Elena Ferrante Isn’t Who I Thought She Was.

 Elena Ferrante

And I’m glad she’s not.

Elena Ferrante is the pseudonym for Italy’s most famous author. For twenty years her true identity has remained a carefully guarded secret.

Then, on October 2nd, the New York Review of Books published an article on its website by Claudio Gatti. Mr. Gatti claimed that he had discovered the woman behind the pen name. In the kind of investigation usually reserved for criminals or crooked politicians, he had combed through financial records and found all the evidence he needed.

Anita Raja, a Rome based translator was the real Elena Ferrante. Ms. Raja denies it, but his proof is pretty convincing.

So why, you may wonder, am I glad—not that she was outed—but that she probably isn’t who I thought she was?

Over the past year or so I’ve read the four books that compose her Neapolitan Quartet. The books follow the lives and friendship of two women from a poor neighborhood of Naples. The narrator, Elena Greco, takes us through more than fifty years of their lives.

If Mr. Gatti is right, the author of the Neapolitan Quartet was not a girl from a poor neighborhood in Naples. She was born in Naples, but she moved to Rome when she was three years old. And her father was not poor. He was a magistrate.

The four books are a testament to the power of the imagination. The author of the Neapolitan Quartet was able to imagine herself inside the skins of people who were different than she was. In my mind, that’s a good thing.

Not everyone agrees with me. These critics believe authors have no right to tell other people’s stories, especially if the people whose stories the author wants to tell are from a different socio-economic class or a different race.

The White Englishman, Chris Cleave, was criticized for presuming to write from the viewpoint of a Nigerian girl in his best-selling book, Little Bee. Another book, The Help, was made into a movie, but it was roundly criticized for the way the white author, Kathryn Stockett, portrayed its characters of color.

When I started my novel, Tiger Tail Soup, I knew how dangerous it was to write from the point of view of a Chinese woman. I didn’t start out with the intention of doing a high-wire act on my first novel. But I had a story to tell, and that was the only way I knew to tell it.

my cover, 5-27-14

I know. Anita Raja (if she actually is Elena Ferrante) was the same race and nationality as the characters in the Neapolitan Quartet. But she did step out of her comfortable middle-class world to write about women who lived in poverty. And that leap, which fooled everyone, gives me confidence to continue to imagine the lives of people whose experience is different from my own.

The Neapolitan Quartet:

#1 My Brilliant Friend

#2 The Story of a New Name

#3 Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

#4 The Story of the Lost Child

my signature

About Nicki Chen

About Nicki Chen Nicki Chen is a writer living in Edmonds, WA. Her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, 1937-1945. She's working on a second novel set in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation where she and her late husband lived in the early '90s.
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  1. I read books for enjoyment. Good writers are good writers. I don’t care if they share the same background or experiences as the people they write about. It’s why it’s called fiction. If anything, someone from another background would know how different it is even if they get a detail wrong. Love your book! No one could write it better.

    • Thank you, Kate. I do think it’s very tricky, though. I read a review of The Help by an African-American woman. It seemed that her main criticism was that the main character was a white Southern woman and that she became the heroine of the story merely because her attitudes about race relations were better than that of the other women. She seemed to want the book to be written from the viewpoint of a poor black servant and by an African-American. The author, on the other hand, seemed to want to write from the the viewpoint of a white woman living in a troubled time. The history of slavery and race relations in the US make this kind of novel one of the most likely to be criticized. Lucky for me that my novel was about events farther away and farther back in history.

  2. Great post — and now you’ve got me interested in this series. Will have to check it out!

    What about Kazuo Ishiguro? He is a Japanese-born British author and he has penned a number of celebrated novels populated with white British characters, such as the Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go.

    • I saw the movie, Remains of the Day, before I read it, so I was surprised to hear who the author was. It was unfair of me to be surprised since Ishiguro moved to England when he was five years old. There’s no reason he shouldn’t write about England. Never Let Me Go was good, but I’m not usually a fan of dystopian. I preferred When We Were Orphans. Not a big surprise since much of it takes place in the International Settlement in Shanghai during WWII.

  3. Traveller at heart

    In your book, The Tiger Tail Soup, what did you have to do to get into the mind of a Chinese woman?

    • That’s a good question. Thank you.

      I was married to my Chinese husband for over thirty years, so that gave me a good feel for the culture of people from Fujian Province. I spent a lot of time researching the time and place. Fortunately we visited Kulangsu and Xiamen early enough that they looked almost the same as they did in the 1930s and ’40s. My character was educated, so I read the Chinese classics: Dream of the Red Chamber, Romance of the Three Kingdom, and Outlaws of the Marsh. I also read books from that time by authors like Eileen Chang. It also helped to be a woman. Truthfully, I would find it hard to write from a male point of view. Like my character, I have given birth, so it wasn’t hard to write the birth scene.

    • Thanks for asking the question I wanted to. 🙂

  4. Being able to write a book about people that are different from you–must cover at least half of all books written! Why would anyone be outraged about that–that’s why it is called Fiction? You wrote a wonderful book about a Chinese woman–you did your research and wrote down stories that your husband told–that’s fiction writing at its best! I’m writing a “Fiction” story (that I hope will end up being a book) about Northwest Coastal Native’s in the 1740’s–I suppose that will be WRONG as well.

    Keep up the good work, Nicki!

    • That’s a fascinating topic. Not enough has been written about the Northwest Coast Natives.

      I think you’re right, Veda. Still, I have some idea where the critics are coming from. I think an author is more likely to be criticized if she writes from the position of a more favored group, e.g. Anita Raja is a middle-class- (or maybe upper-middle-class) woman writing from the viewpoint of a woman who grew up in poverty. It’s like the person whose husband, mother, or child has recently died who takes offense when a friend says, “I know how you feel.” Even though the friend may have experienced something similar, the person in pain doesn’t want to hear it. She feels that no one could possibly understand her suffering.

  5. I feel an author has the right to tell any story, any way they wish, if it’s labeled fiction.
    Excellent post, Nicki!

  6. Kinda ticked that NYROB made such an effort to invade her privacy.

    But that’s probably because I blog under a pseudonym.

    • The one who made the big effort to investigate and “out” her was the Italian journalist. But, of course, the NYROB printed it.

      I think there’s not a big problem with using a pseudonym for a blog, especially when some (many? most?) of the posts are about family members. The trouble comes when the author wants to sell books and the author is supposed to help market them. It’s a really interesting topic. Maybe I’ll write about that next. “Ferrante” had some really interesting and good reasons for wanting to stay anonymous.

  7. I agree with Jill and Kate. It’s fiction, not nonfiction! If the author wanted to tell those stories, why shouldn’t she? What difference did it make that she wasn’t poor? Dickens became wealthy. Should he only have written about the wealthy?

    • An interesting tidbit: Although Huck Finn was white, it’s believed that his voice was inspired by a ten-year-old black servant named Jimmy.

      I read several articles about the “outing” of “Elena Ferrante”. There were some interesting ones about “cultural appropriation”, especially those related to the speech by Lionel Shriver at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival. But most of the articles are about how outrageous it was to reveal the true identity of the author. Maybe I’ll write about that topic next.

  8. How extraordinary to be able to get into another persons skin and tell a story from there….It’s a gift…it’s magic…it’s the reason I read….Thanks to any author using any name for sharing the magic….

  9. Such an interesting point that you touched upon, Nicki. I agree with Veda. A lot of what many of us like to read comprises fiction, so there really should not be an issue if an author is writing from the point of view of someone from another class or culture. Certainly there will be stereotypes to every someone and role but ultimately their perception will also be shaped by what they heard, who they’ve spoken to and where they’ve been.

    I think many of us out there have this ingrained fear (I don’t know if this is the correct word) in us that we’d be insensitive to the background or community of that foreign character we choose to tell a story about. Most of the time none of us have the intention to offend anyone when we write from another’s point of view. Rather, I think it is more a matter of exploring the world according to a different set of lens, and having/applying our own interpretation to the story’s context.

    • I think an author would be insensitive if he or she didn’t make an effort to understand the background or community of the foreign character and substituted instead a stereotype. Writing and reading are, as you say, a way “of exploring the world according to a different set of lens and having/applying our own interpretation to the story’s context.” Both, but especially reading, are good ways to break out of the confines of our own lives.

  10. This quote by William Faulkner comes to mind:

    A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others.

    To write with authority in specific instances, research is helpful.

    Regarding Ferrante, I am not happy that her privacy was invaded and anonymity shattered. Why weren’t things left the way they were? *sigh*

    Good post.

    • Thanks for that Faulkner quote. I’d heard it before but forgotten it. It’s perfect.

      In quotes I’ve read from Ferrante, she gives some good reasons for remaining anonymous. It’s hard to kill curiosity, though, especially when the public figure has become famous.

      Bob Dylan is another famous person who, even though he sings in public, doesn’t like publicity. The Nobel Committee called him about winning the Nobel prize for literature, and so far he hasn’t responded.

  11. Interesting post, Nicki. I will have to check out the books.

    • I especially liked the first one. My dad fought in Italy during WWII, and I didn’t know much about what Italy was like in the decade after the war. If you do read any of them, it’s useful to get a paper version. There are many characters, and it was hard to refer back to them using my Kindle.

  12. I have Tiger Tail Soup on my wish list at Amazon so I am now very interested in reading it. Such a different world that I have so little experience of. It must have been fascinating to immerse yourself in a culture when you lived in the Philippines those years and your years of travel. How wonderful that your kids were exposed to different cultures at an early age. Thanks also for the reading suggestions.

    • I think my daughters are extremely grateful for the opportunities they had going to school at an international school and living abroad. Of course they missed things too. The only complaint I’ve heard from them was from the youngest. She regrets not having more athletic opportunities. Sports wasn’t a big thing at their school, probably because the weather was so hot.

      I hope you’ll work your way through your wish list down to Tiger Tail Soup soon. I’d love to hear what you think of it. And Amazon reviews are always most welcome.

  13. Pingback: Privacy Is a Moving Target. | BEHIND THE STORY

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