New UMass Writing Professor Noy Holland Gets in Touch with the Primitive

March 3, 1997

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AMHERST, Mass. - It may be unusual to hear a white middle class writer talking about going to Africa to find her roots, but for new University of Massachusetts MFA professor Noy Holland, usual is kind of a dirty word. That’s because for much of her life, Holland has made change and restlessness something of a religion. Between 1987 and 1996 she lived everywhere from Montana to New York City to coastal Africa, never staying in one place for longer than a year.

It all started in her childhood when her family traveled from New Mexico to Kentucky for the summers. Her father was involved in weapons research near Los Alamos, and he wanted his children to see the rural countryside of his parents. From Kentucky to a new home in Pennsylvania and then to Middlebury College, Holland traveled during her formative years. Yet it wasn’t until after she’d graduated, and had moved to New York City, that real wanderlust finally hit.

"I was working as a reader for Scribner’s and set on a life in publishing, when my mother got sick and died," Holland says. "After that, I decided to take off for Africa. I wanted to get away from everything I knew and to learn a different code."

Indeed, while in Africa, Holland did find herself living according to a new set of rules. She remembers, for example, being sick one day with dysentery and believing a conversation between a friend and an older man they had just met, had something to do with Holland being offered into prostitution.

Still, for all the dislocation of such experiences, Holland found she was thinking increasingly of home. It was as if, having been removed physically from where she’d been raised, she''d tried to recall that lost world - and, in doing so, had come around to thinking of her mother.

Not long after realizing this, Holland returned to New York City, and enrolled in a writing class taught by renowned writer/editor Gordon Lish. Ironically, it was here, back where she’d started, that she broke through to the feelings she’d found stirred up in Africa. "Lish made me rethink everything," Holland says. "It was as if I remembered I’d forgotten how to speak."

Armed with this new knowledge, Holland plunged into a novella-length story which dealt with the death of her mother. Ultimately, this became the pivotal piece in her debut collection of short stories, "The Spectacle of the Body" (Knopf), which was published in 1994 to critical acclaim.

Now that Holland has joined the MFA program at UMass, she feels more settled than she has in years. Whether this is due to the recent birth of her child, or the feeling of connectedness she has with other faculty, isn’t exactly clear. One thing, however, is certain, she says. "I’ve bought a house, and I’ve decided to start a garden. I’m not going anywhere for the foreseeable future."