Elena Ferrante and ‘writing against’ a male literary tradition

Women’s self-discovery process cannot be adapted to a man’s model.” [1]

Written by Stefania Frustagli

Edited by Veronica Vivi

Illustrated by Maia Abayomi 

In the early stages of her writing life, Elena Ferrante considered her female nature a hindrance to her creative expression. “For a woman who has something to say,” she asked herself, “does it really take a miracle to dissolve the margins within which nature has enclosed her and show herself in her own words to the world?” [2]. In her lecture, Ferrante discusses how much the male literary tradition has shaped, restrained women’s writing, and how she tries to overcome this. Ferrante also mentions this theme in an interview where she states, “Nobody (…) is the true name, perhaps, of any woman who writes, since she writes from within an essentially male tradition.” [3]. 

My Brilliant Friend‘s narrator, Elena Greco (Lenù to her friends), echoes Ferrante’s perception and its consequences: “No one knew better than I did what it meant to make your own head masculine so that it would be accepted by the culture of men; I had done it, I was doing it.” [4]. It is the 1970s in a tumultuous Italy: a time of terrorism, student protests, and feminist movements. Elena is a young woman, a novice writer, married with two children, when a new perspective dawns on her. The realisation comes in a raging eruption: “Spit on Hegel. Spit on the culture of men, spit on Marx, on Engels, on Lenin. (…) And on marriage, on family. (…) And on all the manifestations of patriarchal culture. And on all its institutional forms. Resist the waste of female intelligence. (…) Restore women to themselves. (…)” [5]. The character is referring to Italian writer Carla Lonzi’s feminist essay, Let’s spit on Hegel. This rupture leads to an understanding: “I worked so hard on books, but I endured them, I never actually used them, I never turned them against themselves. This is thinking against.” [5]

When reading Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the most historical and political book among Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, I was hit by the same realization. I began to see the literature I studied at university, all the classics I read for pleasure, in a new light. All those books were written by men and the female characters I admired were their creations. Was their representation authentic? They portrayed women based on their own desires and understandings, but what did they really know? Although I do not believe a writer’s insight is limited to what they experience, I asked myself: how could men give justice to a woman’s truth? What is a woman’s truth? What does it mean for a woman to find her own authentic voice?

As a female literature student at the University of Milan, I never considered freeing myself from the male literary burden or spitting on the intellectuals I studied. I was shaped by male literary traditions without even realising it. I have only recently begun to realise how much I have endured and internalised what I would now name sexism; it not only shaped me, but also social dynamics I was unaware of. Over the last few years, in Italy, many women (I am particularly grateful to writer Michela Murgia [6]) have been raising awareness around such themes. Professor Daniela Brogi has recently published an essay exploring how women have been marginalised, forgotten, and ignored throughout history: “The gamble for women’s space was and remains this: to rethink and rebuild the experience and history of women by starting with their literature.” [7] In “Lo spazio delle donne”, Brogi observes that female writers tend to draw attention not just to themselves individually, but to the collective for the sake of “love of the world”, as Hannah Arendt would say. [9] A similar pattern is recognised by Hélène Cixous: “[woman’s] libido is cosmic, just as her unconsciousness is worldwide: her writing also can only go on and on, without even inscribing or distinguishing contours.” [9]

Brogi further notes how our female “ancestors” share a common trait: a sense of belonging and solidarity, aimed at their emancipation. However, this is not enough. As writers reinvent the world, female writers must also reinvent themselves. In Ferrante’s tetralogy, Lenù’s novel, featuring a sex scene between a young girl and an adult man, creates scandal. A character’s acquaintance approaches her: “I read your book (…), how brave you were to write (…) the things you do on the beach.” Lenù replies that it’s not her but the character. “Yes, but you wrote them really well, Lenù, just the way it happens, with the same filthiness. They are secrets that you know only if you are a woman.” [10] While it was an individual episode, it also seemed a common experience to all women. In the “filthiness” of the story, the interlocutor recognises her own experience of filthiness. [11] A similar comment comes from the other brilliant friend. “Dirty stuff ended up in there,” Lila says, “stuff that men don’t want to hear and women know but are afraid to say.” [12] The feeling of filthiness appears like a shared destiny: a resigned acceptance of a passive role; a sense of shame; an acknowledgement of something inevitable; the acceptance of sexual interaction driven by men’s pleasure – violence. These are intimate aspects that a man cannot access and, perhaps, does not want to.

This may answer my question about whether a man can give a woman an authentic voice. However, how can women find a voice that is authentic to them, free from literary conventions? Women must first acknowledge that they write within a male tradition. Only by understanding and facing this implication, women can find a way of writing that is truly their own. [3] Authenticity may necessitate breaking through the boundaries imposed by others – what men expect women to be, and what women believe they should be. Brogi discusses how women have been subjected to systematic annihilation throughout history. As a result, they despise themselves and strive to look like men: these dynamics are present today and they unconsciously and consciously continue to shape women’s thoughts and language. [13]

The impact of the standard literary canon on women writers (and not only women) is hugely underestimated. The male narrative must be questioned to “dismantle a chauvinist symbolic system.”[14] Ferrante’s words sounds like a necessity: “I wish that all women who want to write had a common practice of disruptive writing, which tries to impact a tremor to all forms, and describes that tremor, the chaos it causes, the compositions it decomposes, and the effort of totally redrawing the meanings of history and of all stories.” [15] As Brogi explains, this means dismantling patriarchy and engaging in dialogue with the culture that colonised women. Established layouts and styles must be rethought from a new perspective. [16] It does not take a miracle, only effort and audacity to challenge limitations. This is one direction academic studies should take when discussing genres. Women must analyse the context and the language, comprehend, and reclaim it: deconstructing or getting rid of this cultural baggage, while taking into account its immense impact.

Notes and works cited

[1] Carla Lonzi. Sputiamo su Hegel; La Donna Clitoridea e la Donna Vaginale. Gammalibri. 1982. (p.14) (My translation)

[2] Ferrante, Elena. In the Margins. On the Pleasure of Reading and Writing. Europa editions, 2022.

[3] The concept is explained as follows: “We try to use the specificity of writing as best we can. We dip into the resources stored in the age-old warehouse of literature. (…) But they hardly belong to us. Thus, if we’re honest, we’ll go painfully beyond the margins to collide with the other, and beyond the margins search, with outsize ambition, time and again, for our names. But we’re not interested in having a name, in making a name for ourselves” Ferrante concludes, “we’re interested in giving a name, in having our writing become truly ours.” This comes from an interview with writer Elizabeth Strout: ‘I felt different as a child. I was nearly mute’: Elena Ferrante in conversation with Elizabeth Strout. The Guardian. 5 Mar 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/mar/05/i-felt-different-as-a-child-i-was-nearly-mute-elena-ferrante-in-conversation-with-elizabeth-strout
Unfortunately, Strout’s thoughts on this specific topic are not discussed in the interview. 

[4] Ferrante, Elena. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. First publications 2014 by Europa Editions.

[5] —.  Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. Europa Editions, 2014. (p.280-281)

[6] Michela Murgia will not be discussed here since it does not fit into my article’s scope. Nevertheless, I want to mention her because she has been a major influence on me as well as the recent feminist surge in Italy. I would not be discussing these topics if I had not listened to her podcast Morgana during lockdown, and read her book Stai Zitta e Altre Nove Frasi Che Non Vogliamo Sentire Più” (“Shut up and Other Nine Sentences We Do not Want to Hear Anymore”).

[7] Brogi, Daniela. Lo Spazio delle Donne. (p.155). All translations in the article are my own.

[8] —. Lo Spazio delle Donne. Giulio Einaudi Editore. 2022. (p.28)

[9] Cixous, Hélèn; Clément, Catherine. The Newly Born Woman. University of Minnesota Press. 1986. Translation by Betsy Wing.

[10] Ferrante, Elena. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. First publications 2014 by Europa editions. (p. 90)

[11] —. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. First publications 2014 by Europa editions. (p.91)

[12] —. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. First publications 2014 by Europa editions. (p.175)

[13] An in-depth analysis of these concepts is provided by Daniela Brogi in her essay.

[14] Brogi, Daniela. Lo Spazio delle Donne. . Giulio Einaudi Editore, 2022  (p.159)

[15] Ferrante, Elena. In the Margins. On the Pleasure of Reading and Writing. Europa editions, 2022

[17] Brogi, Daniela. Lo Spazio delle Donne. Giulio Einaudi Editore, 2022, (p.136)

Stefania Frustagli graduated in Italian literature from the University of Milan with a dissertation on Italian poet Giorgio Caproni’s use of language ambiguity. She is fascinated by how powerful yet fallacious words can be. In recent years, she has gained interest in women’s issues and sexism. She pursued a diploma from the London School of Journalism to combine her passion for writing with her commitment to social justice, as she sees journalism as a way to raise social awareness. Follow her on Twitter @stefaniafru.

Flo, Not My Job & Rejecting the Idea of the ‘Strong Black Woman’

Written by Anita Mowete

Edited by Veronica Vivi

Illustrated by Florence Aina

Black women are often expected to put their heart and soul in relationships, even if it is to their own detriment. However, just because you can, does not mean you should.

This feeling of frustration is the central theme of the song ‘Not My Job’ by the girl group Flo. Releasing music since 2022, Flo continues to see a steady rise in popularity. The group has a late 90s/early 2000s RnB and Hip-Hop style, reminiscent of groups like Destiny’s Child, SWV, and TLC.

It is clear the woman in ‘Not My Job’ is at a breaking point in her relationship. She reminisces back to when she “had the patience” to put up with her partner’s problems but now she has found her voice and is making her boundaries clear (Flo, 2022). It is a situation most people can relate to, by either being in it themselves or witnessing it happen to someone else – our mothers, aunts or friends overworked and underappreciated in relationships that do not fulfil them.

However, finding the strength to cut the rope and leave these relationships behind can be the ultimate act of self-care and liberation. Going from that low point of realising you have become a shadow of yourself to taking back ownership of your life is one of the few glimmers of light that can shine through a bad relationship. This act of rebellion is contrary to the role black women are expected to play in relationships. In the black African and American community, the idea of the steadfast wife or girlfriend who takes a man at his lowest and transforms him into the most successful version of himself is very common. Women are even expected to put up with abuse or infidelity as too many people give excuses for this behaviour. Black women are taught to forgive first and foremost when dealing with these types of behaviour, therefore rejecting the docile and submissive role placed on their shoulders is a powerful act of resistance. 

Throughout my course studying journalism, I have not had the chance to analyse songs specifically; however, music is a vehicle of pop culture that can help understand the thoughts and feelings of different communities at any given time. Gaining the skills to look at media critically granted me the ability to see that a catchy song on social media is also a window to look at important issues. It is thought-provoking to see how a simple song can also serve as a doorway into the thoughts and emotions of black women. In this sense, ‘Not My Job’ would fit well in any course that involves finding the background and deeper meaning behind pieces of media.

‘Not My Job’ can also be a useful piece in a historical context. The theme of the song presents parallels with the 1953 song ‘Hound Dog’ by Big Mama Thornton. Although decades apart, the two songs have similar themes as they both come from the viewpoint of a black woman leaving a man who is not good for her. When Thornton sings, “cause you ain’t looking for a woman, all you’re looking for is a home” (Big Mama Thornton, 1953), this draws parallels with the line “never been my job, never been my occupation” in Flo’s song (Flo, 2022). In both situations, the men in the relationships are not looking for the woman herself, but what they can get out of her. Whether it is somewhere to stay or someone to invest in them fully, they do not see nor care about the pressure they are putting on their partners. It is also a reminder that rebelling against the role black women are burdened with in relationships is nothing new for them. 

On a wider scale, the song can serve as a more zoomed in focus on the emotional labour expected of black women in general. From Rosa Parks to Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, in using their voices to stand against racial bigotry and fight for justice and equality for black people, black women often get caught in the line of fire as a result. While we regularly see the great acts of resistance taken by black women, how often do people consider the toll it takes on them? We are expected to educate over and over even if it means reliving unpleasant experiences on top of the added stress of being a full-time employee at a job thinly veiled as a relationship. 

The emotional labour expected of black women in relationships is a symptom of a bigger issue. While on the surface the idea of the strong black women may seem empowering, this strength comes at a great cost. When you are constantly on the chopping block you end up being seen more as a mascot than a real person, even within your own community. Although building up someone regardless of its effects on your wellbeing is a brave and selfless act, it is not something that should be assumed or demanded. Truly, as the song says, it is no black woman’s job to make a man something that they are not. 

Anita Mowete is someone who loves to find deeper meaning in seemingly simple things. Currently a BA Journalism student at Robert Gordon University, she’s particularly interested in the experiences of Black people in the UK. She also has a love for history and travel, which both allow her to explore different cultures. 

Works Cited

Big Mama Thornton, ‘Hound Dog’, Peacock Records, 1953.

Flo, ‘Not My Job’, Island Records, 2022.

Hope is a Nigerian citizen in ‘Of This Our Country’

Written by Oluwaseun Famoofo 

Edited by Veronica Vivi

Illustrated by Grace Kaluba

I still remember the days my parents and their friends would sit in the living room, ardently discussing the politics of the land. I used to be scared someone would knock on their doors and arrest them for even daring to speak. Freedom of speech in Nigeria is an illusion, and so is the right to vote. To be a patriot or to not be, I have spent my life asking myself this question. But I ache for this country, a country where a lot of citizens keep saying their daily “what-ifs.”: what if we were never colonized, what if the amalgamation did not happen, what if we all united? Reading “Of this our Country” reminded me of  “There was a country,” by Chinua Achebe – the Nigeria he grew up in is so different from that which has been handed to us, the new generation of Nigerians.

Nigeria is a land filled with contrasts: inter-tribal hate and inter-tribal marriages; a wide income gap between the lower class, the middle class, and the rich; startling differences between the experiences of the citizens in the diaspora who come to Nigeria occasionally and the citizens who live and breathe the country. In “Of this our Country”, the most captivating sentence I read was “If you want to know a country, read its writers,” a quote by Aminatta Forna. The storytelling of the book shines a light on the hidden crevices, it points out the abnormalities and peculiarities of Nigeria I have come to regard as “normal.” A selection of first-person experiences where Nigerians highlight the authors’ strong ties to their ancestry. Sefi Atta, Helon Habila, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Bolu Babalola, Abi Daré, and Ayobami Adébayo are a few of the authors present in the collection. Finding both well-known and lesser-known Nigerian authors is easy within the book. I found compelling how at ease the authors were describing the places they called home; some of the authors are skillfully able to persuade their audience of their love for Nigeria.

The story by Chimamanda Adichie provides a hysterical and horrific view of life in Lagos. One’s response to their stories, which serve as a powerful representation of the author’s other works, should be able to inform if one will be interested in other books by these authors. Despite the fact that throughout the book many of Nigeria’s negative characteristics, which may discourage those who have never been there from traveling there, are highlighted, I believe readers will enjoy the descriptions that highlight the country’s timeless features and some may even feel an affinity for it as a result of reading the book.

The personal short stories by twenty-four writers from different parts of the country contained in “Of this our Country” is an accurate representation of the country. A symphony of colors and languages, of cultures and traditions, of religion and politics. It can make people awfully happy in a moment and the next second the smile is wiped off their face. In Nigeria, one never particularly knows what the day has for them, or even the next hour, they just hope for the best. Hope, they say, is a Nigerian citizen.

The book shows the nation that formed in the year 1960, which is still heavily scarred by colonialism and looting, civil war, and corruption, but which still stands tall regardless. Nigeria moves day by day through the sheer will of its people. The currency for surviving in Nigeria is the dream – everyone has it. It burns like a fever in people’s eyes when they see what they can accomplish. One might say this is also the factor that drives greed: the bottomless pit of want our leaders keep shoving the collective resources of the people into, and that person would be right. The complexity the country displays on a daily basis is intertwined with so many beliefs. Nigerians are a proud group of people, and it has led to generations of people who have a hard time admitting their mistakes. That the way they are leading this country is wrong or the hate for fellow Nigerians is baseless. They will not admit that we need better leaders, empathetic leaders, and that we have been wrong but with measured steps and goals, Nigerians can begin the long and tumultuous journey to start healing the land.

The writers’ time in cities like Lagos, Abeokuta, Enugu, Jos, and many more has been a transformative experience and inspired them to produce an enlightening book. Any foreigner who previously believed Nigeria had nothing noteworthy or interesting to offer would have their opinion altered after reading these testimonies. The authors are not all native Nigerians, though; some of them were raised abroad and have just recently chosen Nigeria as their permanent home. Every single piece in the collection is astounding, but those by Helon Habila, Lola Shoneyin, Yomi Adegoke, Okey Ndibe, and Abubakar Ibrahim will stand out as particularly unforgettable. 

Works cited

“If you want to know a country, read its writers.” – Aminatta Forna, ‘Survival instincts’, Guardian, April 24, 2009.

Of This Our Country. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Borough Press, 2021.


Oluwaseun Famoofo is a passionate narrator. A lover of comedy shows and wine, you will mostly see her glued to her laptop revealing one story or the other. Creating her novels and building their characters gives her the utmost satisfaction. Her works have shown in media such as Peace Insight, Black Ballad, Adventures from the bedroom of African women, Yellow seeds magazine, Noisy streets magazine, Resonate, Shado magazine and HypeQ Magazine.

Why We Must Decolonise the Environment

Written by Jonas Jungwoo Lim

Edited by Jess Hannah

Illustration by C.L. Gamble

Ecology in the DMZ

Growing up in the borderlands of South Korea, I was trained by ecologists before I came to be trained by historians at university. In my town of Paju—which is closer to the border than to the capital—I had the privilege of being able to spend time acquainting myself with the ecology of the streams, the vegetation, and the rice fields nearby. This was the case even, at times, in the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that separates North Korea and South Korea.

Continue Reading


Written by Ibtisam Ahmed

Edited by Maria Elena Carpintero Torres-Quevedo

Illustration by Iara Silva

Before I delve into this part of the Utopian Curriculum series, I must offer some thanks. First and foremost, to the incredible team at Project Myopia for their patience and compassion for me as an individual. The past several years have been difficult for so many of us and it is encouraging to see a publication actually embody the ethos of care and utopianism that we collectively agreed to explore when this series was first pitched. It is rare and makes all the difference. Second, specifically to Maria Elena Carpintero Torres-Quevodo for your feedback and nurturing editing. It has been a real joy being asked to delve deeper into my thoughts in a way that was constructive and empowering. Third, to Iara Silva for your incredible artwork. Arresting visual media is a wonderful way to express complex thoughts – all the more relevant for this particular essay given the graphic nature of the source material.

And finally, to you dear reader, for sticking with this endeavour. It feels serendipitous offering my gratitude halfway through this curriculum, especially as so much has changed since it was first pitched. Part of this change is the actual source material itself. When I first included Superman as an example of utopia, it was a more generic take on the character and his history. But Superman has evolved since then and it is the specific take on his latest iteration – an openly queer child of a refugee with intentionally inclusive politics – that I will be exploring here.

Continue Reading

Watercolour painting on a streetscape in Lahore, Pakistan. The streetscape features colour canopies in blues, yellows and reds, balconies and windows.

Language: A Squatter’s Home

By Iffat Mirza

Artwork by Iffat Mirza

Edited by Katya Zabelski

There are some decisions that are made for us which completely change the trajectory of our lives. This experience is not anything particularly shocking or controversial, especially when those decisions were made for you as a child. As a nine-month-old, my family relocated from Lahore, Pakistan, to London, England. As I’m sure most children of immigrants feel, growing up with two cultures gave me a unique lens from which to interpret my experiences. Alternatively, is the realization that you are essentially an orphan of both cultures. Now I find myself quietly asking my mother what certain words mean during conversations at family gatherings, or I avoid wedding functions because I don’t know the words to any of the songs sung. It is the quotidian bumps in the road which remind you that you’re not quite home.

Continue Reading

Digital artwork - a blue background with circular shapes overlayed in yellow and black. On the left hand side there is an outline of the African continent

History as Imagination: Black Dreaming as Liberation

By Alma Alma

Edited by Veronica Vivi

Artwork by Natasha Ruwona

Words are important for history as it is through words that history is told. So, what is the language of an untold history? It is the language of imagination, dreams, of interpretation of the tongue. For marginalised communities, history is the study of loss – a loss that is sometimes irretrievable. Without conventional historical sources, the past remains a locked door, but with an imaginative approach through a combination of personal experience, memory, and creativity there can be a re-construction of the past. With black history often found in oral traditions, folklore, and music, these stories are frequently at odds with more conventional historical practices such as written documents and official records, thus leaving them unexplored and untold. The work of black women writers such as Dionne Brand and Toni Cade Bambara shows how this hurdle can be overcome through an illustrative and imaginative writing practice.  

Continue Reading

A moving image with an Instagram filter. The image was taken by the writer in Jamaica on their family's land. It is a beautiful landscape with rolling green hills and the ocean on the horizon, a beautiful blue sky with white clouds.

Communing with Dionne Brand’s At the Full and Change of the Moon

By Kamara Dyer Simms

Artwork by Kamara Dyer Simms

Edited by Hannah McGurk

Dionne Brand’s At the Full and Change of the Moon was the focal novel for my undergraduate dissertation on Black futurity, nonlinear temporality, and imagination. While I’m not convinced that diversifying the curriculum within the current academy has enough bearing on any decolonial or anticolonial work that disrupts the academy, I still meditate with how I’ve been gifted by this novel and my accompanying piece of scholarship — how the philosophy ritualistically grounds me as a scholar and creative, how the prose holds me tenderly and with fullness, and how the metaphors guide me to dream futures for myself and my loved ones “with no hope of gratitude or remembrance” (Brand 21-22). Brand’s prose is poetry, and communing with her work continues to move me to imagine beyond what the carceral and linear structures of time dictate.

Continue Reading

The otherness of South Asian Art in British academia

Apoorva Singh

Edited by Ketaki Zodgekar

Chila Kumari Burman was a member of the British Black Arts movement in the 1980s and one of the first South Asian women to make political art in the UK (Buck, 2020). Her work was most recently exhibited by Tate Britain in 2020, where her piece remembering a brave new world, filled with imagery of iconic Hindu deities and South Asian aesthetics, was the gallery’s winter commission. South Asian feminist perspectives on post-colonial Britain are centred in Burman’s work, which spans multiple media, from printmaking and painting, to installation and film. In my exploration of Chila Kumari Burman, I started to wonder: How do we read and understand her artwork? Is it post-colonial, South Asian, feminist or British? How should we define the artwork’s aesthetic and cultural underpinnings?

Continue Reading

No more posts.