I Love Dick (1997) by Chris Kraus

I love Dick (1997) by Chris Krauss made an appearance on my Twitter feed thanks to Elizabeth Morris’ account last Autumn when she gushed about the book and the upcoming TV adaptation. She highlighted how the book dwells on women, sex, agency, and art:

I was sold from that same minute. Not only because the book promised to be a landmark in my feminist reading, but because I had been reading about rape culture and forensics for three months and I craved something different. This hype about the book, along with Wallace Yovetich’s series on romances novels for Book Riot I realised the ‘something different’ that I wanted was a story about female desire. So, when M and I decided to exchange books in Christmas instead of splurging on presents, I knew what I wanted: I love Dick.

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Even though I finished reading the book some weeks ago, I haven’t been able to put my thoughts in a coherent order. Reading I Love Dick parallels the main characters’ chaotic descent into her desire for Dick, a man she met during a networking dinner with her husband. The woman is named after the author after – as gossip goes – she had a relationship with art critic Dick Hebdige. This much was said after the book’s cool reception twenty years ago, but after the rise of the unlikable female character, all the Nasty Women, and a constant fight to be human and not perfect, I Love Dick was rediscovered by pop culture as a chant to freedom and female agency.

As an academic the book posted some interesting and complex questions about who gets to speak in specific contexts and why. Chris is an experimental artist married to Sylvère, a professor who embodies all the post-structuralist and post-modernist theories that I live by, and that I write about. However, as the couple goes to dinner with Dick, Chris finds herself unable to join the conversation. She feels an outsider to a world – Academia – that is masculine, theoretical and patronising to women and women’s experience. As the novel progresses, we learn about Chris’ past as an artist in NYC, and the many lived experiences that have shaped her into the person that falls immediately head over heels in love with a stranger.

Sylvère keeps socializing what I’m doing through with you. Labeling it through other people’s eyes – Adultery in Academe, John Updike meets Marivaux… Faculty Wife Throws Herself At Husband’s Colleague. This presumes that there is something inherently grotesque, unspeakable about femaleness, desire. But what I’m going through with you is real and happening for the first time.

The novel is divided into two parts. The first one – ‘Scenes from a marriage’ – presents the reader with a third-person narration of the events the set the plot in motion and how Chris shares her infatuation with Sylvère and they jointly decide to start writing letters to Dick. In them, they describe how the stranger is profoundly changing the way they relate to each other with desire taking central stage, as the couple had given up on sex for a few years now. Their sexual relationship relinked, they wonder how the introduction of a third person may change their identity as a couple, but also individually (*). The author’s vast knowledge of literature and postmodern theory allows for references to every unfaithful partner in literature, as well as even more dark references that can only be gasped at during second or third readings. Because if there is something that characterises I Love Dick that is the impossibility to control the text and pin it down to references known by the reader, a process that mirrors the beautiful yet chaotic event of falling in love and seeing your life turned upside down and blurry for a period of time.

The second part of the book is called ‘Every letter is a love letter’ and it takes place after Chris abandons Sylvère and reappropriates the relationship the couple had with him as hers only. During this period she is travelling across the United States and she presents herself to Dick by sharing her past with him: How she worked at a strip club, how she is dismissed because of her art, her constant struggle against anorexia, and how she ended up marrying Sylviere. As someone interested in the representation of eating disorders, I was shocked by the blunt description of Chris’ necessity to stop eating sometimes and the happiness that comes with the restrain and the supposed control derived from the starving. The main character’s lived experience emerges in this part of the book as her own, and she unties herself from Sylvères-wife through her desire for Dick. This does not mean that the main character replaces one partner from another as Dick is just a recipient for her letters and the only voice that we hear is hers. Instead, the return of her sexual desire brings back her desire to live and to exist outside institutions and discourses that deem her a secondary character, a side-passenger. The ending, as it happens with every infatuated state, is a crash against reality reminded the reader that the process is as important as the goal.

The fact that Chris Krauss (author) and Chris Krauss (main character) seem to be the same person posts a lot of question about women in the arts and how we have been told to dismiss the female voice and avoid questioning why it is not being heard. I Love Dick challenged the status quo and inscribes two women’s lived experience as a female artist in pop culture: the fictional Chris’, and the real-life Chris’. With the upcoming television adaptation starring Kathryn Hahn as Chris and Kevin Bacon as Dick, the wold is about to be taken by storm by a tour de force on what it means to be a woman and dare to have any kind of desire for one’s self.

In short, I Love Dick by Chris Krauss is an essential read for anyone interested in women’s agency in art, feminism, female desire, relationships and postmodernism. It is not an easy read, and the process will be plagued with chaos, infatuation with the book, hate towards the book, and a necessity to run back home to read one more chapter. But that is exactly the power of the book: Its ability to make us feel like Chris does, with no Dick whatsoever.

(*) If you are interested in how the introduction of a third-party may affect a couple I highly recommend the Netflix show You Me Her (2016 – ), where a couple gets obsessed with a female escort that eventually enters their relationship in nonprofessional terms.

Nasty Women: A Collection of Essays + Accounts on What It is to be a Woman in the 21st Century

Nasty Women: A Collection of Essays + Accounts on What It is to be a Woman in the 21st Century by indie publisher 404Ink took the Internet by storm some months ago. The book contains essays by women writers on their lived experience as women in the 21st century. The project caught the attention of feminist all over Twitter, and it was even backed up by Margaret Atwood herself:

‘An essential window into many of the hazard-strewn worlds younger women are living in right now.’ – Margaret Atwood (Twitter

I first encountered Nasty Women through their Kickstarter campaign in which 404Ink aimed to get the book published, paid the 20 authors they had commissioned texts from, and spread their nastiness all over the world. The campaign went viral and it raised £ 22.156, an amount which greatly exceeds the funding proposed by the publishers by a 369%. In an attempt to make my next visit to the UK more interesting I had hoped to buy a book at a local library when I saw they had review copies, and they were being sent to bloggers, and yes, 404Ink would be generous enough to send me one. I could not believe my luck.

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The book covers the complex, and sometimes heart-breaking experience of being a woman in the times of Brexit, Trump, and an economic crisis that has left little time and space for any other issues than money. All the authors make an effort to situate their experience, that is, they acknowledge their race, social class, ethnicity, nationality, family history, gender identity, sexual orientation and even tastes make them who they are. Hence, their stories come from them and do not aim to speak for any collective, they are a subjective approach to a given issue. All of them are survivals of the political experience of identifying as a woman in a patriarchal society, but they choose what to talk about, and why. Some of them self-identify as victims, some others not, but they all have something in common: A desire to keep fighting. Among my favourite topics were social class, the importance of imperfect role models for young women (both famous and familiar!), and the struggle of losing a beloved one and become the next tangible generation.

It is difficult to review Nasty Women as a single work due to the wide range of voices that it contains. The experiences of these women come from other countries and even other times. They have travelled the world, and they have chosen to share their experiences with an audience that is hungry to know more, to learn more and to connect. The book achieves that, but for English-speakers only, as all the women have written their own pieces and they all come from English-speaking countries. However, this tiny blind spot does not take away from the collection as no work is perfect. In fact, the collection covers some silenced issues such as fashion for disabled people, culture from in a working-class environment, and the recovery of traditional female knowledge once deemed ‘witchery’.

Nasty Women is a collection of essays that will open readers’ minds to the complexity of being female and making the political decision to identify as such in a patriarchal society. But above all, Nasty Women will connect the women who wrote it, publish it, and read it. Turning the last page feels like saying goodbye to that group of female friends who you only meet once in a while, but who make life better. And in order to keep them heard and heard, it is necessary to remember their names (in alphabetical order): Alice Tarbuck, Anna Cosgrave, Becca Inglis, Chitra Ramaswamy, Christina Neuwirth, Claire Heuchan, Elise Hines, Jen McGregor, Joelle Owusu, Jona Kottler, Kaite Welsh, Katie Muriel, Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! (in conversation with Sasha de Buyl-Pisco), Laura Lam, Laura Waddell, Mel Reeve, Nadine Aisha Jassat, Ren Aldridge of Petrol Girls, Rowan C. Clarke, Sim Bajwa, and Zeba Talkhani. And these are their faces:

[L-R] Anna Cosgrave, Nadine Aisha Jassat, Sim Bajwa, Aiice Tarbuck, Becca Inglis, Chitra Ramaswamy, Christina Neuwirth, Claire Heuchan

[L-R] Anna Cosgrave, Nadine Aisha Jassat, Sim Bajwa, Aiice Tarbuck, Becca Inglis, Chitra Ramaswamy, Christina Neuwirth, Claire Heuchan. From 404Ink.

[L-R] Jen McGregor, Joelle Owusu, Jona Kottler, Kaite Welsh, Katie Muriel, Laura Waddell, Mel Reeve, Zeba Talkhani

[L-R] Jen McGregor, Joelle Owusu, Jona Kottler, Kaite Welsh, Katie Muriel, Laura Waddell, Mel Reeve, Zeba Talkhani. From 404Ink.

Nasty women is set to become THE non-fiction book of 2017 thanks to the complexity of every essay, and the importance of the topics covered in a time when being other than a white, middle-class, Western, abled, cisgender man has become a political act of rebellion against the status quo.

Nasty Women is published by 404 Ink on International Women’s Day, 8th March 2017. You can pre-order your copy directly from the publisher here.

Thanks to Heather McAid and Laura Jones for the collection, the review copy, and the many conversations on Twitter. #NastyWomen.

Ofrenda a la tormenta by Dolores Redondo – Giving Closure to the Baztan Trilogy

Right after I finished reading The Lecagy of the Bones by Dolores Redondo I knew I had to read the next (and last) installment in the Baztán Trilogy. Keeping on the promise I made to myself to use the public library as much as I can, I borrowed Ofrenda a la Tormenta – ‘Offering to the Storm’, though there is no translation to English available yet – and I got lost in the dense greenery of the Baztán valley one last time.

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The story picks up right after The Legacy of the Bones, with D.I Amaia Salazar chasing the network of criminals that has been targeting the families of the Baztán valley for decades, and with her personal struggle with the handsome Judge Marquina. Even though I found the second novel in the series a real page-turner, Ofrenda a la tormeta despite its necessity to give closure to the story, does not equal The Legacy of the Bones in holding the reader’s attention. As Salazar tries to solve the case, her past comes to haunt her one more time in the form of dreams that become an over-used resource by Redondo, making me skip whole paragraphs without having any troubles following the story afterwards.

The novel’s strength lies in the cryptic combination of Amaia’s personal and professional struggles, as her husband James takes a secondary role, and her relationship with her son Ibai no longer plays such a big role in the creation of her own identity, which is to thank after the obsession with motherhood that plagued the previous novel. Instead, Amaia’s relationship with Judge Marquina takes a central role, making Salazar question the decisions that have shaped her life until she met him. However, Redondo does not offer a fresh take on female desire in crime fiction, and Amaia’s infatuation with the Judge takes a darker turn – no spoilers! – that will become the most remarkable struggle of the novel. As for the closure, the Baztán readers will get it as all the events from previous novels – that Redondo wisely brings up again with a few sentences – are tied together.

I was very, very disappointed by Ofrenda a la tormenta as the final installment in the most successful crime series in 21st century Spain. Questioned by a few fellow crime readers here, I had to admit that The Invisible Guardian is a good book, The Legacy of the Bones is a great one, but Ofrenda a la tormenta makes for a very poor ending. I think my main problem relied on how Redondo tells the story, and how Amaia’s issues with her mother, as well as her nightmares became tiring narrative strategies that tried to move the plot forward connecting Salazar’s past and present. However, I had no problem finishing the book, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has read the two previous installments as a way of finding closure.

As a Spanish crime fiction reader, I must say that I am really happy that Redondo’s books are also enjoying some success in more than 30 countries now. The novels have changed the way many people in this country perceive crime fiction, especially written by women. Even though the novels were a bit expensive (20€ each!), the publishers also released cheaper paperback editions and most local and public libraries have them as well. In an effort to expand the series’ success, a film adaptation combining the three novels is to be released the 3rd of March 2017, with Basque actress Marta Etura starring as Amaia. Here’s the trailer in Spanish. No spoilers!

If you have not heard of Dolores Redondo’s Baztán Trilogy, you can find more information here:

Review: Baztán Trilogy #1 – The Invisible Guardian

Review: Baztán Trilogy # 2 – The Legacy of the Bones

Exclusive Interview with Dolores Redondo for Books & Reviews

Legado en los huesos (The Legacy of the Bones) by Dolores Redondo – Baztan Trilogy #2

As I visited the public library to return Ferrante #4 last December, I stumbled upon Dolores Redondo’s Legado en los huesos (The Legacy of the Bones) in the New Books section. As I eyed the familiar cover – all the Spanish editions share a similar cover, with greenery and a woman – I realised that it had been a year since I had read El guardián invisible (The Invisible Guardian), the first installment in the series. I realised then, it would just be perfect to put an end to 2016 the same way I had started it: By returning to Baztán.

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Legado en los huesos takes place as Amaia Salazar gives birth and is forced to return to Elizondo, where a local church has been vandalised. If El guardián invisible was constructed over the greenery and the scenery typical of Navarra and the Northern part of Spain, then Legado en los huesos highlights the unique political environment of the area. Amaia, despite being in charge of the team now, sees herself investigating the desecration of a local church because a high-ranking prelate from the Opus Dei specifically requests her. The right-wing organisation is extremely powerful in Navarra, where they are in charge of the most prestigious Medicine college of the country. Their influence is however greater than that, and the novel is built on Amaia’s struggles to reconcile her job and her new role as a mother, and the Catholic doctrine with the pagan beliefs of Elizondo.

Amaia’s recent maternity and mother-child relationships take again a central role in the narrative as she gives birth to a baby boy, instead of the girl they were expecting, and she struggles to become the mother she has pictured herself to be. Redondo makes an effort to include the difficult task of caring for a newborn, even though Amaia always has James by her side. Post-natal depression, as well as remorse, sleep-deprivation, and the importance of finding time with her husband make up for most of the main character’s personal arch. I found Amaia’s views on motherhood a bit old-fashioned, especially when she tries to put her son’s breastfeeding above everything,  and she refuses to let it interfere with her work. However, all her worries disperse throughout the book when she accepts help from James and Engrasi to take care of the baby, and she recovers some personal space and time. Some of that personal space will be clouded by Judge Markina’s interest in Amaia, posting questions about flirting, infidelity, love, and marriage, thus giving adding even more depth to the main character.

It is a bit difficult to describe the crime that sets the plot into motion because everything is directly linked to the events on the previous book. So, if you have not read El guardián invisible, Legado en los huesos is not a good place to start. As Amaia investigates the desecration of a church in Elizondo, Johana Marquez’s father commits suicide in jail, leaving a strange message for Amaia that sends the whole team into a thrilling investigation during the cold, wet and dark winter of Northern Spain. Personally, I was thrilled to see our short and wet days inscribed in popular literature, as we do not get much sun and warmth in the North of Spain, where we share more similarities with England than with Barcelona. The return to her hometown will also help Amaia deal with her traumatic relationship with her mother, as well as with her older sisters, Flora and Ros. Tía Engrasi is always present in the background, taking the role of mother, confident, and now grandmother to Amaia’s kid, as well as facilitator of the family’s return to the town. Without giving anything away, Amaia will discover a dark family secret that will change her forever. All these stories are entwined with the Basque mythology that made El guardián invisible such a distinctive book.

Legado en los huesos is a an even better read than El guardián invisible, though longer and darker. Despite my passion for crime fiction, I found myself agitated and unable to read this book during bedtime due to Redondo’s masterful story-telling skills. The crimes Amaia investigates also take a darker turn, and although I do not want to give anything away, please beware the book contains graphic descriptions of violence against children and teenagers (as did the previous installment), as well as desecration of Catholic places. If you can bear that, then you are in for one of the best books written in Spain in recent years.

Spinster. Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick

This semester I joined a feminist book club that takes place in my favourite city and is led by a fellow feminist PhD candidate at my same programme. The club is organised nation-wide, with different physical meetings all over Spain by the feminist organisation La Tribu (‘The Tribe’). Our first reading was Spinster. Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick, a non-fiction book, partly memoir, about what it means to be single nowadays.

The book has been translated into Spanish but I decided to go with the original for two reasons. One is that I read faster in English and I also enjoy the text more, the second one is that books in Spain are quite expensive because as cultural products they have a 21% tax on them with Spinster‘s price rocketing to 24€. So, after a quick search at Abebooks I found an in-good-condition edition for less than 2€. Here’s my now battered copy:

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I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Spinster, as I found myself thinking about the book all day long and wishing it was bedtime to return to it. I usually read novels, but this year I have felt drawn to non-fiction. The boyfriend got me Gloria Steinem’s memoir My Life on the Road for Christmas and it had been a long time since I had been so inspired by a book. Non-fiction is teaching me that life is gray, messy and wonderful. Kate Bolick’s book has taught me that our emotional and personal lives do not have to be coherent.

Spinster is divided into chapters according to the different ‘awakeners’ that Bolick has chosen as her role models. The term ‘awakeners’ is a feminist one related to Kate Chopin’s feminist novel The Awakening in which a young wife and mother wakes up one day to a life that does not make her happy and decides to change that. One thing to highlight is that Bolick’s experience is highly situated as a white, middle-class American woman, meaning that she, like we all are, is a product of her surroundings. Hence, the women that she choses as role models are culturally and geographically similar to her: They were either born in New England, or they moved to New York city. All of them were women of letters and arts, and most of them will be familiar to the Western feminist reader. And if not, Bolick’s admiration for them is so contagious that you will find yourself researching these awakeners. I did not know a thing about Irish author and journalist Maeve Brennan, but I am now fascinated by her life and I hope to explore some her works later this year. The rest of the awakeners, you will have to discover for yourself as their identities and their historical relevance are key to the development of Bolick’s train of thought.

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Irish author Maeve Brennan (1917 – 1993)

When a non-fiction book deals with such a sensitive topic as women’s personal lives, it is almost impossible not to be passionate about what you think. As a feminist I have never found myself against anything as long as it is a woman’s choice and it does not cause her any harm. I am not against marriage, probably because my parents have been together for almost 40 years and they are a happy and strong couple. I am not against choosing to remain single because some of the women I admire the most are not married, nor do they have children. In short, I truly believe it is important to remain true to yourself and choose what makes you happier. Said choice is a difficult one when it comes to our private lives, as society still seems obsessed with women marrying and having children so that they are defined by their relationships to other people rather than in their own terms.

Bolick explores what singlehood means for her, and reflects on whether it is conscious choice or the product of failed relationships in which she did not feel comfortable. Having said this, the author is very clear in that she has experienced most kind of relationships: Open relationships, one-night stands, long-term relationships that everyone expected to end in marriage, she has shared a flat with her partner, and she has lived alone. As she approaches her 40th birthday she realises that she does not need to accommodate to anyone’s idea of how her life should be, but it takes a process of reflection and self-criticism to reach this point. That is what Spinster is, a woman’s journey to define herself and find what makes her happy in a society where dating, marrying and having children are considered the default life paths of the vast majority.

We like to pretend that only single people are lonely, and coupledom is the cure.

I only found a problem with the book and that was the definition of singlehood by Bolick. As a white, middle-class, educated woman living in New England she works with a very fixed definition of what being in a relationship means, and what getting married means. Throughout the book I was surprised to find that this definition remained stable through her 20’s and 30’s, and I wondered if the age gap between her and me was the problem here. She even admits to seeing women in two groups: Married and not-married, and wonders if singlehood will mean she will end up a bag-lady, or a cat-lady. For Bolick being in a committed, long-term relationship and eventually marrying equals will compromise the woman’s freedom and right to act on her own terms. On the contrary, being single may be hard, but grants the woman an escape from patriarchal subjection. Contemporary feminist writers, such as Louise O’Neill, have already written about the complex relationship between being a feminist and the consequences of entering a heterosexual relationship in a society where women are still not considered equals to men.

While this could be true to our mothers’ generation, I am hopeful things have changed for some of us as more men define themselves as feminists and make a conscious effort of escaping traditional gender roles in relationships. But also, as women escape stereotypes and try to find a balance between being completely alone in life or the centre of a big family. Being in a couple will not guarantee anyone’s happiness, nor will being alone make you a cat-lady. Bolick plays with extreme situations while making her choice, and although no one knows what the future holds, I want to believe that things are changing. More and more people are questioning the dating-marrying-children lifestyle, and more and more people are defining their lives on their own terms. There is no need to torture ourselves with the idea of becoming a desperate housewife or a bag lady, is it? But maybe that is my Millennial’s naiveté speaking (*).

Bolick herself sees some light at the end of the tunnel when she speaks about Markus and Nurius’s study about the imagined future and our possible self from 1986. These two researches from the University of Michigan conducted a study on how our own perceptions of the future affect our present and the future itself. You can check the abstract of their academic article here. This mechanism is also known as self-fulfilling prophecy and it concludes that human agency depends on our capacity to imagine ourselves in the future. Hence, if you imagine yourself a happy single woman with significant relationships with your family, friends and colleagues, it is very more likely you will achieve that situation. On the other hand, if you think that remaining single will turn you into a cat-lady then that situation is more likely to happen. This is why Bolick’s awakeners and role models in feminism are so important: If you can see it, you can be it.

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Astronaut and astrophysicist Sally Ride (1951 – 2012), the first American woman in space aboard the space shuttle Challenger on the importance of female role models.

However, the thing that I loved the most about Spinster is Bolick’s love for these women writers and the act of writing on itself. Bolick is a journalist and a writer, and she has a passion for stories, especially women’s stories, especially from the past. While I read this book I found myself writing more than I usually do, and the author became a colleague, a friend, who was struggling with writing the same way that I was, and was pushing me harder, forward. Even though I did not agree with everything that Bolick says about partnership, being in a relationship and marriage, I respected her point of view and instead chose to fully connect with her through respect for our different points of view and our shared love for literature and writing.

To write a sentence, then a paragraph, then another, and to have someone else read those lines and immediately understand what I meant to express – I wanted to try that.

In short Spinster is a very interesting and necessary book for anyone looking to reflect on women’s lived experiences and women writers alike. This is not a self-help book, nor does it contain any answers. What works for someone could be a personal nightmare for me and vice-versa. Bolick works hard at defending her singlehood, but so would I about defending my relationship. What matters the most is that this book is visibilising singlehood and putting it out there as a happy choice in life. Spinster is then a celebration of women’s right to choose what makes them happy, rather than just conform to society’s expectations. A luxurious choice for women in the past not so long ago, and a necessary conversation still nowadays.

(*) If you are interested in reflecting about marriage, feminism, children, committment, education and the intersection of all these issues, check the Stuff Mom Never Told You Youtube channel where feminist Cristen Conger does research on similar issues. In this video she reflects on the statistics that show how Millennials have different values regarding committment, marriage and stability than the previous generation:

The Muse by Jessie Burton

Author Jessie Burton became an international sensation when her first novel The Miniaturist became a best-seller across Europe. Back then my Twitter feed was full of praise for Burton and her debut novel. However, the story did not appeal to me at all, and after discussing this with other bloggers I decided I did not have to read a book just because everyone loved it. When Burton’s next novel The Muse came out last June I knew it was the right time to discover the author everyone loves. Thanks to Picador for the review copy.

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The Muse tells two different stories, both with women as main characters. In 1967 Odelle Bastien, young aspiring writer recently arrived from Trinidad, clims one of London’s most prestigious galleries to start a job that will change her life. Meanwhile, Olive Schloss moved to Spain in 1936 with her Jewish family trying to escape central Europe’s madness. What she does not know is that Spain is about to enter a madness of its own.How these two stories relate, and how both women are connected are up to readers to discover. More information can be found on the backcover of the book, but I think The Muse is one of those books that has to be discovered on its own. If you are feeling brave, I suggest you stop reading here and pick up a copy without doing more research.

The novel is a meditation on art, home, love, and the immigrant experience that will hit close to home to European readers who, like Odelle and Olive, are either experiencing or feeling powerless about the suffering that is happening. In any case, Burton makes the immigration experience a subjective one, where people are not part of waves of immigration or displaced groups, but rather individiuals with feelings, desires and aspirations:

There were tears, of course, mainly sobbed into my sagging pillow. The pressure of desire curled inside me. I was ashamed of it, and yet it defined me. I had bigger things I wanted to do, and I’d done five years of waiting. In the meantime, I wrote revenge poems about the English weather, and lied to my mother that London was heaven. (Odelle, 1967).

As a young, educated, black woman living in London in 1967 Odelle is faced with the lie of colonial education, that is, the terrible lies the Empire told about the motherland in the colonies. She also struggles with her identity, as she does not feel Caribbean nor does she feel English. Who is she? And what is she living in the inbetweenness when she was praised in Trinidad for her English manners and education? Odelle also has to face the reality behind the colonial enterprise and the racial hierarchies still alive so that when she starts dating a white, English boy, she is openly insulted by an old lady.

Meanwhile, Olive is the teenage daughter an affluent European couple. Her father is a Jewish art merchant escaping the horrors of Vienna, while her mother clings to her past as a flapper and her fading beauty. But Olive – who uncanningly embodies the current hipster aesthetics and lifestyle – just wants to be an artist. At the beginning of her story she is desperate to escape Spain and move to London, where she has been admitted into a presitigious art school. But things change when she meets Teresa and Isaac, working-class local sibblings desperate to make a living out the newly arrived Schloss family. Burton did a great job of portraying Andalusia’s poverty and socio-economic troubles, but also the ideological tension that preceeded the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939). Isaac is ‘a red’ with connections to Malaga’s annrchist groups, but also a social activist. However, his ideology does not prevent him from being gender-equality blind, and from performing a masculinity verging on the ‘Spanish macho’ stereotype: Dark, strong, a little bit rough, a fighter, you can imagine Olive’s response to him.

Luckily for female and feminist readers Olive is aware of gender roles and she struggles to perform her identity as an artist and as a young, desirable woman:

The artist as naturally male was such a widely held presupposition that Olive had come at times to believe it herself. As a nineteen-year-old girl, she as on the underside; the dogged, plucky mascot of amateurship. (Olive, 1936)

Do you know how many of them [artist sold by Olive’s father] are women, Isaac? None. Not one. Women can’t do it, you see. They haven’t got the vision, although last time I checked they had eyes, and hands, and hearts and souls. (Olive, 1936)

In 1967 Odelle seems to feel free to be a woman artist, although Burton wisely added racial diversity to the struggle posting questions about race, social class and ethnicity and what we, as a society, believe to be art.

The Muse is probably the best book I have read this year until now. Sitting down and opening the book – a work of art on its own, as the cover is one of the most beautiful I have seen – was a pleasure that took me out of a reading slump and reminded me why I love books, and art, and stories.

What Our Insistence On Ferrante’s Identity Actually Means About Women, Consent, And Art

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.

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Potrait of fictional character Lila for the Spanish translation of Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend.

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’.