Oct 4, 2016

Hiding In Plain Fictional Sight

Anita Raja / Elena Ferrante should have the right to create any sort of characters for her novels; should she also have the right to create any sort of story for her upbringing and background?
There are many ways in which artists can remain anonymous and protect their privacy. Hiding one's  name and identity is one of them. Writers, musicians and painters over the centuries have adopted pseudonyms, avoided public appearances, went into exile, to protect their art and, more often than not, their life from censorship, death and torture. Falsifying one's cultural and socio-economic background is another way of ensuring one's anonymity.

Or is it? Not if you ask Anita Raja after being "outed" a few days ago as being not just the novelist writing under the pseudonym "Elena Ferrante", but also as a privileged middle-class professional claiming to have grown up in the working-class Italian neighborhoods that she'd chosen as the setting for her novels. In her autobiography Anita Raja talked about growing up poor in Naples with a seamstress mother, when in fact, she grew up in a middle-class household in Rome with a magistrate/judge father.

Anita Raja could have chosen to just write and publish under a pseudonym. Did she really need to also fabricate a cultural and socioeconomic identity for herself in order to remain anonymous? Was it her life that was threatened by her real identity, or just her lifestyle?
Much commentary that I've read online centers on the question of cultural appropriation, ie. whether artists should write/compose/paint characters from cultures different than their own. http://nyti.ms/2d1eqh1

That's not the issue in Anita Raja's case though. Her right to create characters culturally different from herself  (ie her right to cultural appropriation) has nothing to do with the way she chose to protect her anonymity. She didn't just strive to hide her real name and background, she consistently promoted a false story of a working class upbringing that made her similar to her novels' characters. To me, that doesn't sound like an anonymity/privacy protection strategy, but rather, like a publicity story, promoted over decades to maintain the author's professional success.