Just to show how ridiculous is the claim that writers should generally avoid producing fiction about “marginalized groups” unless they belong to those groups (see here, here and here re the Lionel Shriver affair), have a butcher’s at a new kerfuffle: that involving “Elena Ferrante,” an Italian author of wildly popular novels, especially the “Neapolitan Novels”, a series of four books about two poor girls from Naples. Here’s the last one of them:
Ferrante was known to be a pseudonym, but had closely guarded her (or his) real identity for years, despite many speculations. Some people said that only a woman who wrote those books, and a woman who, like the protagonists, had known deep privation. Others, presumably sexist, said that no woman could be capable of writing such books, and even though I haven’t read them I find such a claim extraordinarily stupid in light of the history of wonderful novels written by women. But the going idea seemed to be that “Ferrante” must have had some of the experiences of poverty of her subjects, and have lived in Naples.
The falsity of that view has now been revealed in an article by Claudio Gatti in the New York Review of Books, showing with little doubt that “Elena Ferrante” is neither from Naples nor was poor: she is a translator from Rome named Anita Raja. This has people up in arms, as many of them wanted “Ferrante’s” identity to remain secret.
But the main lesson is that one can write convincingly about other’s lives without having lived them, and this is the point made by Adam Kirsch in a piece in Monday’s New York Times, “Elena Ferrante and the power of appropriation.” For what we had was something that Lionel Shriver’s critics said was not possible, an empathic and convincing portrayal of people completely unlike the author. If you think about it, though, you’ll realize that the combination of an author’s imagination with her observation and research on another group’s life—or another person’s life—can produce compelling fiction.
No, the two Neopolitan girls weren’t black or Muslim, but they were poor, something that Raja doesn’t seem to have experienced. Indeed, one reason Gatti revealed Raja’s identity was that he was fed up with the lies that Raja apparently promulgated when feeding her readers a few crumbs of biographical information, crumbs meant to suggest that she had indeed had a life that gave her credibility to write about poor girls from Naples.
So why did Gatti do it? He says Ferrante lied in her journalistic writing in theFrantumaglia – a book of essays first published in Italy in 2003, which will be released in English with new material next month. Ferrante put it together after her Italian co-publisher, Sandra Ozzola, suggested she provide her readers with a few autobiographical details in the form of non-fiction articles.
Gatti takes issue with Ferrante writing that her mother is a seamstress, that she has three sisters and grew up in Naples. He accuses her of inventing a backstory to provide, “crumbs of information seemed designed to satisfy her readers’ appetite for a personal story that might relate to the Neapolitan setting of the novels themselves.”
He told the BBC’s Today programme, “She lied about her personal life. I don’t like lies, and I decided to expose them.”
Ferrante’s attitude toward lying also angered him – she has previously quoted Italo Calvino, the most translated Italian writer before herself, who once said to an interviewer: “Ask me what you want to know, but I won’t tell you the truth, of that you can be sure.”
Regardless of Gatti’s motivations, though, Kirsch says what’s important: that accusations of “cultural appropriation” in literature are largely nonstarters. Kirsch:
But there are also good reasons to welcome the revelations about Ms. Ferrante. In recent weeks, the literary world has been at war over the idea of cultural appropriation — whether a writer has the right to tell stories about people unlike herself. Lionel Shriver’s speech at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival said yes; many critics of that speech said no. But now it appears that one of the world’s best-loved writers is actually a sterling example of the power of appropriation.
For it turns out that in telling the story of poor Neapolitan girls like Lina and Elena, Ms. Raja was claiming the right to imagine the lives of people quite unlike herself. In doing so, she was able to write books in which millions of people found themselves reflected — books about feminism and patriarchy, poverty and violence, education and ambition.
This is the paradox of literature, which is also the glory of humanism: the idea that nothing human is alien to any of us, that we all have the power to imagine our way into one another’s lives. If the exposure of Elena Ferrante reminds us of that truth, which today we are too inclined to forget, perhaps it will turn out to be justified.
Combine that with the “truth” that even members of oppressed groups are not identical to one another, which should be obvious, and you come up with the argument that although someone who has lived in a certain way may be able to write about that way with greater accuracy, that doesn’t mean that the resulting fiction is more compelling, or has the emotional resonance with readers that passes for “truth in literature.”