"Lotus Opening" by L. Folk

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Grasping Ferrante’s Female Psyche

sketch by Laurette Folk

It’s almost cliché, as an Italian American, to say you have relatives in the Mafia. Seemingly, we are all linked to that criminal patriarchal order. My grandfather, with his long overcoat, brimmed hat, and pencil-thin mustache looked like he belonged in The Godfather. It’s rumored that he moved his family from Queens to Long Island—nothing but farmland back in the fifties—to escape what some believed was his obligation. His own father pressured him to become mafioso, but my grandfather was fit with a prominent moral code and opted instead to make an honest living as a butcher, sparing his family the repercussions of a life in crime.
The Godfather movies were often discussed at the table on Sunday, and the machismo was celebrated by the men in my family. I have only seen glimpses of the movies myself because they made me anxious. I knew too well the passions of love and rage from my parents' tenuous marriage and extended family dynamics. We weren't a people who suppressed our passions and this often felt treacherous to me.

Mario Puzo and Frances Ford Coppola deserve their accolades for portraying the passions and humanity of a larger-than-life crime family, but I was alienated by these fictions primarily about men. I longed for a different kind of voice, a different kind of story from my Italian heritage. When I started writing, I wrote alone in my room, accompanied only by the authors I read. I read many books, none of them by Italian or Italian American writers. I read English writers, Russian writers, Irish, Indian, Chinese, South American, African writers. It wasn’t until my forties, after two of my own books were published, that I found Elena Ferrante. I found the voice I was looking for, and it was incredibly close to my own.

Three of my eight grandparents emigrated from Naples, Ferrante’s birthplace and the setting for most of her books. The Neapolitans in my family were working class—a practical people who favored business as a means of livelihood and were wary of education and making a living in the arts. Patriarchy was the predominant code by which they lived, from the church they worshipped in to how their families were structured. You followed the patriarch's orders because he knew what was right for you, never mind what ideas you had for yourself. My mother, who is about Ferrante’s age, expressed an interest in going to college in Boston after high school, but was ushered to a nearby secretarial school instead. She met my father and went from her father’s house to her husband’s house, as was typical of women in her generation. In the same way, my father, a bit more evolved than my grandfather, convinced me of a career in engineering, despite my interest in art, because it was more practical.

The similarity of the tropes in My Brilliant Friend and my first novel, A Portal to Vibrancy (Big Table Publishing, 2016), are uncanny. I wrote about this in the essay “Stumbling toward Selfhood: Tracking the Path of the Italian (American) Feminist in a Patriarchal World.” Both have impressionable, creative female protagonists who each emulate a model friend. Both include irreverent intellectual lovers, patriarchal specters, the pressure of the tribe, model artists, and the poverella, the lonely, crazy woman who is first and foremost, an insidious threat—someone the protagonist could become if she isn’t careful.

I went on to read all of Ferrante’s books, including Frantumaglia, A Writer’s Journey, which consists of Ferrante’s letters and the interviews she conducted via email. (The Italian writer known as “Elena Ferrante” is an “absent writer,” writes under a pseudonym, and never appears in public, as has been well-documented). Reading Ferrante’s books pushed me beyond these tropes, coaxing me to delve deeper into the female psyche. 

If the Puzo/Coppola trilogy examines the lives of men and asks the question Who’s got the power?, Ferrante’s books examine the female psyche and the challenge to find the power within. This begs the question, how does a female protagonist find her power in a patriarchal world? What are the common elements of the thinking protagonist in Ferrante’s novels? I can name three of them: surveillance, harnessing the frantumaglia, and understanding the threat of the poverella.

Surveillance. Ferrante’s protagonists are startlingly aware. They are not only astute observers of the external world and can size people up quickly and acutely, they are equipped with a keen perception of their own thoughts and bodies. This is a novel concept according to Ferrante. She explains in Frantumaglia how the “women of the preceding generations were closely watched over by parents, by brothers, by husbands, by the community, but they did not watch over themselves, or, if they did, they did so in imitation of their watchers, like jailers of themselves” (103).

My own mother nicknamed her father “the watcher.” He was very strict with his daughters, more so than with his sons, mostly because he trusted no one, especially young men. There is this image in my mind when hearing my mother reminisce, of my grandfather looming in the picture window, looking down on her as she was leaving for a date. Later, he tracked her like a spy to make sure everyone behaved themselves. 

Ferrante explains how her characters’ surveillance “displays watchfulness, vigilance, invoking not a gaze but, rather an eagerness for feeling alive. Men have transformed surveillance into a sentinel’s activity, a jailer’s, a spy’s. Surveillance is, if well understood, more an emotional tendency of the whole body, an expansion and an inflorescence on and around it.” This inherent monitoring of the body is particular to women because of pregnancy. The female psyche is wired to monitor a “swelling wave all over, and every sense is affectionately active” (104).

A perfect example of this is Delia’s relationship with her mother Amalia in Ferrante’s first novel, Troubling Love. The relationship is complicated; reverence and enmity are forever entwined in the language of bodies:

She had pulled her dress up to her waist, revealing baggy waist-high pink underpants. Giggling, she had said something confused about her soft flesh, her sagging belly, repeating, “Touch here,” and tried to take one of my hands to place it on her flabby white stomach.

I had pulled back and rested my hand on my heart to calm its rapid beating. She let fall the hem of her dress …A single step beyond the open doors and she had disappeared into darkness. Alone in the car, I had felt a peaceful pleasure. (24)

Ferrante, in dealing with this hyper-aware self, often comes smack up against the id and its primordial desires that have noteworthy powers of their own. This is not unlike the primal urges in The Godfather. However, unlike The Godfather, whose primal urges center around the violence of patriarchal competition, the power of Delia, the protagonist in Ferrante’s first novel Troubling Love, is derived from the selfish and visceral desires of a child to own her mother:

On the other hand I hadn’t wanted or been able to root anyone in me. Soon I would lose even the possibility of having children. No human being would ever detach itself form me with the anguish with which I had detached myself from her, only because I had never been able to attach myself to her definitively. There would not be anyone more or less between me and another aspect of myself. I would remain me until the end, unhappy, discontent with what I had furtively taken from the body of Amalia. (65)

Because Ferrante’s protagonists are operating in oppressive societies, self-empowerment by whatever means—hypervigilance, primal urges—is necessary for not only survival, but “feeling alive.”

Harnessing the frantumaglia. When I was in my twenties, after I had abandoned a career in engineering, I was stricken with anxiety and panic attacks to the point where I was not eating or sleeping. I sought medical help from a nearby clinic and a doctor diagnosed me with existential angst. I remember wanting an exclusive remedy, a specific medical diagnosis, and instead, I got a pat on the shoulder and a short lesson in philosophy. But the doctor wasn’t wrong. I was anything but grounded, drifting from temp job to temp job, from quasi-relationship to quasi-relationship. I was neither fully adult nor a child; I was abandoned to the land of limbo, distraught that I could not make the career that I chose work for me, no matter how many times I changed jobs. I was especially aware of brokenness, how, despite my hard work and accolades, it all fell apart. 

Ferrante got the term frantumaglia from her mother. She defines it in the book Frantumaglia as a “jumble of fragments… debris in a muddy water of the brain. The frantugmaglia [is] mysterious, it provoke[s] mysterious actions, it [is] the source of all suffering not traceable to a single obvious cause” (99).  This reads to me a lot like existential angst. You reach a certain age when you have collected enough rejection, grief, disappointment, and unfairness from the world that it attains a critical mass and starts to weigh upon you. 

Ferrante’s characters are plagued with doubt, self-criticism, and the internalized scolding voices of the tribe. Her writing may be labeled as confessional, complete with shock value, but it is anything but gratuitous. What the readers sees on the page is a sort of grappling, a processing of ideas in the frantumaglia via surveillance that ultimately leads to what Ferrante calls a “new equilibrium.” She’s careful not to use a term like “enlightenment”; her characters must still fight the old ghosts and tropes of the patriarchy; they haven’t really moved on. But the key word here is fight. The expectation these characters have to break the old misogynist traditions “never arrive,” but instead of yielding, as their foremothers had, “they fight, and they cope. They don’t win, but they simply come to an agreement with their own expectations and find new equilibriums” (203).

For the artist, the equilibrium place is a place for reflection. At this point, the frantumaglia becomes useful: its fruits can be novels and great works of art. The desire must be there, however, to express, to explore the frantumaglia and give it names and terms. It is in defining the vagueness, naming the ghosts of the frantumaglia that women can derive their power. I think here of the artist Frida Kahlo; her surrealist paintings are a visual voice for her physical and mental anguish. Ferrante, herself, is an example of this, especially with her first three novels (the Neopolitan Quartet, she exclaims, is an exception because it came out nearly whole). The existential angst that I experienced in my twenties was fodder for A Portal to Vibrancy. Through the writing of that book I realized that I was suppressing my creative power for the sake of earning money at a practical job, and it was turning into a “creativity perverse,” something that could torture me. 

Understanding the threat of the poverella. My aunt Lauretta was funny and fun-loving and one of my favorite people. She had a side to her, however, that was always in emotional turmoil due to her failed relationships with men. My aunt closed in on herself because of this, like a flower at night, and as I got older and had my own failed relationships, I understood why. In an Italian, and by extension, Italian American family, you were supposed to marry to save yourself from the difficulties of life, and my aunt did just that, but her marriage failed. It was an unspeakable thing, talked about behind her back. She was in danger of becoming a poverella. 

A poverella is an abandoned woman, according to Ferrante. In The Days of Abandonment, a poverella is defined as a woman who “doesn’t know how to keep a man,” a poor woman who is “no longer loved” and “left with nothing” (16). In the novel My Brilliant Friend, the poverella is the crazy woman Melina, who sweeps the steps, eats soap, and is rumored to have killed the child she had with her poet lover. In The Days of Abandonment, Olga, the protagonist, “dream[s] the story of the poverella’s waterlogged, lifeless body, a silver anchovy to be persevered in salt” (52) and witnesses the poverella’s ghost after her own husband leaves her. In A Portal to Vibrancy, Grandma Gracie is the hypochondriac agoraphobic afraid to go out into the world, an immediate threat to Jackie, the protagonist, whose worst fear is that her own anxiety and depression will worsen such that she too will be confined and miss out on the rest of her life. In these novels, the poverella is a prominent threat because she is estranged from her own power. She is the very antithesis these women protagonists seek to be.

But eradicating the poverella is not the answer, according to Ferrante:

Suffering derives, instead, from the fact that crowding around them, simultaneously, in a sort of achrony, is the past of their ancestors and the future of what they seek to be, the shades, the ghosts: up to the point, for example, where Delia [of Troubling Love], after taking off her clothes of the present can put on her mother’s old dress as the definitive garment; and Olga can recognize in the mirror, in her own face as a constituent part of her, the figure of the poverella-mother who has killed herself. (108-109)

What Ferrante is saying here is that to leave behind the poverella is pointless; she must be assimilated. This is a very feminine idea. We can’t demolish the hurting parts of ourselves; that’s impossible. They will rise and fade with the seasons of one’s life; we name them as essential parts of the frantumaglia, bear witness to them, create around them. 

My aunt Lauretta ended up marrying again and had a son, my cousin, with her new husband. She had a good job in a lawyer’s office and wanted to study to become a paralegal. When the boy was six, she died of cancer. It was a heart-wrenching thing to witness—to see her crawl away from the fate of the poverella, only to die young anyway. I remember her saying to the family at Sunday dinner, touching her bald head, how she was chosen for this particular fate, while we all stared into our plates. It wasn’t for nothing. I suppose it was her way of owning her pain, giving it meaning, and that made an impression upon me. 

Later, when I was writing my creative thesis for an MFA program, Lauretta appeared on paper as Etta, the character to my second novel, The End of Aphrodite (Bordighera, 2020). The Etta character immediately had a sense of power. She had the voice my aunt died with, one of certainty, conviction. Yes, there was still the dependency on men, but mostly, relationships were on her terms. It was interesting to write a character in this way—irreverent, beautiful, smart, and somewhat outrageous—so unlike any of the women in my family and more like Lila of the Neapolitan Quartet. I felt as if I had transcended something.

I no longer write alone. I have found a community of Italian American writers and we meet monthly at IAM Books in Boston or via Zoom. We women still gather and share our awe for Ferrante and what she’s accomplished. By putting the ideas, fears, struggles of a young woman yearning to be educated amongst people who did not value education nor women, telling that story, a vastly different story than what Puzo and Coppola put forth in The Godfather, Ferrante has educated the rest of the world of what it was like for the ultimate underdog. It was a major accomplishment, to have had such a voice—the voice of an Italian woman—heard and heralded by so many. 

Works Cited

Ferrante, Elena. Frantumaglia, A Writer’s Journey. Europa Editions, 2016, pp. 99, 103-104, 203.

Ferrante. Troubling Love. Europa Editions, 2006, pp. 24, 65.

Ferrante, Elena. The Days of Abandonment. Europa Editions, pp. 16, 52.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

The Evolution of a Painting


The Great Marsh, reworked

During this time of unemployment and uncertainty, I want to paint. My writing projects have all ended or are at stopping points, so I decided to switch mediums. I have gone back to paintings that I thought were finished, taking them out of their frames and reworking them, addressing the issues that have nagged at me. The Great Marsh is one of these. I framed it in early spring of this year and hung it above the fireplace. I stared at it for months, feeling there were things that could be further worked out. When I took it out of the frame, I looked deeply into the painting. There were shapes that weren't quite right, colors that needed silencing or fortification. I worked for hours to address these issues. 

Soliloquy in Dogtown by Marsden Hartley

What I have realized is that there are deconstruction phases and reconstruction phases to the process of making art. In painting, this is immediately evident, because painting is visual. This immediate perception brings on immediate responses like, oh no, what have I done? The fear of something irreparable arises. When I was younger and more inexperienced, I would chop up the painting and make it into a collage. But I've reached a point where I don't need to do that. I push through the deconstruction phase, look deeply into the painting, into the images I want to express to find answers. I wait. I test my patience. I take what I have learned from revising writing and use it for painting. There is always this devil on your shoulder wanting things from the work, accolades, the beauty of a finished product. You need to drown that bastard, listen to the angel that says, everything has its own time. I had a friend tell me that she wants nothing to do with old writings, old manuscripts; they came from a time when she was less skilled and need to be filed away under that heading. If I had done that, the two novels that have been published thus far would have remained in their primordial states, unknown. Everything can be reworked; it's up to you whether you want to do it or not.

From the original painting, I cut the river to a precise edge, softened the blue and used gold in the mud flats and grasses to add an ethereal element. I was happy with this. My intention for the first painting was to make the river a wild, energized thing, like Van Gogh's night sky in Starry Night. But for months, I felt as if the river were falling out of the painting. The evolved painting is more Marsden Hartley, with stylistic shaping, bold coloring, and a reflective essence. What I have come to realize in writing this, is that these masterworks were in the back of my mind, guiding my hand.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Gallery of Smaller Works, collage

The Stuff of Dreams, paper collage

Ghost, mixed media collage

Hot Summer in the City, paper collage

Bowl of flowers, mixed media collage

Memorabilia, mixed media collage

Of Myth and Dreams, paper collage

Ritual, paper collage

Decadence, paper collage

Tattered Doll, paper collage

Truly, Truly, mixed media collage

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Thoughts on Devastating Knowledge and the Lack of Inspiration

Heat stream hiss from the radiator. There is this pretentious pressure surrounding me. I don’t write from a deep place. I write from the air just above my skin, not my bones. The air is thin and odious. It smells of nervous sweat.

The other day I was driving home and the kids and I got talking about the body, its cells, and a memory came to me, of drawing muscle cells for biology class. Thin, orange, tube-like structures, each with a single eye. I thought about the texture of meat, and how it all made sense. I thought of mitochondria, the powerhouse, and Mrs. White who had perfectly sculpted blond hair and a nearly round nose. She had a soft-spoken manner and was generally likable, the kind of teacher the kids didn’t want to irritate because it would be too awkward. I wanted her to like me, but I went virtually unnoticed in her class. The classroom windows looked out upon the playing fields where we ran free at the base of Bowling Green Mountain.

As a child, I used to like holding up a small mirror against a larger mirror and watching the image repeat itself to a vanishing point. Mirror upon mirror, image upon image, if you moved one, they all shifted in unison, like the sweeping of a dragon’s tail.

Josie’s walking around downstairs. Now she’s slurping water. I hear her struggling to breathe. We no longer can do our long walks in the woods, because she can’t handle the hills, and her breathing becomes too labored. This labored breathing mirrors the labored breathing of the people with the virus; thousands of them extend outward to a vanishing point. Around the world, machines breathe for these people, because their lungs are turning to glass. A big red glob of a lung cell reaches a tiny, hopeful hand out, and the virus plunges a thorn into its palm. The hopeful hand has no choice but to take it in where the virus feasts on proteins and multiplies.

Breathing. To take a breath is to “inspire.” Every moment we become new with new oxygen, the same way ideas reach us and stimulate us, making our minds new.

But things are different now. When I listen to some of these experts speak, I get a lump in my throat, like I used to when anxiety once overwhelmed me. I now know the difference between the lump and struggling for breath, though. I hear Josie and I know the difference.

She won’t heal on her own, my girl. She’ll just get worse and worse until her throat closes. So I have a decision to make: have her go through the ordeal of an operation at the age of twelve or let nature take its course. The disease is called laryngeal paralysis, and it’s common in Labradors. I walk around, go about my day, knowing this, like I knew about my father’s cancer and Ralphie’s tumor, a ticking time bomb lodged in his heart. I go through my daily duties wondering if I will in the future be hooked up to a machine, or, if there will be one available, should I need it. There is all this devastating knowledge I carry around with me.

I walk in the woods alone now, and try to be marveled by the sky, by the frogs resurrecting themselves from the mud, singing. The Cooper’s Hawk perches in the Japanese maple, its soft, maple-colored breast an irregularity in the landscape, something the eye can detect. She swoops across the yard with silver wings, rapid fire. The doves around the birdseed have disappeared. They don’t hang out by the safflower like they used to, stuffing themselves under the soothing green limbs of the hemlocks, too fat to fly. The saddest thing is finding a dead dove with its breast torn open, its soft down, scattered. Eyes shut. There’s something angelic and innocent about the shut eyes. I place a shovel under it and its head lolls this way and that. I bury it with soft earth, and guard the mound, watch if creatures come to claim it, dig it up, like they did the swift I buried last fall.

The last walk in the woods with Josie was on a cold, March morning. We were coming down the sidewalk, and she was moving with the kind of grace known only to momentum. I looked up and saw it there, its striking edges prominent on the fence. It was a perfect cross, a shadow in the sunlight coming off the fence. There was no “is that a cross, or oh, there is a cross” it was more like: Cross. And I didn’t take it to mean “here is a cross, and I am protected by God.” Its edges were too sharp for that. I took it to mean: suffering. An acknowledgement, more or less, of my suffering and the suffering that is to come.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Gallery of Larger Works

Bowl of Fruit and Vases, acrylic

The Handmaid, acrylic

Lady with Pet Dog, acrylic
Lady with Pet Dog, acrylic

Lady in Red, acrylic

The Bride's Shoe, acrylic

Sicily, acrylic

The Great Marsh, II

Reaching, acrylic

Still Life with Flowers and Pears, acrylic

Aphrodite, acrylic

Danae, acrylic

Birches I, acrylic

Lily of the Valley, pastel

Magnolia Flower, pastel

Lotus Flowers, acrylic

Constructed Angel, paper collage

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Mystery of Memory: Review of Abby Frucht's Maids

We wonder about people in our past. We wonder, and to some extent are haunted by people who have passed through our lives without any real evidence as to who they were. To the writer, that wonder is a sort of power that fuels creativity and helps appease the gnawing mystery of memory. Abby Frucht, in her book Maids, uses a stream of conscious writing style to recollect and explore that wonder regarding the domestic women she knew as a girl.

This book reminds me of Susan Minot's novel Monkeys, because it is written from a deep place, a place where unresolved questions live--questions about people with hidden lives and loves. To pry open meaning, a stream of conscious style seems appropriate; formalities in language could blunt emotional impact. Author Molly McCloskey gets it right when she says in her blurb of the book "[O]ut of the shards of language a story coalesces." These shards are sharp and puncture. It only seems right that themes of race be written in this way.

At the heart of this book is a question Frucht poses to herself: why "this fug of mortified shyness she can't stand in herself when she's around black people"? By recollecting memories of the women when her interactions began, she constructs characters who may give her answers. There is Ida, the woman who "moves into the hallway her legs and arms attached to the shape of the Hotel Housekeeping Short Sleeve Dress," and Della who "slides her comfortable body between the two twin beds in the master bedroom," marking the text in time, and Cynthia who sits facing away from [the family] into the kitchen where they can look at the buttons at the back of (her) uniform." Frucht writes in Cynthia's voice, composing imagined letters from Cynthia to her husband Charles and daughter Wanda. Frucht the writer, the doctor's middle daughter now grown, asks "is it wrong to hope to imagine Cynthia's feelings? To put words into her thoughts into hopes in her"? This question is posed to the conscientious mind: is it right to invent, in the form of fiction, the thoughts of real people? The creative mind indulges not because the person (character) isn't capable of speaking her own mind, but because the daughter, the observer, the writer, wasn't there to hear it. It's a type of processing, of supposition, to alleviate the nagging mysteries of memory.

I love how the writing in this book is so close to the way actual thought forms in the mind (without commas, without formal grammar and realistic logic) cramming past with present, making unflinchingly honest associations: a unknown black man on a train becomes a potential thief and then Cynthia's husband:

[I]t's nearly impossible to avoid at all times the wrong things to say or the wrong ways of saying the right things to do but the daughter at least likes to try such as by moving the pocketbook sideways as if unconsciously just an inch or two sideways away from his finger the finger jumping in surprise...They slip into his lap the offended fingers the orange plaid cuff with the snaggled thread as side by side he and the doctor's daughter ride the rest of the way to Penn Station in silence less comforting than before their quarrel unspoken coming and going such as when did it start and when might it come undone?... Goodbye she even bids the man now in her mind your own daughter dear Wanda my exact same age whose name waves itself away

Although the prose takes some time to get used to without the formalities of punctuation and language (I had to read the book twice), the book is so satisfyingly human, it's worth the effort.