literature to encompass critical thought, breaking through the traditional literary bubble to allow for politics, history, and more. This interview is a collaboration between The Common and Amherst College’s LitFest and is an edited and condensed version of the live conversation.
Belonging Is a Complicated Thing: An Interview with Viet Thanh Nguyen
On October 21st, 2020, Editor in chief Jennifer Acker moderated a brief reading and conversation between acclaimed poets Tess Taylor and Dana Levin on the importance of place, resiliency, and writing during the pandemic. The virtual event, which served as a fundraiser to celebrate The Common’s 10th publishing year and launch the place-based magazine into its second decade, was streamed live via Left Bank Books in St. Louis. Below is a transcript of the discussion that followed the readings.
Pandemic Poets: A Conversation with Tess Taylor and Dana Levin
In 1969, my grandfather gave the keynote address to the Master Brewers Association of America. He was not a brewer himself, but he had worked thirty years as a consultant to the industry, and by this time he had provided advice to breweries in every state of America and seventy countries.
The title of his speech was “How to Make Beer That Sells—with What You’ve Got!” He focused first on the importance of quality and outlined the industry standards: 1) Beer must be “clean and pleasing in flavor” as well as 2) “pleasing in appearance”; and 3) “it should not vary in flavor or appearance from day to day.” While beer drinkers today, myself included, wouldn’t agree with his definition of “pleasing” as “a complete absence of distinctive flavor components,” I suppose he can be forgiven for being at the mercy of the era’s bland American palate. As an industrial engineer, his main focus was on cleanliness, efficiency, and reproducibility; he did not seek to be a tastemaker, nor did he encourage this in his clients.
On October 21, join The Common for a conversation about poetics in the time of pandemic and the ecology of lockdown. Acclaimed poets Dana Levin and Tess Taylor will read new work and discuss the importance of place, hope, and resilience in their creative and personal lives in a conversation moderated by Editor in Chief Jennifer Acker. This event is a fundraiser to celebrate The Common’s 10th publishing year and launch the place-based magazine into its second decade. Join us for stirring poetry and thoughtful talk!
Pandemic Poetics: Hope, Resilience, and Poetry in the Time of Lockdown
On February 29, 2020, Jesmyn Ward visited Amherst College to headline LitFest and host a masterclass with students. The below interview is adapted from her public conversation with The Common’s Editor in Chief Jennifer Acker.
[JA]: I think what comes through so clearly in that passage are all of the details of that property and all the norms of the community. So I want you to just tell us a little bit more about this place you’ve created, Bois Sauvage. Tell us what this place is like, and why it’s a fictional place, because it is very much inspired by your home.
[JW]: When I came up with the idea of creating a fictional town that’s based on my hometown, one of the reasons I wanted to do so was because I felt like the place where I’m from is so small that it would be harder to write about if I didn’t transform it. Sometimes I feel like the Bois Sauvage that I write about is this idealized version of my hometown, and not my hometown. Even though Sing, Unburied, Sing takes place in 2016-2017, I feel like Bois Sauvage is the idealized version of DeLisle, my hometown, from maybe in the 1980s when I was a child, when it was even more rural than it is now. Both DeLisle and Bois Sauvage are small rural places where community is very important, where families have been living for generations, because everyone knows everyone and everyone knows everyone’s history. I think part of what I’m trying to communicate or explore in Bois Sauvage is this idea of community and what community looks like in a place like that, and how a community can help its people survive in very specific, particular ways. I think I am also trying to convey the beauty of that area and that region.
Jesmyn Ward on writing honest novels with good titles, inhabiting ghosts, and learning to love Faulkner
Joseph O’Neill is an Irish and Turkish writer who grew up in the Netherlands, practiced law in England, and now lives in New York City while teaching at Bard College. His novel Netherland won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award and was praised by President Obama. O’Neill’s novel The Dog was nominated for the 2014 Booker Prize. He is known for sentences that are both precise and extravagant, that build on each other to undulating and dazzling effect. His work is founded on a bedrock sense of humor, and a healthy sense of the absurd is never far away. And yet his novels and stories are never merely funny; they are also rich excavations of character and observations of modern life. This keen eye, alongside evident empathy and wit are on display in his first collection of short stories, Good Trouble, which was released in 2019 and has been called “an essential book, full of unexpected bursts of meaning and beauty.” This conversation is adapted from O’Neill’s visit to Amherst College this winter.
Mark your calendars! For the fifth year, The Common is preparing for LitFest, a weekend of events to recognize and celebrate contemporary literature. In conjunction with the National Book Awards and Amherst College, The Common will celebrate extraordinary voices such as Jesmyn Ward, Susan Choi, Laila Lalami, and Ben Rhodes.
LitFest will be held on the campus of Amherst College from February 27th through March 1st. For more details, visit the LitFest website. But first, read on for recommendations from the participating authors.
Recommendations: Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward; Trust Exercise by Susan Choi; Battle Dress by Karen Skolfield, and The World as It Is by Ben Rhodes.
Here it is, the final Friday Reads of the decade! This month, we’re sharing the audiobooks that have entertained and challenged us this year. If you’d like even more listening material, check out The Common Online’s Poetry Recordings here.
Recommendations: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett; The Vexations by Caitlin Horrocks; Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt; All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Wednesday, November 13, 4:30pm The Center for Humanistic Inquiry Frost Library Amherst College Free and open to the public
Join The Common and the Amherst College Creative Writing Center for a reading and Q&A with author Joseph O’Neill, hosted by TC Editor in Chief Jennifer Acker. This event is part of the Amherst College Creative Writing Fall Reading Series, which includes several readings around the town of Amherst.
A conversation with Joseph O’Neill, hosted by Jennifer Acker
With July well underway, we’veput together a list of transportive pieces that encapsulate the spirit of summer—the dust above the country roads, the coolness of the waterfronts, the anticipation of autumn, and of course, the sticky, melting sweetness of ice cream. Take a trip through space and time with these summery selections.