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.


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.

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

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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.

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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.

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By Kamara Dyer Simms

Artwork by Kamara Dyer Simms

Edited by Hannah McGurk

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Lino print of French-Mauritanian film director, Med Hondo. Hondo is depicted holding a loud speaker and standing in front of a banner emblazoned with the national motto of France and Haiti, "Liberté, égalité, fraternité".

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Illustration and article by François Giraud 

Edited by Ketaki Zodgekar

Although he worked at the margins of the film industry for half a century, pioneer French-Mauritanian filmmaker Med Hondo (1936-2019) is not an obscure artist. As recently as 2020, the German publisher Archive Books compiled almost fifty years of interviews with Med Hondo, which shows the interest that his transnational and anticolonial cinema continues to elicit, decades after many of his films were released. In 1970, his first long feature film Soleil Ôwhich powerfully denounces racism in French society and the exploitation and discrimination of African emigrants in Paris—received exposure at Cannes Festival and was awarded a Golden Leopard at the Locarno International Festival. Some of his later films, such as Sarraounia (1986) and Black Light (Lumière noire, 1994), have been studied in academic journals specialising in African and postcolonial studies. 

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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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Kiefer Holland

Edited by Maria Elena Carpintero Torres-Quevedo

Artwork by Natasha Ruwona

Whilst the works of nineteenth-century African Americans may feature on some of the rarer undergraduate English Literature courses, or in specialist modules, I believe they should be far more prevalent. In this article, with help from Sojourner Truth and Josiah Henson, I would like to present the idea that the inclusion of works by nineteenth-century African Americans would be highly beneficial in any standard undergraduate literature course. Two of the central lessons literature students learn during an undergraduate degree are how to closely read a text, and that language itself, because it is a human construct, is rife with insufficiencies. The latter lesson ranges from the inability to truly represent human emotions with words like “love” and “hate,” to the painfully reductive terms with which we attempt to categorise people. The conditions under which the works of nineteenth-century African Americans were created means that they are some of the best texts through which to learn those two lessons. While no two nineteenth-century African Americans approached language and its applications in the same way, they were all in one way or another faced with the reality of Black literacy during their lifetimes, which carried the legacies of slavery even after the conclusion of the Civil War. Literacy was illegal for millions of enslaved African Americans, and the primary nineteenth-century audience for the writing of free African Americans was white abolitionists who demanded the truth of their lives without embellishment or interpretation. As Frederick Douglass recalled, abolitionists demanded that he “Give us the facts [. . .] we will take care of the philosophy” (My Bondage 361). For people to whom literacy was denied in enslavement and then restricted in freedom, but who were nevertheless subject, in numerous atrocious ways, to the writings of others (laws, ledgers, racist caricatures, to name a few), engagement with language was understandably complex.

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Giulia Colato

Edited by Veronica Vivi

Illustration by Maia Walcott

“You have to tell the world that North Korea is like one big prison camp . . . If you don’t speak up for them, Yeonmi-ya, who will?” (Park 264). After her mother said these words, Yeonmi Park decided to put aside her insecurities, her fear and the shame she felt and to write about her life.

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