Visiting Writers Series: Professor Noy Holland and graduate student Leni Zumas astound with recent works

By Sarah Gamard

(Visiting Writers Series/ Daily Collegian Archives)
(Visiting Writers Series/ Daily Collegian Archives)

A pair of writers with ties to the University of Massachusetts hosted a night of witch trials, futuristic anti-abortion laws, extramarital affairs and drastically contrasting writing styles during last Thursday’s installment of the regular Visiting Writers Series.

The UMass Masters of Fine Arts Program for Poets and Writers hosted UMass professor Noy Holland and MFA graduate Leni Zumas Thursday night in Memorial Hall.

A live fiction reading doesn’t necessarily sound like the most thrilling way to spend a Thursday night, especially if it meant travelling through the biting, wet cold weather to enjoy the free admission. Thirty minutes before the event started, things did not look promising as the large room was freckled with potted trees and plants and placating, virtually meaningless framed landscapes.

However, the disappointing quietude was soon eradicated by the start of the event when the several rows of old, creaking, metal chairs were completely filled by enthusiastic attendees. The cold, rainy night outside made dim-lit Memorial Hall feel extremely cozy (and soon humid) with so many bodies in one space, wafting with the inevitable cigarette-musk and buzzing enthusiasm that comes with crowds of college-age writers and poets at late-night readings.

Zumas read first and was introduced by an old friend from her undergraduate years at Brown University, who called Zumas’ writing a gift to everyone and reminisced over their shared love for William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” in the early years of their friendship.

 “When I read (Zumas’) astonishing work now, I can still feel our time with Quentin and Caddy,” her friend said, referring to Faulkner’s two famous characters from the novel. “I feel the wonder one feels … when a human being you are close to has a shining talent and can use it.”

Zumas read from her work-in-progress “Red Clocks,” a futuristic dystopian novel about an American witch trial in a small town in Oregon. The novel takes place in 2025 after the passing of a constitutional amendment granting rights of “life, liberty, and property” to a fertilized human egg. Under this amendment, abortion is illegal and advanced reproductive technology is nearly illegal. The story follows a woman who defies these laws and is accused of witchcraft.

Zumas was unpretentious and at ease on her old campus. Her imagery-heavy writing is disturbing, unhindered and unapologetic; her piece was detailed with sexually explicit – but not enticing – and misogynistic images of women, vulgar and detailed imagery of pubic hair, human lactation and burning witches’ bodies.

It became apparent when Holland, who followed Zumas, was introduced, that the room was full of adoring friends, colleagues and UMass students. Zumas called Holland of her favorite fiction writers “on the planet.”

The close friend and colleague who introduced Holland recalled a time that the UMass professor shut off all the lights in a Bartlett classroom and read by a small lamplight to ensure students would listen to and hear the story in its purity.

Her presence, even the quiet way she walked to the podium, was charming, approachable and humble. She began her reading with a quick confessional and gratuitous speech, openly appreciating the love of her colleagues, Zumas’ writing and her students.

“I feel all messy,” she said amicably as she took a swig of water, referring to her gratitude for the loving introduction.

She said she often feels undone by the work of her students and that she walked into workshop that day feeling “irrelevant.” Her openness was inspiring, not only as a writer to other writers, but as an accomplished person reminding others that even recently-published forces of talent can be vulnerable. The reading was not only creatively inspirational; Holland’s presence was, for a student who has not taken her class and was unused to her, spiritually and emotionally placating.

Her writing, on the other hand, was the exact opposite.

Holland was compared to a “secret keeper” earlier in the evening. Indeed, Holland illustrated this with her own double persona. On the outside, she is much shyer and soft-spoken than Zumas.

Holland’s humble, motherly demeanor disappeared when she read from her novel, “Bird,” published just two days prior to the reading, replaced with a powerful and penetrating voice.

She read her prose rhythmically, as if it were poetry. Memorial Hall was not only silent but also still, under the spell of her commanding, masterful voice produced from years of solitary, arduous practice and the light of the podium lamp reflecting off the pages like a halo onto her concentrated face and cascading blonde hair.

Holland’s reading voice is akin to a musical instrument; she switches the way a musician begins to play an instrument or sing, or the way an actor dons the persona of their character. She broke character for only a moment between readings – saying, “I’m gonna skip ahead a little bit” – momentarily reverting to her delicate demeanor before delving back into the prose.

The person who introduced Holland compared her anxiety over developing written work to “a mother’s fierce worry for what will become of her children.” That motherly role was also shown not only in her intimate presence and her relationship with her students, but also in her writing. “Bird” follows the double-life of a dutiful wife and mother and her recollection of reckless love as a young woman that is revisited with a passionate, extramarital affair. Unlike Zumas’ fiction, which penetrates through a creative and thrilling plotline, Holland’s writing exhilarates through lyricism.

Both readers were followed by booming applause. After the reading, the satisfied audience filtered out, buzzing more enthusiastically than before from artistic fulfillment for the night, to the after-event at High Horse Brewing in downtown Amherst.

Zumas is currently an assistant professor at the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Portland State University. She has published the short story collection “Farewell Navigator” and “The Listeners,” a novel and finalist for the 2013 Oregon Book Award. Her work has appeared in New Orleans Review and Columbia Journal, among other places.

Holland is published in prestigious literary magazines such as The Kenyon Review, Glimmer Train, Milan Review and The Believer, and was a recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council award for artistic merit and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. Holland also serves on the board of directors for the Fiction Collective Two, which describes itself as “an author-run, not-for-profit publisher of artistically adventurous, non-traditional fiction.”

Her collections of short fiction and novellas include “Swim for the Little One First,” “What Begins with Bird” and “The Spectacle of the Body.” 

Sarah Gamard can be reached at [email protected]