While there have been numerous essays, interviews, and op-eds published about Elena Ferrante, Stiliana Milkova’s Elena Ferrante as World Literature is the first English-language monograph on the author. With her new book, Milkova situates the pseudonymous Italian writer at the intersection of Greek mythology; Freudian psychoanalysis; and French, Italian, and Anglophone feminist thought, showing how Ferrante novels animate scholarly disciplines into vivid fictional narratives. Milkova was kind enough to discuss her book and her interest in Ferrante studies. Within the conversation we spoke on female collaboration, the maternal body in literature, and narrating truth through literary invention.This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Brianna Di Monda: What drew you to study Elena Ferrante in such depth? Why her and not other Italian woman authors, like Dacia Maraini, Margaret Mazzantini, or Viola Di Grado?
Stiliana Milkova: My first encounter with Elena Ferrante’s writing happened by chance many years ago. While I was at a wedding in Tuscany, a friend, Leslie Elwell, mentioned Ferrante’s novel La figlia oscura (The Lost Daughter) and urged me to read it. I was captivated by the title. The next day I found a bookstore in Lucca and bought all of Ferrante’s novels available then — her first three short novels L’amore molesto (Troubling Love), I giorni dell’abbandono (The Days of Abandonment), and La figlia oscura. I literally devoured La figlia oscura on my flight back to the US.
So besides trusting the recommendation of a female friend, herself a fine scholar, what drew me to Ferrante was her capacity to delve into the female psyche and body and discuss the complexities, and controversies, of being a woman, a wife, a mother, and an aspiring professional in our contemporary world. Ferrante’s incisive and visceral exploration of women’s experiences — along with her capacity to construct authentic narratives — that feel more like real life than fiction, is unique in her writing. I was so interested in Ferrante’s works I began a research project on her that very year, which resulted in the first scholarly essay on Ferrante in English—my 2013 article “Mothers, Daughters, Dolls: on Disgust in Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter.”
BD: I love that you found Ferrante by way of another female friend.
I’ve always been struck by Ferrante’s ability to construct such visceral landscapes and characters, particularly as Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym. Since we don’t know the author’s true identity, we’re barred from speculating about what she pulls from experience and what is fiction.
Your book’s introduction draws a connection between translating and writing under a pseudonym, stating that both of these are acts of disappearance — the “disappearance of the biographical author” and the disappearance of the translator “so as to accommodate [the original text].” As a translator yourself, is this shared disappearance part of what interested you about Ferrante?
SM: As a translator myself, I was perhaps particularly attuned to the dynamics of the translator’s invisibility — dynamics that are acutely felt today by literary translators whose names rarely appear on a book’s cover. The translator’s “disappearance” inside the text — as a way of surrendering to the text’s original mode of signification — can also be productive and liberating: the translator uses her imagination, her lexical repertoire, and her interpretative skills to give body and voice to the source text, to give birth to a new original. That is, if the translator is at the mercy of the original, the original, too, is at the mercy of the translator. The translator (re)invents the original. And in this sense, I think Ferrante’s absence, her disappearance behind a pseudonymous identity, is a powerful tool of resistance.
As she has stated time and again, she has chosen to identify as a woman. And as one of the foremost Ferrante scholars, Tiziana de Rogatis, explains, this choice has serious implications in the Italian context: It means that she has chosen to count for less. Her works have been dismissed as “chick lit” or trashy novels. Her novels have not been taken seriously and are not as widely reviewed by Italian literary critics and mainstream publications as the works of her male contemporaries. She has been excluded from studies and anthologies of the contemporary Italian novel.
Ferrante’s absence is then a form of resistance to, and condemnation of, a consumer and image-obsessed patriarchal culture where literary value is based on the author’s gender and appearance rather than on the quality of the work itself. As Ferrante says, the media invents the author. And so, Ferrante invents herself in order to gain agency and autonomy over her authorial persona. Likewise, a translator reinvents the original text in the process of recreating it in the target language.
At the same time, Ferrante’s facelessness speaks to the gender violence and discrimination depicted in her books. Her female protagonists live in a traditional patriarchal society where women are treated like objects or sights. They are subjugated physically and symbolically — marginalized, violated, abused. Women in Ferrante’s novels, in other words, are erased and destroyed. They are faceless. Ferrante’s facelessness exposes precisely these processes of erasing women’s identities in a world where, as she says, “the patriarchy is still very much alive” and women are “cannon fodder.”
In Italy, even today, in 2022, Ferrante is mocked, criticized, and disparaged for using a pseudonym and creating a distinct literary persona. But women authors in Italy have often resorted to pseudonyms, especially in the context of its patriarchal and misogynist culture, Sibilla Aleramo and Anna Banti, for example.
And so, Ferrante’s “disappearance” brings into focus not only the mechanisms of oppression and (symbolic) violence that underlies women’s experiences in a patriarchal world but also the experiences of women authors and translators in a society that privileges originals over translations, male genius over female creativity.
BD: Going off the violence and discrimination depicted in Ferrante’s books: you argue in Elena Ferrante as World Literature that Ferrante is rewriting women’s experiences outside of a Freudian framework. You say, “[Ferrante’s] theory of feminine psychic and bodily experience corrects and counteracts Freud’s phallocentric scheme and proffers its own psychological and narrative parameters.” Given that Freud wrote nonfiction, why engage his ideas through fiction? What does fiction allow Ferrante to do that is unique from, say, a feminist essay?
SM: Ferrante borrows from Freud key concepts and psychic mechanisms. She filters them through a female mind and body to delve into the realities and complexities of female subjectivity and identity to redress what Freud frequently omitted or ignored. In a sense, Ferrante reclaims the female subject as the center of analysis by placing women at the center of her narratives.
While Freud, of course, wrote scientific prose, his studies were often driven by literary examples and mobilized by literary characters. For instance, in his famous essay, “The Uncanny,” he analyzes Hoffmann’s story, “The Sandman,” drawing conclusions based on the behavior of fictional subjects. Many of Freud’s case studies have the narrative pace and plot development of psychological thrillers. Ferrante borrows some of these techniques but refuses to subscribe to any single theory, mixing and matching what suits her best from a vast canon of male thought. And writing fiction allows her to do so.
In not writing a feminist essay and not claiming any scholarly or scientific method (as Freud did), Ferrante avails herself of a much wider and more effective set of tools: She narrates truth through literary invention. Writing fiction, she has at her disposal all the narrative strategies and devices codified through centuries of literary history: dramatic plots twists, cliffhangers, reversals, scandals, murders, disappearances, unresolved mysteries, and so on. She combines low-brow melodrama with postmodern metafiction, as Olivia Santovetti has argued, appealing to a large readership while also creating a sophisticated, tightly structured page-turner.
Ultimately, Ferrante acts upon her own call to arms (which we hear even more clearly in her new book of essays, In the Margins): to learn from the canon of male thought in order to subvert it, to abide by the established margins, so as to know how to breach and erase them in order to create a uniquely female voice.
BD: Part of Ferrante’s uniquely female voice includes appropriating niche terms and applying them to the feminine experience. For instance, she takes the Italian word frantumaglia (“jumble of fragments”) and calls it the “unstable landscape” that has plagued generations of women. You argue that Ferrante creates a “lexicon for expressing the anxieties and plights of lived feminine experience” by appropriating frantumaglia. Why is this vocabulary such a notable addition to feminine writing? How does this term uniquely express women’s anxieties?
SM: In seeking to forge a uniquely female voice, Ferrante turns to the dialectal word inherited from her mother — frantumaglia — and then gives it narrative form, making it the central driving force behind her characters’ identity crises. This word captures the inner turmoil, the oppression, the trauma of women’s subalternity in a violent patriarchal world — their physical and symbolic enclosure within what Ferrante terms “the male cage.” It names the unnameable suffering that plagues women, the internal landscape of the female psyche, and the porous and unstable boundaries of the leaky female body.
Frantumaglia has been translated as “turmoil,” “shattering,” and “fragmentation,” but it also implies rupture, fragility, and porosity — the violated female body, penetrated, broken, expropriated, colonized in myriad ways. The word denotes a feeling, a series of symptoms, and a pattern of behavior that, for example, both Nina and Leda in The Lost Daughter recognize and share — they are both rent by the inexorable social demands on their time, on their bodies, and on their minds in a culture that subscribes to traditional notions of motherhood as sacrifice and submission.
Ferrante’s employment—and emplotment (the transformation of frantumaglia into plot events) — of the maternal word creates a female literary genealogy, granting mothers and daughters a word that is theirs, that circumvents the restrictive walls of the male cage. In citing, at length, her mother’s descriptions and experiences of frantumaglia, Ferrante envoices the mother, articulating a maternal literary discourse passed down from mother to daughter (and not from father to son as has long been the Western tradition of artistic/creative genealogy). Ferrante’s literary characters in turn are afflicted by frantumaglia and give it expressive form through their own writing, on the one hand relating to the maternal suffering, and on the other, articulating their own means of living, narrating, and overcoming it.
The maternal word also serves to de-pathologize the female body and psyche, long construed in the West as unstable and prone to hysteria, irrational behavior, and madness. As a dialectal word passed on from mother to daughter, frantumaglia forges a female vocabulary grounded in shared experiences and outside the standard or medical language imposed by male practitioners such as Freud.
Beyond the maternal word, mothers and daughters are linked through objects such as dolls or pictures, through laughter and obscene gestures, through creative practices such as drawing and sewing, and through the cities they inhabit and traverse precisely as embodied female subjects. With these objects, words, and practices, Ferrante’s female protagonists generate a creative legacy, a female genealogy that bypasses male or patriarchal power structures, charting their own paths and demarcating their own spaces. And the place and space of women in literature have been subjects of discussion since Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Gilbert and Gubar’s ground-breaking scholarly book The Madwoman in the Attic. Ferrante is contributing to this discussion.
BD: To go off on how dolls link mothers and daughters, I want to ask you about Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter. In the novel, the main character, Leda, mothers a doll who itself is “pregnant” with a worm trapped in its stomach. In “Binding and Unbinding the Maternal Body and Voice” (a section of Elena Ferrante as World Literature), you quote a passage from the novel:
The doll, impassive, continued to vomit. You’ve emptied all your slime into the sink, good girl. I parted her lips, with one finger helped her mouth open, ran some water inside her and then shook her hard to wash out the murky cavity of her trunk, her belly, to finally get the baby out that Elena had put inside her.
The doll, you argue, stands in for the maternal body by emphasizing its permeable boundaries and overflowing liquids. And when the doll’s “vomit” gives way to the worm’s emergence from its mouth, Leda feels pity for the creature. Why does the “birth” have to be so disgusting to capture the maternal body effectively? What is being said about women’s bodies?
SM: I was struck by the prevalence of disgust in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s 2021 film adaptation The Lost Daughter. And this makes me think that I was right to focus, both in my 2013 article and in my book, on how the disgusting permeates the novel, always in relation to the doll and the maternal function, body, and voice. In the film, when extracting the worm from the doll’s belly, Leda has the quintessential expression of disgust on her face: the pressing of the lips, the recoiling away from the offensive object. And the scene itself is quite disturbing and repellent! We see a long dark worm slither out of the doll’s mouth and crawl down its body. There is another similarly disgusting scene in the film, a strikingly effective cinematic adaptation of the passage you quote in your question: when Leda examines the doll’s body and squeezes its belly, the doll “vomits” brown liquid and stains Leda’s light-colored shirt. Leda is clearly disgusted — we even hear her characteristic vocal expression of disgust. And the stain is visible on her undershirt the next day! This liquid reminded me of baby poop (sorry!) which is often this color and consistency. In Gyllenhaal’s film, as well as in Ferrante’s novel, we see disgust associated with the maternal body and maternal functions: from pregnancy and parturition to lactation and childcare (cleaning baby poop!).
But why, you ask. Why is disgust associated with the maternal body? Disgust is a psychosomatic effect grounded in the body and the psyche. It signals an emotional and physiological response. Disgust, according to theorists, is a civilizing organ of inhibition. It protects us from that which threatens our bodily boundaries or moral foundation. It keeps at bay any dangerous otherness. The mechanism of disgust, Menninghaus writes, is an act of saying “no,” which also implies the potential inability to say “no.” In Ferrante’s novels, disgust expresses a profound discomfort with, or rejection of, the maternal body traditionally construed as ontologically porous, unstable, leaky, and hence, disgusting.
But Ferrante’s twist on disgust is that it is the mothers who are disgusted with the maternal body and its reduction to its most basic functions. In her novels, women perceive their own or others’ pregnant or impregnable bodies as disgusting, directing disgust towards their stifling roles as mothers and daughters. Disgust in Ferrante’s works also becomes an instrument for feminine introspection and resistance to normative paradigms of motherhood and daughterhood. As I argued in 2013, the very word that Ferrante attributes to her mother, frantumaglia, becomes associated with disgust and the dissolution of bodily boundaries.
In inventing a word that describes women’s complex and contradictory psychological landscapes, especially as they undergo the turmoil of pregnancy, childbirth, and childcare, Ferrante reclaims the domain of disgust and modifies it into a productive, generative practice.
Her female characters feel disgust and suffer from frantumaglia, but they not only survive, they tell the story of their survival — they write. We see this process in The Lost Daughter and The Days of Abandonment where both Leda and Olga are women who write and reclaim their identities and bodies in writing. In the Neapolitan Novels, the domain of disgust evolves into smarginatura or “dissolving boundaries/margins,” as Ann Goldstein translates the term Lila uses in My Brilliant Friend to describe her affliction. But that’s another topic.
BD: I want to go deeper into Ferrante’s representation of mothers in her fiction. You say her novels “disallow the objectification or simplification of the mother figure.” Exposing the body as porous, uncontainable, or veering towards death are all hallmarks of Ferrante’s work and how she asserts new frames for women. In this way, she takes back control of the mother figure’s body by refusing to depict it as an ideal. Why is it essential to accurately represent the maternal body? What is unique about the mother’s position in literature?
SM: What is unique about the female body — and the maternal body, specifically — is its permeability, its ontological instability, its liminality: It is a body that can be two bodies at once, a body that gestates and feeds another body, an excessive body, a dangerous and unclean body. What is unique about the representation of the maternal body, is its absence from Western art and Western literary discourse. The idealized image of motherhood is rarely tied to a real (or realistically depicted) corporeality; rather, it is tied to Christian and patriarchal ideologies, and the need to use it for reproduction while also curbing its subversive potential. The maternal body exists as a thoroughfare, a threshold where nature confronts culture, as Julia Kristeva writes in her essay “Motherhood According to Giovanni Bellini.” The mother as a desiring subject, and as an agent of her own body, is rarely placed at the center of literary or visual narratives.
To recuperate the maternal body is to recuperate maternal desire — subjectivity and vice versa.
Ferrante posits embodied maternal subjectivity at the center of her novels, enabling the mother to speak for herself, to take possession of her body and its representation. Ferrante’s maternal subjects do it by breaching social and cultural norms, by defiantly embracing their unleashed corporeality: They are “unnatural” mothers. They laugh, make obscene gestures, defecate, and urinate in public. They also read, write, and excel at inventing or creating. In this way, Ferrante reveals the mother’s profound ambivalence towards disciplining constructions of “proper” motherhood and “clean” femininity. She deconstructs the cultural myth of transparent and gratifying maternity, endorsing its problematic aspects instead. There is a quote I like and want to bring up here because it sums up Ferrante’s project: “I remain convinced that it’s also essential to describe the dark side of the pregnant body, which is omitted in order to bring out the luminous side, the mother of God.” We see this impulse narrate the “dark side” of the maternal body, in contemporary works by other women artists.
A couple of years ago, I co-curated an exhibition at the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College called Women Bound and Unbound. It examined the narratives of woman, as created and governed by man, to fit within prescribed social, sexual, and cultural positions. It is precisely this story that Elena Greco writes about in her second book in the Neapolitan Novels — women created by men. The exhibition also included works by women artists who reclaim, or unbind, the female body from traditional androcentric depictions of woman as saint or sinner, mother or monster. We proposed that these artworks invert tradition by positioning woman at their center, liberating the female body from the male gaze. Ferrante’s project is similar, in my book Elena Ferrante as World Literature, I discuss artworks by Cindy Sherman and Louise Bourgeois (the latter from the exhibition) to illustrate Ferrante’s revisionary treatment of the maternal body.
BD: I love that you used your background as a Ferrante scholar to curate an exhibition examining narratives of women in the visual arts. Are there other female collaborations or creative projects that Ferrante’s novels have inspired?
SM: We can talk about the “Ferrante effect,” a phrase coined by Italian journalist Anna Momigliano to describe the positive impact Ferrante’s success is having on women writers in Italy. As Momigliano puts it, “[the] rediscovery of some of the last century’s great Italian female writers . . . has encouraged a new wave of women and shaken [Italy’s] literary establishment. Women writers here are winning prestigious prizes, getting translated and selling copies.” The Ferrante effect is also the visibility of women writers in translation, and the growing number of new translations or re-translations of (Italian) women’s writing. We have seen and are about to see new translations of significant works by Elsa Morante, Anna Maria Ortese, and Natalia Ginzburg. And Italian women writers such as Nadia Terranova, Valeria Parrella, Claudia Durastanti, Donatella di Pietrantonio, and Helena Janeczek have gained more recognition both at home and in the Anglophone world.
Other significant manifestations of the Ferrante effect are the many collaborations between women – whether Ferrante scholars or not – inspired by Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels where Lila and Elena engage in a lifelong competitive, creative, and productive collaboration. This competition results in the very novel Elena is writing — the Neapolitan Novels themselves. So, we can say that Ferrante’s novels depict and incite forms of intellectual and creative co-labor by women, the metaphorical and literal positioning of women side by side as they join forces.
As I suggested in a recent essay, collaborations between women in Ferrante’s fiction have generated real-life collaborative female and feminist projects in and outside academia (books, memoirs, conferences, public events) and contributed, to a legacy of creative and authorial women. A legacy based on mutual recognition and respect, on citing and shaping a female literary and scholarly genealogy.
BD: On the other hand, Carmen Mola, a pseudonymous Spanish author that drew comparisons to Ferrante, was recently revealed to be three men. When Mola won the annual Planeta literary prize for writing The Beast, the men accepted the award on stage. Before they revealed their identities, they spent years giving interviews as Carmen Mola and created a website that said Mola was a “university professor who wished to remain anonymous.” Since her debut novel, Mola’s writing has been repeatedly recommended as feminist reading. Do you think this project was inspired by Ferrante? Were these men exploiting contemporary interest in female writers? Or do you consider the scandal around Carmen Mola to be separate from Ferrante?
SM: I think there is a huge difference between “Carmen Mola” and “Elena Ferrante” as literary phenomena. Elena Ferrante has retained her pseudonym for more than 30 years now, refusing to bow down to the vanity of accepting literary prizes and awards or yielding to the seductions of fame, public praise, and wide visibility. In other words, Elena Ferrante has refused to submit to the structures of power and capital that underwrite both the literary establishment and the consumer-oriented, image-driven global book market. The three men who created the author, “Carmen Mola,” on the other hand, revealed their identities upon receiving the coveted Planeta Prize for literature and the 1 million euros that goes with it. It was a sensational gesture, one that inevitably called attention to male genius and guile, but also male ego and presumption.
I haven’t read the crime thrillers penned by “Carmen Mola,” so I cannot comment on their literary quality. I can say that Ferrante’s novels eschew categorization and neat definition (they are at once mysteries, historical novels, family sagas, melodramas, postmodern polyphonic metafiction). While “Carmen Mola” has created the female detective, “Elena Blanco” (a nod to Elena Ferrante? To the “blankness” or emptiness behind the name?), Ferrante creates a host of female characters who complicate, and challenge established norms and practices, resisting the protocols of male disciplinary power.
I cannot help but see the male creation of a female author as an act of precisely what both Ferrante and her character Elena Greco expose in their writing (and what was the main thrust behind the exhibition Women Bound and Unbound): men who, ever since Genesis, have shaped woman to suit their needs, erasing woman’s identity, agency, and creativity. As Elena Greco puts it in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, translated by Ann Goldstein:
I discovered everywhere female automatons created by men. There was nothing of ourselves, and the little there was that rose up in protest immediately became material for their manufacturing.
Another contemporary Spanish woman writer uses a pseudonym, Greta Alonso, and makes the same points today that Elena Ferrante did 30 years ago when she published her first novel, Troubling Love. Like Ferrante, Alonso dwells on the pseudonym as a space of refuge from the prying (male) gaze and mechanisms of publicity. She reiterates Ferrante’s claim that literary creations are autonomous and have no need of their author’s explications or face. She insists on not being reduced to a marketing ploy, calling for acceptance of her difference. It’s worth quoting Alonso’s words, translated by Dorothy Potter Snyder:
My name is not Greta Alonso. My pseudonym is a shield, a shelter, a place to hide.
A book. What more is needed than that? Does the work require its author, their presence, their face and their explanations to be whole?
Do you exist? Are you a marketing strategy? I exist. It’s hard to grasp that there are decisions that are not made with money in mind, and I understand the distrust inspired by anything that is different.
BD: That’s the best response to the Mola scandal I’ve read yet. It was absolutely brimming with male ego and presumption, neither of which have anything to do with the work of Ferrante or Geta Alonso. Now that you’ve published Elena Ferrante as World Literature, what are your current projects?
SM: Since the book came out in early 2021, I have published two special issues of the online journal Reading in Translation: one on the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg (1916-1991) to mark the 30th anniversary of her death last year and one on the contemporary Italian writer Domenico Starnone, which I co-edited with Enrica Maria Ferrara, a great collaborator — and a superb scholar. In addition to Enrica, in all these issues I collaborated with brilliant women writers, scholars, and translators; Sandra Petrignani, Serena Todesco, Katrin Wehling-Giorgi, Jeanne Bonner, Chloe Garcia Roberts, Minna Zallman Proctor, Jenny McPhee, Chiara De Caprio, Ilaria de Seta, Maria Tirelli Sheil, Oonagh Stransky. Working with these women was enlightening and gratifying!
More collaborations with remarkable women scholars whom I met through my research on Ferrante are in store for me; co-edited volumes and special issues of scholarly journals, co-authored articles, co-translations, co-organized events (none of which on Ferrante, I must admit, but still on Italian and transnational women writers). I’ve also been reading Bulgarian women writers such as Nataliya Deleva and writing in Bulgarian. Last, but not least, I plan to do more creative writing in Italian. •