The literary world is astir over the revelation that Italian novelist Elena Ferrante is really Roman translator Anita Raja, according to an investigative article by reporter Claudio Gatti.
Many Ferrante fans are upset that the author's identity apparently has been exposed. They wanted her to remain a mysterious, magical author whose shadowy existence allowed them to imagine her, increasing the allure of her work.
Ferrante, who will publish a new book this month, is known for her wonderful series of novels depicting the friendship of two Neapolitan women from childhood through middle age. One remains mired in near poverty, while the other finds success.
Poet/critic Adam Kirsch in a New York Times op-ed article this week said that if Raja really is Ferrante, her novels are a worthy example of "cultural appropriation." Kirsch believes that because Raja is upper class and mostly grew up in Rome after her birth in Naples, she's imaginatively appropriated the lower-middle-class culture of Ferrante's books.
This is unconvincing; Raja is an Italian woman writing about Italian women of a similar cultural background. When members of an ethnic group complain about "cultural appropriation," they are talking about something different, a writer imagining a character from a separate culture, race or gender.
Author Lionel Shriver recently stirred up another controversy in a speech at a writers conference in which she criticized opponents of cultural appropriateness. She wore a sombrero during the speech, referencing an incident at an American university in which Latino students were offended by white students wearing Mexican costumes to a Halloween party.
While I agree with Shriver's support of artistic freedom, she errs in equating the wearing of costumes to a party with the creation of an artistic work. University parties and other events have different contexts and standards than a book, painting or play.
A person who reads a book might expect to have his or her sensitivities challenged, while a person going to a party might not be prepared for someone wearing an offensive costume. What if a black person shows up to find someone in a Klan outfit or a native American a partygoer in an Indian costume? The feeling of shock would be on a more immediately personal level than that experienced through reading a book.
An artist should be allowed the maximum freedom of the imagination. Shakespeare's Othello and Shylock challenge sensitivities, but Western culture would be poorer without them. The playwright also created a gallery of wonderful women characters. Some women would deny his authority in creating them.
Faulkner's Dilsey and other black characters reveal the depths of our humanity. William Styron received intense criticism from black intellectuals for his "Confessions of Nat Turner," considered by others a monumental achievement. (Curious, they are all named Bill).
Writing about the Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold, I wondered if complaints about "cultural appropriation" extend to his work. Gold gained fame writing about exotic dishes in obscure corners of LA. His work inspired middle class whites to explore other parts of the city and try strange ethnic cuisine.
Should Gold, a white Jewish intellectual, have not written about Korean barbecue, Mexican tacos, and Thai dishes?
I understand ethnic groups' fears and sensitivities over stereotypes and inauthentic portrayals. The critical framework for examining such distortion might be frayed, as Cynthia Ozick discusses in a recent book, but the Internet and remaining print culture provide a variety of discussion forums.
The evidence of many great cross-cultural works shows that no limits can be placed on the human imagination.