often think of translation as a kind of empathy that unfolds in the space between author, translator, and reader. Successfully bringing a piece of writing from one language into another requires more than just fluency; translation is an act of emotional intuition that asks the translator not only to convey the literal meaning of each word, but also to weigh that meaning against the space it takes up in the text and the emotional resonance it holds for both the author and the reader. In her new novel, Paper Houses, translated from the French by Rhonda Mullins, Dominique Fortier proposes that the inverse might also be true: perhaps empathy requires translation that makes lives other than our own legible to us. Attempting to bridge the distance between disparate cultures and eras, Fortier traces an imaginary biography of Emily Dickinson by yoking her own experiences with feminine performance in the domestic sphere to Dickinson’s housebound life. In doing so, Fortier revises Dickinson, transforming her from a stoic, reticent figure of literary history into a woman much like herself. The poet becomes an ancestral figure for women who—as she did—survived in the face of constricted options and callous injustice.
But if Fortier connects her emotional reality with Dickinson’s, that connection also raises questions about the very nature of empathy. We often think of empathy as a kind of understanding, a way of seeing someone as they really are; but what if the translation that empathy requires means writing our own emotions and preoccupations over the Other’s? What if empathy means connecting to the Other by transforming her into the person we need her to be?
Paper Houses opens with lovingly rendered scenes from Emily Dickinson’s childhood in Amherst, Massachusetts. Fortier offers her biography in a series of snippets that struggle to cohere—until the author herself steps in, and the novel becomes a record of Fortier’s attempt to re-create Dickinson’s life. Soon Fortier’s own experience is woven into the fabric of Dickinson’s, but her project hits a snag. “For months, I have been rereading Emily Dickinson’s poems and letters… Is that preferable, or would I write better by visiting the two houses that have been turned into museums?” she asks herself. “Simply put: is it better to have the knowledge and experience required to describe things as they truly are or the freedom to invent them?” Is it enough for Fortier to understand Emily Dickinson by simply relaying the facts of her life and of the spaces she occupied? Or can she better inhabit the poet’s interiority by transposing her own experiences, fears, and struggles onto Dickinson’s?
Paper Houses settles on the latter, imagining the smallest details of Dickinson’s life as totems along the path between herself and the dead author. Scattered scenes bring us through Dickinson’s cloistered adolescence, the formative death of her cousin Sofia, and her isolated adulthood. Every detail, from the creaking wood floors of her house in Amherst, to the quality of light through her bedroom window, is treated as sacred, as if it will reveal her secrets. Fortier strips the myth from a woman who is so often thought of as remote and pristine, alienated from the needs of the flesh through her spinsterhood and reluctance to leave her room. Dickinson has become such a fixture in our literary history that her legend overshadows her personhood. Fortier wants to transform her into someone more physically grounded, more complex. She backs away from the legend and focuses on the details of the poet’s humanity and experience of inhabiting a body in the world. At the funeral of a beloved cousin, Emily “doesn’t cry, merely clenches her fists in her empty pockets, until she can’t feel her fingers. But in the evening, when a ham is brought to the table, glistening with fat under the glare of the lamp, Emily throws up.” Paired with Fortier’s personal reflections on her own motherhood and domestic life, the effect is a kind of ghostly doubling, with Dickinson standing in for Fortier, and Fortier speaking through Dickinson. This creates the sense of an echo, or of overlapping whispers that seem to merge into a single voice. Even as Fortier marshals details, she feels her way toward Dickinson’s humanness by filtering them through the lens of her own perception.
Fortier’s doubling forces us to consider whether it is possible to understand our fellow humans’ experiences, and to think about the relationship between understanding and imagination. The book asks if imagining a life is the same as understanding it. “When did I become afraid of inhabiting a book?” Fortier wonders. Rather than moving through the actual spaces in which Dickinson lived, Fortier talks about connecting to Dickinson’s past through her own Boston apartment: she has moved there for her husband’s work, and now, uprooted and friendless, she sifts through the raw materials of her new life in order to understand her past. Just as Emily contemplated her own bounded domesticity from her Amherst window, Fortier focuses on the small domestic tasks of early motherhood, or decorating her apartment, or carrying the baby up and down the stairs. The two women are fastened together by the common details of their physical, gendered worlds. Standing at her window with her baby daughter in her arms, Fortier describes herself watching the seasons change the same way Dickinson must have. She gives us the two homes, the earthly facts of their construction, and then the two women standing inside them, separated by the centuries, watching out their windows for the first signs of spring. Fortier brings Dickinson into her own body, and assumes that she sees what Emily sees, knows what Emily knows.
This doubled knowledge gives us access to the emotional framework of Dickinson’s life. It is a joy to imagine the reclusive author sending down a basket of gingerbread cookies to her nieces and nephews on the lawn below, or wearing a too-small dress that was intended for her sister. On the one hand, the Dickinson we meet in the pages of Paper Houses is a reflection of the figure known to all high school students who stumble across the concept of hope being a thing with feathers in their freshman English readers—a shy spirit attuned to the secret nuances of the natural world. But Fortier’s decision to interweave the two women’s lives also allows Dickinson to be more complex, full of less-than-saintly tendencies. She is jealous at times, grasping, unable to sympathize with the needs of other people. Seeing her sister happily married, Emily becomes furious at being denied her attention. “Her heart is black,” writes Fortier of the poet. “It harbours a feeling that consumes her.” In another moment, frustrated at her inability to fold a petticoat, she lashes out at her mother: “She lifts one of her own shifts, pearl grey, wads it into a ball, and throws it on the ground.” Petulant as a teenager, she is as flawed as anyone else.
By imagining the small labors of Dickinson’s life, her performance and subversion of domestic womanhood, Fortier expresses her own curiosities about the emotional transformations of marriage and motherhood and the compromises of the self that are inherent in living a life with other people—compromises that the Dickinson of this text is not interested in making. When the other girls in Emily’s class imagine the joys of adult life, of marriage and children and adventure, Emily holds back. “I will live in Linden,” she resolves.
And yet this melding throws into question how truly empathetic a work of imagination can be. By describing Dickinson’s life through the vocabulary of her own experience, does Fortier understand the Other or reimagine her in a manner useful to her own needs? Does her compassion lead inward, to the version of Dickinson she finds inside herself, or out into the blank spaces of the unknown? The text seems to hover between the two options, now presenting Fortier’s experience as the frame, now Dickinson’s. In one passage, as she removes her daughter’s belongings from storage, Fortier describes the futility of imagining the physical spaces Emily inhabited. “I unwrapped each object with some astonishment, as if they all belonged to strangers,” she writes. “I looked at my daughter, who was playing among the boxes that filled the living room. She was three years old. The baby the objects were meant for was gone.” Like this missing baby, the woman to which Fortier’s cascading details belonged is gone; fetishizing a static idea of her only condemns her to death twice over, deepens the silence she left behind.
These moments of humanity elevate Fortier’s work from a biography of an author’s life, or even a simple fictional reimagining, into something stranger, more alchemical. By writing her way through Dickinson’s humanity, the place she filled in her family, her community, Fortier reaches toward an understanding of her own sister, who died young and left a profound silence in her wake. Fortier shows us how empathy can bring us into closer contact with the dead, the lives they lived and are living still, perhaps, somewhere in the infinite expanses of time. She shows us how the act of imagination can bring the dead back to life in our own bodies and can let their lives become a lens through which we view the world.