Like thousands of people around the world, I discovered the novels of Elena Ferrante this summer and was bewitched from the first page. “Reading” doesn’t describe what I did; “devoured” is the better word. I couldn’t put the novel down until I was at the last page, and then I immediately picked up the next one, like a chain smoker who wants the next cigarette before the first one is even finished (Here’s my Dawn article about the series, if you want to know more).
Did it matter that I didn’t know Elena Ferrante’s real identity? Of course not. But it bothered a lot of other people. Particularly men, who claimed that perhaps the author was actually a man, because how could a woman write so well and so evocatively about violence, poverty, and politics? There are pages and pages in the novels devoted to describing the political and social conditions of Italy from the 1950s up until 2000 and beyond, the Camorra, the student movements, the factory workers’ attempts to unionize, the drug trade. How on earth could a woman write about all of this with such confidence, such authority? Ferrante herself has addressed this many times in interviews:
“Have you heard anyone say recently about any book written by a man, ‘It’s really a woman who wrote it, or maybe a group of women?’ Due to its exorbitant might, the male gender can mimic the female gender, incorporating it in the process. The female gender, on the other hand, cannot mimic anything, for it is betrayed immediately by its ‘weakness’; what it produces could not possibly fake male potency…
“The truth is that even the publishing industry and the media are convinced of this commonplace; both tend to shut women who write away in a literary gynaeceum. There are good women writers, not-so-good ones, and some great ones, but they all exist within the area reserved for the female sex, they must only address certain themes and in certain tones that the male tradition considers suitable for the female gender.”
Her anonymity, she said, was the key to her being able to write about all of this in exactly her own way. Freed from the burden of being identified with the characters and situations in her novel, she said time and time again that if she were not anonymous, she would not write. She threatened that if anyone unmasked her true identity, she would stop writing. Her publishers respected this principle, and not knowing her real name did not detract in any way from the truthfulness of her novels, although many in Italy did indulge in a guessing-game about who she was.
So it was with great dismay that I learned last night of an article in the New York Review of Books where a male journalist, Claudio Gatti, claimed to know the real identity of Elena Ferrante. They used financial records to track her down, and “named” her – or “doxxed” her, as Hannah Gold puts it in a Jezebel article. To what end? Is she Donald Trump that her tax statements had to be searched out and leaked? In solving this great “mystery” about one of Italy’s best contemporary writers, did Gatti and his cohorts feel they had accomplished something for posterity, in the interests of truth?
It didn’t feel that way to me. To me, it felt as though yet another man had stripped a woman naked and paraded her around, the way they do in villages in rural Pakistan when an insult to a family or tribe or man’s honor has been perceived. The village elders decree that the only way to avenge that honor is to take a woman from the offending party or family, strip her, shave her head, and make her walk in front of everyone.
We’ll bring Ferrante down to size, is what it feels like. How dare she hide herself from us? Enquiring minds must know. We deserve the truth! We buy your books, you are a celebrity because of us, so now you will share with us the one part of yourself that you have elected not to make public.
It feels like a violation.
I will not be seeking out Ferrante’s so-called identity, in an act of solidarity with the Italian writer. I too am a writer and a woman and privacy is of utmost importance to me. I will not disrespect Ferrante’s wishes, even if others think it is fine to do so. I want to keep faith with Elena Ferrante. It’s the least I can do, in light of how much she’s given me of her wisdom, her talent, her labor.
It’s the honorable thing to do.