Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Imagination of Anita Raja

Millions of readers have loved Elena Ferrante's books, but until yesterday nobody knew who the author really was. Now that a journalist has outed Anita Raja as the author, we can see that the books are not autobiographical, but works of imagination:
That series, which follows the lives of two girls in a poor neighborhood in Naples from childhood to maturity, feels so powerfully authentic that many readers have assumed it reflected Ms. Ferrante’s own experience. But as it turns out, Ms. Raja’s history is very different from those of her heroines, Elena Greco and Lina Cerullo. Ms. Raja was born in Naples, but she moved to Rome at the age of 3 and grew up there. Her father was Neapolitan, but not poor — he was a magistrate. Her mother was a German Jew who fled to Italy in the 1930s to escape Nazism, and who lost most of her family to the Holocaust. None of these facts could be gleaned from the novels.
To an American the difference between growing up in Rome and growing up in Naples may not seem like much, but it seems huge to Italians, like the difference between New York and New Orleans. And like so many other books about life among the poor, these turn out to have been written by a highly educated member of the upper middle class. Novel writing demands knowledge of places and their people, but also imagination, and a writer with sufficient talent can make the imagined seem real.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

In my mind, there are a few key qualities required in being able to write "well" (id est, believeably, respectfully, and entertainingly) about people and experiences different than yourself.

First is a healthy degree of empathy. If you're trying to convey a life or an experience you've never actually lived, you need to draw from the experiences of those who actually have lived it. If you don't do everything you reasonably can to place yourself in their shoes to whatever degree is possible, to get as real as possible a notion of what they've gone through, and to touch upon the essential truth of their circumstances, you're going to miss the mark on accurately representing them - possibly catastrophically.

Second is compassion. If you don't feel any compassion toward your subject, if you are unmoved by their unique difficulties and their troubles in life (even if you don't necessarily agree with them in many ways), then it is impossible to convey them in a way that will evoke compassion in your readers - and that results in flat, lifeless, unlikeable, unbelieveable characters whom people won't want nor bother to read about. A story can be technically accurate in its portrayal of others, but still remain lifeless and soulless because the author doesn't care about (or even actively derides) the people or experiences they are describing.

Third is curiosity. This reinforces the first two - if you're curious about other people, it's easier to empathize with and accurately learn about their situations, and it's likewise easier to transition from simple interest in your subject to genuine compassion for them. But curiosity also serves another purpose - it is often self evident in writing, and with minimal effort it becomes contagious. People are more likely to be curious about what you have to say with your work if it's clear to them that the work itself came from a place of curiosity. Your own interest and enthusiasm, when apparant through the writing itself, inspires the reader to show interest and curiosity of their own.

These are just a few qualities, although I'm sure others could be argued to apply equally well. But these in particular stand out in my mind, and serve as a solid foundation for other qualities that may come to mind.