Someone off-camera holds a copy of "Year of the Cicada" up while Mei-Mei Holland smiles in the background, wearing a red and black plaid button-down with her hair in a ponytail.

Mei-Mei Holland and the lifecycle of a poet

In celebration of her debut poetry collection, "Year of the Cicada," the poet reflects on finding her voice over the years, learning more about herself and her family along the way

Mei-Mei Holland's book "Year of the Cicada" is out now.

Courtesy of Mei-Mei Holland

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Trigger warning: This article mentions suicide.

Creating a personal piece of art often gives us and our loved ones the opportunity to think about our experiences in new ways. This definitely rings true for Mei-Mei Holland, who has just released her debut poetry collection,Year of the Cicada. The collection is a reflection on her own journeys with mental health and identity, as well as the suicide of her grandmother, Pearl, and how it impacted her mother. The stories live in chapters categorized by the lifecycle phases of the cicada. Fittingly, the writing of the collection aligned with the rebirth of the 17-year cicada, which Holland had last seen at 12 years old.

My conversation with Holland affirmed just how nuanced intergenerational relationships are, and the multitude of ways younger generations are left with the remains of their family history.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Bri Ng Schwartz: I'd love to hear how writing first found you. Were there any authors or anybody who inspired you early on?
Mei-Mei Holland: There was a whole unit on poetry in my third grade class. I remember reading Naomi Shihab Nye, who only later in life do I think back on as being mixed race. She might be one of the earliest poets that made an impression on me. We had to read Valentine for Ernest Mann. It really stuck in the mind.

I took a workshop in poetry at 17 with the woman who went on to become the acquisitions editor for this book. So my early writing journey led me back to this. I hadn't done much writing post-college.

Headshot of Mei-Mei Holland wearing a brown sweater while leaning forward and resting her elbow on a table while leaning her jaw against her palm.

Mei-Mei Holland.

MacKenna Lewis

BNS: What were your early poems about? How have you grown since then?
MMH: One of the very first poems was about going to the pool and hearing these older women talk about how hard life was. There would be poems about any moment from my past that still had a sense of heat for me, that was somehow unresolved, or I had some complicated or unexplored feeling about.

I signed up for a writing workshop and one of the prompts was to “write to a ghost.” That is the workshop in which I wrote that letter to my grandmother Pearl that ends Year of the Cicada. I took another workshop called Both/And: Reading and Writing the Mixed-Race Experience, and that’s where a few of the pieces in the collection about growing up and learning about what it meant to be mixed-race came from.

BNS: Did you always know that you wanted to explore your identity in your writing? Or was that a journey?
MMH: Definitely a journey. I thought I wanted to write essays about the nonprofit industrial complex. I think sometimes the workforce can make you feel like you've got an agenda to achieve with your time.

I was looking forward to getting back to a sense of myself, so I started by writing a poem a night and I was surprised by what content came out.

I wasn't thinking that it was going to be so focused on exploring my relationship with Pearl, my own journey as a teenager with mental illness, or my racial identity, but it was. It was recollecting these different pieces of myself and trying to know myself again.

I wasn't thinking that it was going to be so focused on exploring my relationship with Pearl, my own journey as a teenager with mental illness, or my racial identity, but it was. It was recollecting these different pieces of myself and trying to know myself again.

BNS: Year of the Cicada explores how you came to understand the suicide of your grandmother, Pearl, as well as what you have learned about yourself and your family on this journey. What was your relationship with your family like while you were writing this collection?
MMH: I wrote this mostly from the West Coast. My family is all on the East Coast. You hear writers talk about how it's easier to write about a place when you're not there, and I do think for me that ended up being the case. It helps you defamiliarize the place that you're from. One example being the cicadas. When you grow up with them, they're weird, and they're gross, and they're surprising, but they're just part of life there.

I showed a pretty early draft to my two sisters. They might have experienced our childhood differently, but they recognized it as an honest reflection of our experience of growing up.

I felt that I needed to complete the project in some way before I was ready to share it with my mom. The day I sent it for copy editing is the day I shared it with her. I think she was proud of me for finding ways to weave experiences that had been really challenging into something beautiful. I also think it was very complicated for my mom on her own journey about sharing her past. I was able to feel a lot of gratitude for the excuse to go through that process with her.

BNS: In reading Year of the Cicada, I couldn't stop thinking about my relationship with my mom and her relationship with her mom. Hopefully, as generations continue, we can start to break some cycles.
MMH: I found that making a piece of art out of experience created an opportunity to look at it and think about it differently.

My mother was very surprised. She would say, “I had no idea it impacted you like that.” Parents sometimes are surprised at how much we're paying attention.

I think that when we go through a lot of pain, we're not always aware of the ways it's shaped our way of moving through the world. Sometimes that has to be reflected back to us by those who love us. But it was a process.

Image of the cover of Year of the Cicada.

"Year of the Cicada" is Mei-Mei Holland's debut poetry collection.

Courtesy of Jaded Ibis Press

BNS: So much of this collection is about Pearl and your mother, but you also have a couple of pieces that talk about other elders that you've encountered over time. Where do you see yourself in the future, as an elder?
MMH: I think I was surprised by how much elders showed up in this work, and how hungry I think my younger self was for them. Particularly for Asian elders, given that we had lost ours. As young people, sometimes we feel like we need permission from previous generations to claim certain identities.

So, as I think about myself as an elder, what invitations am I issuing to younger generations to participate in particular identities or movements? I think elders have a role in opening certain doors to belonging, which is a power they may not even be aware that they hold.

BNS: Especially being mixed, too. In theory, there are two sides of a family that influence you in that way, but when you're mixed, that isn’t always the case.
MMH: The interesting thing about being mixed is that you don't have many elders who are mixed, especially our generation. By the time our children and the next generation grow up, there will be lots of mixed Asians.

BNS: If there was another chapter in the collection, what do you think that would be about?
MMH: All of the conversations that I've been able to have with my family since the writing of this book. Like conversations with my mom. Conversations about what it means to have something like this story become permanent and accessible in the world.

Where the book ended, a whole other journey began.

Published on May 13, 2024

Words by Bri Ng Schwartz

Bri (she/her/hers) is an artist and administrator based in Brooklyn. She is committed to the dismantling of gatekeeping in arts and culture and uses her experience in community engagement and education to develop meaningful partnerships. Her current roles include education and community outreach manager at Primary Stages and is a teaching artist at Girl Be Heard. Having received a double major in dramaturgy/dramatic criticism and women's and gender studies from DePaul University, her early credits come from her time in Chicago, notably at Free Street Theater in various titles. Since relocating to New York, she has served in various administrative capacities at Dance/NYC, Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, National Queer Theater, JACK Arts, Theatre Communications Group and more. She has also written for publications such as HowlRound, American Theater Magazine and is a staff writer at Mixed Asian Media.