I am currently reading and enjoying the internationally acclaimed Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante featuring childhood friends Elena and Lila after everyone whose literary taste I trust kept raving about them online. This week I have just started the second one – they are four, and I’m told the two last ones are the real jewels – and I do not know much either about the childhood friends’ fate, or how the novel, let alone the series, may end. I know even less about the author, except that we share a name and that makes me happy somehow.
Yesterday morning my Twitter feed went crazy after the New York Times reported that an Italian journalist claims to know Ferrante’s real identity. It turns out the now international acclaimed author’s name is just a pseudonym under which a woman decided to write four of the most successful novels of the decade. From fellow authors, such as Girl on the Train‘s Paula Hawkins to The Trouble of Goats and Sheep’s Joanna Cannon, to other bloggers lamented that said journalist decided to interfere with Ferrante’s anonymity. As I read their responses I realised that this is not a literary issue, it is not even about privacy. It is just another way in which women’s bodies and voices are trying to be silenced. This is about consent.
The fact that the woman writing under the pseudonym ‘Elena Ferrante’ has decided to remain anonymous may respond to various reasons, none of them anybody’s business but hers own. As rage flooded the twittersphere many shared one of Ferrante’s few interviews in which she explains why she has decided to remain anonymous. She highlights a disdain for self-promotion, and states her desire to let her art speak for itself. Even though these snippets into the personality of one of Italy’s most successful writers shines some light into the motives behind her mysterious identity, explanations were never needed.
When Ferrante decided to publish her work under a pseudonym, she was making an informed decision both as an adult, and as an intelligent woman. You only have to read the first ten pages of My Brilliant Friend to realise that the novel is a masterful work of art on its own, dwelling on issues such as violence, gender stereotypes, women’s right to education, family relations, marriage, and friendship. The fact that a journalist – a man – decided to violate Ferrante’s wish to remain anonymous only shows the privilege of thinking he could do so, but also the idea that women’s decisions are not to be respected. As the tough, sexist male characters that harass fictional Elena and Lila, this man – who I will not name, because he does not deserve the publicity – has taken a woman’s agency for granted, and has decided to impose his will onto it.
Luckily, many people, especially women, expressed their disgust at this journalist’s enterprise highlighting how difficult it still is for women to freely express themselves. After all, being a writer means making full use of your voice, and clearly stating to the world that you are not afraid to use it. Not only that, but you are not afraid to be heard. Being a writer means being assertive, creating something new and sharing it with the world. It is all about stating: ‘This is my story and I choose to tell it, and how to tell it’. Articles like the one on the NYT only come to show that there are some people out there – I will be brave here myself and say mostly men, though not all of them luckily – who are not comfortable with hearing a woman’s voice roaring stating her agency, proud of herself and what she has just created.
The act of freely creating and sharing said art with the world is the ultimate rebellion against a society that has traditionally silenced and deleted women’s voices from what is considered valid knowledge and successful products. Hence, when few women dared to fight for their right to create they saw their works hidden under their male relatives’ names, or what is considered History erased their names and their contributions. After more than a century of passionate fights – sometimes to death –, it would only be normal to believe women have finally gained their right to create. It may seem so at first sight, with women writing the most successful novels of the year, especially in the crime fiction genre. But a closer look may uncover the uncanny, disgusting and subtle ways in which contemporary society insists on silencing women, and ignoring their decisions.
Many will argue that once Ferrante chose to publish her art she was entering a game from which she could not escape. These very people are the ones who would also say ‘she was asking for it’. We live in a celebrity-oriented culture where people and their lives have become a form an entertainment and their art, if produced at all, comes secondary. Despite this sad state of affairs it is still possible to find art produced by people who do not want to enter the celebrity game. But Elena Ferrante is one of those rare beasts who wants to communicate with her audience through her art, rather through television, radio or the Internet. That is if we, as a society, can stand it.
Ferrante’s fight for anonymity represents a woman’s struggle to live her life in her own terms and make her own decisions, while patiently waiting for the rest of the world to agree to those terms. Or at least, to respect them. Articles like the one of the NYT are a violation of a woman’s rights to make her own decisions, and show that it is still very difficult to be taken seriously when said decisions do not please those in power. In short, people’s desire to uncover Ferrante’s real-life identity is just a struggle between how much to give of oneself, and how much society demands of us. It is just another reflection of a power struggle between female independence and autonomy, and traditionally held beliefs, prejudices and assumptions about women in a patriarchal society.
The only good thing coming from this sad incident is the international conversation it has started on women, artists, and privacy in the 21st century. I truly hope women writers all over the world will still actively choose to share their art – one of the most intimate expressions of the self – publicaly and in their own terms. Ferrante’s private identity should remain private, as her age, real name, location, husband or occupation (apart from writer) do not change one bit her skillful writing. And even if they did, it is her choice and only hers how much of her private self to share with us, and when. Meanwhile, it is time for us to think and reflect on why it is still so difficult for many to respect women’s decisions. ‘No’ has always meant ‘no’.