This week I have done a small tour of the US for the paperback of my first novel, The Icarus Girl, and I'm in New York now for the Pen World Voices festival of international literature. Most of the writers are staying in the same hotel, a 'tresting place with mismatched wallpaper, showers that won't turn off and amazing staff who, I suspect, have seen it all when it comes to things writers need. At the front desk: "Excuse me, have you got a paper bag? Excuse me,
have you got some Sellotape? Excuse me, have you got a torch?" Et cetera.
Forty-eight hours before I leave, the US-UK time difference is still destroying me. I am so tired that the "Axis of Evil" finger puppets (Donald Rumsfeld, George W Bush, Dick Cheney and an unnecessarily harsh representation of Condoleezza Rice) that I just bought at a shop in the East Village keep making me giggle. For the past couple of nights Chris Abani, author of GraceLand (as he described himself in a voicemail message to me! What?), has sat up very late with me, drinking tea and arguing, among other things, about Battlestar Galactica. I take aliens very seriously and don't appreciate light entertainment or weak approximations being made of them. I think Chris takes aliens seriously, too, but when it comes to TV he agrees with Emily Dickinson when she writes: "Kill your Balm - and its Odors bless you -"
Not that anyone is ever that articulate quoting Emily D at three in the morning after a day of interviews and readings. But it seems to me that this week has been about Emily Dickinson.
With one exception: the best comment of this tour was made to me in New Jersey, where a co-ordinator for educational exchanges between US and Nigerian schools explained to me, very succinctly, why the Lorraine Hansberry play A Raisin in the Sun is important, despite my saying I didn't like it. She said: "These kids, these Nigerians! They seem to have so little idea or interest in what happened to some of their people once they were shipped en masse to the New World. I swear they think Nigerians stepped off the slave ships and said, you know, 'Yo!'"
But Wednesday was Emily Day. On Wednesday I was at Emily's house in Amherst. I climbed off the bus from Boston, lugging my suitcase and laptop bag and bag stuffed with books. As I walked down Main Street a feeling grew that is difficult to describe. I have been in love with Emily Dickinson's poetry since I was 13, and, like an anonymous post on findagrave.com says, "Dear Emily - I hope I have understood." Emily's poems are sometimes difficult, often abstract, on occasion flippant, but her mind is inside them. Her most amazing poems were written in 1862, which some biographers highlight as her time of mental, physical and emotional breakdown. Her writing brings discomfort, makes me feel that when it comes to perception, I don't know the full story. So to come to the house of this woman who described the feeling of "a Funeral" in one's brain, the same woman who loads the buzzing of a fly with the sensory weight of a hammer . . . it wasn't just all the luggage that I had that made me feel I was coming home.
The luggage probably helped, though. I pack too many books. Shoulder straps can only hold up so much paper: I felt like my arm was falling off. I stood in the small orchard with the faint, narrow path running to the next-door house, and I looked at the house and I knew the place. I knew the place, and there was a happy change to my breathing, and that's the most I'm able to say.
The house couldn't tell me why and how Emily looked at life and spoke about it at such a deep and intimate slant; neither could the house tell me why Emily looked at what life there was outside and didn't take it for her own. But there was nothing more important to my tour than that visit: in the midst of people being really nice about and interested in a novel I wrote three years ago, Emily's house was a reminder of who I hope to come near with whatever I write in the future. I'm tingling as I write - hurry up, future!
The Icarus Girl is published by Bloomsbury (£7.99)