How can we know if Elena Ferrante is culturally appropriating or not if we don’t know who she or he actually is?
Let me backtrack: Ferrante, for those who don’t follow literary trends, is the author of a popular quartet of novels about two Italian women’s friendship. The novels, which are exceptionally vivid and absorbing in their detailed depiction of life in Naples, Italy, have unsurprisingly led to interest in Ferrante herself. Probably like many of my fellow Neapolitan novel readers, I had no idea that Ferrante’s name was a pseudonym until I googled her.
I was surprised—but not too surprised. Ferrante’s writing often showcased all too well the ugliness inherent in some kinds of relationships, and her cast of characters often detailed our worst inclinations. Perhaps, I speculated, she felt that revealing her true identity would make her a target of criticism, especially from people who might believe she was depicting them in her fiction.
But in a recent article published in the New York Review of Books (and in newspapers in Europe) Italian writer Claudio Gatti makes the case for who Ferrante really is: “Far from the daughter of a Neapolitan seamstress,” he writes, “new revelations from real estate and financial records point to Anita Raja, a Rome-based translator whose German-born mother fled the Holocaust and later married a Neapolitan magistrate.”
In other words: it’s very likely the real Elena Ferrante did not personally experience the Neapolitan upbringing she writes about so grippingly, since Raja, although born in Naples, moved to Rome at age three and spent the rest of her childhood there, according to Gatti.
Does that matter? Well, if you’re OK with a novelist using her imagination, that’s fine. (Mary Shelley didn’t have to dig up a corpse and turn it into a monster to write Frankenstein, after all). Sure, Ferrante could have learned about Naples from actually experiencing life in Naples. Or she could have learned about Naples from reading about it, visiting it, and talking to people who lived there.
Unfortunately, the latter is no longer acceptable in our politically correct society, as novelist Lionel Shriver learned after a speech she delivered last month.
In the speech, Shriver, wearing a sombrero, talked about cultural appropriation. Relating the saga of two college students in Maine who caused an uproar after hosting a party where they encouraged attendees to wear sombreros, Shriver concluded, “The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats. Yet that’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats.”
And yet Shriver’s remarks were viewed as so controversial that the officials who invited her “publicly disavowed her remarks,” according to the New York Times.
It’s also insulting to the abilities of truly great storytellers. Did Shakespeare have nothing worth saying about women’s experience, or Emily Bronte about men’s experience? Do we really think imagination is limited by what a writer has personally experienced, and that nothing can be learned by observing others, by contemplating their approach to life and their actions?
Right now, I’m working on a story about a seventy-two-year-old woman. As a twenty-something, I don’t know firsthand what it feels like to be seventy-two. But the experience of thinking about what it would be like if I were seventy-two—and a host of other traits this character has that I do not—has been illuminating and rewarding. I’ve been privileged to leave my own experience behind, to sit and wonder what it would be like to have an older body, to have decades of experience and memories to look back on, to have been a child in the 1950s, and to have had a child myself.
And if the story ever does get published, I assume it would be judged by those who have been seventy-two; whether or not it reads true to their own experience of life in older age is of crucial importance. That’s how it should be. But we would be a poorer world in terms of literature if we limited ourselves to making art based only on our own direct experiences.
I’m of mixed mind about the push to find out Ferrante’s true identity. (It’s a little odd to claim you want to be anonymous, yet give interviews.) But regardless of the morality of trying to track down her true identity, let’s all agree it’s OK for storytellers to spin whole universes, including those with casts of characters with experiences unlike their own.
There’s no need to ban it: the characters, the situations, the cultures that are untrue to real experiences will inevitably fade away, be cast into bins and pass out of print. In fiction, surprisingly enough, only the true will last—and promoting that, not fretting over cultural appropriation, should be the focus of those who care about good writing and storytelling
As Shriver put it in her talk, “The ultimate endpoint of keeping our mitts off experience that doesn’t belong to us is that there is no fiction.”
“Someone like me only permits herself to write from the perspective of a straight white female born in North Carolina, closing on sixty, able-bodied but with bad knees, skint for years but finally able to buy the odd new shirt,” she added. “All that’s left is memoir.”
What a poverty that would be for us.