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.

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.  

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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.

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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?

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By Ibtisam Ahmed

Edited by Maria Elena Carpintero Torres-Quevedo

Illustration by Iara Silva

Welcome to the new year and welcome back to the Project Myopia Utopian Curriculum series. So far, I set up a broad overview of the discipline and the series in the first post, and then looked at the anti-colonial Afrofuturism of Black Panther in the second. In part three, I will be exploring Sultana’s Dream and how it uses satire and humour to highlight how oppressed communities can create a specific vision of liberation and utopia.

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Ibtisam Ahmed

Edited by Maria Elena Carpintero Torres-Quevedo

Illustration by Iara Silva

Welcome back to the Utopian Curriculum series with Project Myopia! In this post, I will look at the first case study on the curriculum, the 2018 Marvel film Black Panther. Directed by Ryan Coogler, it has received a renewed level of attention and love since the tragic passing of actor Chadwick Boseman.

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Unlearning British Biphobic Bias with “The Bi-ble”

Gemma Avens

Edited by Ketaki Zodgekar

Illustration by @worthdrawingwell

Unsurprisingly, most of the authors in The Bi-ble wrote of feeling silenced and isolated around their bisexuality, convinced that their struggles were unique to them. In fact, similar feelings are what led me to find the anthology and tear through it at breakneck speed. The Bi-ble discusses the authors’ experiences of bisexuality in Britain: of marginalisation, exploring their sexuality, and reclaiming their identity — finding power and joy in the process. The collection is an extremely valuable academic resource and one of very few books about bisexuality in Britain — bisexuality, here, being romantic or sexual attraction to multiple genders.

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Queer Phenomenology: ‘While Standing in Line for Death’ by CA Conrad

Clara Hancock

Edited by Ketaki Zodgekar

Illustration by Яachel Lee

‘We are time machines of water and flesh patterned for destruction, if we do not release the trauma.’ (CAConrad, 2017) 

CAConrad is a gender non-conforming poet and activist. I first came across their work in the 2018 Beatrice Gibson film I HOPE I’M LOUD WHEN I’M DEAD, which emphasises the necessity of poetry during the current American political crisis. Since discovering Conrad and their ‘(soma)tic’ bodily rituals, my own writing practice has been significantly altered, as I developed a deeper awareness of poetic embodiment. While Standing in Line for Death (Conrad, 2017) consists of 18 (soma)tic rituals, alongside poems that result from them. (Soma)tic poetics is a union of ‘soma’, a spiritual term derived from Sanskrit, meaning ‘to press and be newly born’ and ‘somatic’, the Greek term for the body. Conrad’s (soma)tic poetry investigates the space between body and spirit, and exposes the ways in which corporeality is integral to creativity, grief, expression and survival. ​The writing that emerges from these rituals repeatedly reminds us of the ways in which emotion is both bodily, cognitive, and a meeting point between the world and ourselves (Herd, 2017).

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Harmonia Rosales’ Black Female Universe

Words and Illustration by Tanatsei Gambura @tanagambura

Edited by Veronica Vivi

The Black imagination is a dangerous, radical phenomenon. More still is the Black, female imagination. It is an envoy into the speculative realm of pure freedom. In an existence that is marked by the suppression of the Black female form in all its shapes, the Black imagination functions as a powerful and liberating force. That being said, a pleasurable Afrocentric paradigm of the world is too abstract and incomprehensible to many. However, for Afro-Cuban artist Harmonia Rosales, not only is it conceivable, but, more importantly, it is a divine universe that can be translated into compelling visual representations for others to bear witness to. 

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