When the novelist Emma Donoghue first started to realize she was gay, as a 14-year-old student at a Catholic convent school in Dublin, only one person seemed to understand her: a 19th-century American named Emily Dickinson. In a conversation for this series, Donoghue explained how she recognized her own urgent longing in “Wild Nights! - Wild Nights!,” and how Dickinson’s use of direct address—a mysterious, capacious “you”—allowed for the possibility of love between female characters.
Donoghue’s new novel, The Wonder, is set in Ireland in the years after the Famine, and hunger is at its core. The protagonist, a British journalist named Lib Wright, is entrusted with a girl who refuses to eat, claiming she hasn’t had a bite of food in four months. As Wright cares for the girl and tries to determine her secret—is she a fraud? A medical anomaly? A saint? A would-be suicide?—the search for an answer transforms her.
Emma Donoghue is the author of five story collections and eight other novels, including Room (2010), which was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and adapted, with a screenplay by the author, into last year’s Academy Award-winning film. A Cambridge PhD, her monograph Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature won the Stonewall Book Award from the American Library Association. She spoke to me by phone.
Emma Donoghue: My mother was a teacher of English, and is a book lover, and she used to quote Emily Dickinson to me. I think she remembered Dickinson because the poems were short, easier to recall than something with big wodges of text. The first one I can remember was “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died,” but there were others. I was even meant to be called Emily, at first, before I was born. That’s what my father [the literary critic Denis Donoghue] wanted—he was working on a book on Dickinson that year. But my mother held out for Emma, even though she was a huge fan of Dickinson the poet.
I think we should have gone with Emily, personally—I’d have preferred that. But what can you do? Emily Dickinson was not exactly known for her personal happiness and fulfillment. Maybe my mother thought it would be like naming me Sylvia, after Sylvia Plath.
One of the poems she used to recite to me, “Wild Nights - Wild Nights!”, became very important to me in my teens. I probably sought it out again once I knew that I was in love with a girl myself at 14—because there I was, in 1980s Ireland, realizing that I was a lesbian and couldn’t tell a soul. It was as if there was nobody around in Irish culture at the time who I could see myself in. So I used Emily Dickinson. On the basis of her poems and letters, it seemed like she had strong passions for women in her life as well as for men. I remember thinking, “Well, I may be a freak in my social context, but I can be like Emily Dickinson. Who needs to be normal?”
Most of the writing I did at the time was lyrics addressed to a “you” beloved, the way this poem is. They weren’t all love poems, but when they were it was always “I” addressed to “you”: it frees you from the necessity to specify the gender of the person you’re speaking to, so it’s a closeted lesbian’s best friend, this pronoun. The lack of specificity makes it a really attractive form, and the intimacy of the “you” helps draw the reader in directly. (That’s one reason the “you” form is used all the time in pop songs.) It allows readers to imagine someone speaking to her beloved, but to use their own imagination about who the beloved might be.
Wild nights – Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Futile – the winds –
To a Heart in port –
Done with the Compass –
Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden –
Might I but moor – tonight –
I find the poem to be viscerally expressive of romantic and erotic love. What comes across most is this sense of overwhelming yearning. It’s actually quite a demanding overture: she’s saying she wants to “moor in” somebody, a very physical and intimate image.
At the same time, you don’t know who she’s addressing—it’s very unspecific, and not just in terms of gender. It’s hard to determine the relationship between the narrator and the object of affection. Is the speaker someone who has experienced a cozy life with the beloved, and has been sadly parted from that person? Or is the narrator pining for an acquaintance from afar? “Were I with thee”—that could even be a stalker talking. It’s very ambiguous.
What makes it all work is the slight edge of hysteria edge we sense in the speaker. One minute you’re thinking oh, she’s a wonderful, romantic heroine; the next minute you’re wondering whether she’s a stalker. The slightly unhinged feel to her adds to the reader’s thrill. She appears to be offering images of safety and comfort and home, but there’s this crazy edge.
One thing I loved about Emily Dickinson is that there are always vivid images to grab hold of, even if you’re not quite sure what each one means. There are so few words and yet you could spend hours discussing each one because she doesn’t put much down, making room for a huge amount of rich ambiguity. At first glance you see those lovely concrete images—the winds of the port, and the compass, and the chart—and you think you know what this poem means. But it’s not a poem saying, “Oh, lovely to be at home with you.” When you start to tease it out, you’re thinking, hang on a minute. You think you’re moored, then the next thing you’re sailing again, and then you’re rowing instead of sailing. The images don’t quite fit each other easily, and she seems to go back and forward between those seas and the harbor. How are we rowing in Eden—which is usually thought of as an earthly, agricultural paradise—and are we moored or not? There isn’t a clear progression from the seas to the harbor. She’s got a lovely hidden complexity.
I love concrete images and I have no brain for philosophy at all. I hang out with a lot of academics because my partner’s an academic and my dad is one, but when they start discussing Derrida or something, my brain just seems to get woozy and I’m always needing to say to them, “Oh, is that a bit like … a banana?” I seem to think best in concrete images.
We all want to put big ideas into our books, right? But when you’re writing a book, you’re exploring the subject so deeply that, of course, you end up with your head full of big theories about what’s going on. You don’t want to just cut all that out, but nor do you want to weigh down the book by putting in a conversation in which people discuss things in very abstract or stodgy terms.
One example would be in my new novel, The Wonder, when I was trying to have the protagonist finally realize that her people, the English, had to bear some responsibility for the Irish Famine. But I didn’t want that just to be presented as a political argument. So I have her walking along a road in the country and then she eventually learns that this particular road was built as a workfare exercise by the starving and that as they died along the way they were buried just under the surface of the road. The scene begins in a pleasant way, everything green and pastoral—and then we watch as she begins realizing that the bumps of the grass under her feet are not clods of soil, but skulls.
This approach makes her feel something in a visceral way, not just in an informational kind of way. I could have gotten the same idea across in a conversation about theology or politics or who’s responsible for the Irish Famine, but if you give the reader a vivid and concrete image, that that will hook their attention, making it easier for them to understand and remember the details longer.
For me, writing is about the basic thrill of making something out of words that never existed before. That hasn’t changed since I was a child. I really love writing, I’m not one of these writers for whom it’s a crippling task. Not that I always write beautifully, but I just love that business of dreaming up new things that never existed before and then endlessly fiddling with the words to get them right.
I used to love the idea of your poems being discovered after your death. As a child I remember thinking that The Diary of Anne Frank was a pure text because it was written in the moment without any concern for publication. The same with Dickinson— as a child I loved the fact that she tried to publish one or two poems, and got rebuffed, and then just put them away. She was unpublished until after her death, and I found this deeply romantic. That was what I wanted. I sort of assumed that that the way to be published is, you hoarded up your best poems, and then you died and somebody found them. It was quite a weird model I had for the writing life.
But something about that idea has stayed with me, nonetheless. Dickinson was a crucial role model to me as far as, just follow your own passions, write your own poems. Don’t even care if they get published or not. Write them for the bliss of writing them.
Who is Emily Dickinson talking to in “Wild Nights?” A stranger? A lover? A friend? 19th century women friends quite often addressed each other in these terms, so they didn’t draw that neat line between friendship and lover relationships the way we do. But there are so many other possibilities. Even her poems to death are somehow passionate and intimate, and her poems to God have the same sense of overwhelming yearning. The poem’s main image—of the long, difficult voyage and then coming into port— is more traditionally recognized as being about going to heaven than about losing your lover. She was a bit of a mad mystic, so her idea of going to heaven probably did include some wild storms.
Of course, in some ways it shouldn’t matter what a writer’s life was like, or whom she was writing to—the poem should work on its own. But there can be a wonderful tension between the life and the poems, especially in poems as enigmatic as Emily Dickinson’s are. I have her collected poems and if I had to bring a book to a desert island that would be one of the few books I’d bring—even though, in some of them, I haven’t a clue what’s going on. They can be really, really strange in a way I love. She sounds like nobody else.