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.
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: