Elena Ferrante

In Search of Elena FerrranteI wrote this book to help me unlock the secrets of Elena Ferrante’s power, to better understand why these books have had such a hold on my imagination and that of millions of readers worldwide. I was introduced to Ferrante by James Woods’ January 2013 New Yorker article, which made a compelling case for Ferrante. I was not disappointed. Since then I’ve read all her books at least three times.

When I searched for material about Ferrante, I found countless reviews, essays, and blog posts but only two full-length studies. I searched without success for a comprehensive study of Ferrante that would explore the complicated interweaving of thematic strands, including analysis of the political dimension, an aspect of Ferrante’s work largely ignored by reviewers. Finally, I decided to try to write the book I wanted to read.

In Search of Elena Ferrante explores the international reaction to Ferrante, dubbed “Ferrante Fever,” the controversy surrounding Ferrante’s decision to write under a pseudonym, and the special challenges posed by a work in translation. I draw on the many insights Ann Goldstein has provided into the process of translating Ferrante’s work, along with her sense of the themes and preoccupations of the elusive author. Furthermore, Ferrante, in numerous interviews conducted solely through letters and email, has provided a running commentary on her work. I cannot recall another instance when readers have had the benefit of both the author’s and translator’s insights into the creative process.

Reviewers have generally ignored the political dimension of the Neapolitan novels and have focused primarily on Ferrante’s exploration of personal relationships, in particular female friendship. However, the Neapolitan Quartet is very much a political text. Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet is deeply political in that the characters’ personal histories are interwoven with the larger social drama although there is no easily extractable political philosophy. Ferrante has intertwined the political and personal strands so effectively that the political debate never feels intrusive, with the characters’ political beliefs emerging organically from their circumstances and personalities.

Although many readers have seen the Neapolitan Quartet as a searing portrait of man’s inhumanity towards women, I argue that Ferrante’s portrayal of gender roles is far more nuanced, with some of her male characters taking tentative steps towards gender equality. Ferrante portrays both her male and female characters as prisoners of gender, their lives constrained by the expectations of a deeply sexist society. Ferrante portrays a world in which gender roles are changing, with at least some of her male characters a part of that change.

I explore the responses to Ferrante’s decision to remain anonymous and the passionate insistence of her devoted fans that the author must be a woman. Then along came journalist Claudio Gatti’s well-documented claim that Ferrante was Anita Raja who, unlike Ferrante, did not grow up in an impoverished Neapolitan neighborhood but rather left Naples at the age of three and lived in middle class comfort in Rome. Presumably, Raja had ready access to the educational opportunities that Ferrante’s characters struggled to obtain. Most of Ferrante’s readers appeared not to be disturbed by this discrepancy and tended to view the falsely claimed Neapolitan background of Ferrante as a literary device.

Many Ferrante fans expressed relief that at least Gatti identified a woman as the author; however, Gatti left open the possibility of collaboration with Raja’s husband, Domenico Starnone . When I first read about the identification of Starnone as the probable author (or co-author), I dismissed it out of hand. I had made up my mind that it was impossible that a man could have written any part of this deeply felt account of female experience; there were just too many intimate details of life in a female body. I am no longer convinced this is the case and can no longer discount the mounting evidence pointing to Starnone’s authorship, including as of this writing four separate teams of linguists whose text analysis software has pointed to Starnone as the principal author, as well as echoes of Ferrante’s work in Starnone’s recently published novels

Certainly many of Ferrante’s fans would be deeply disappointed to learn that the books were not solely the work of a woman, but there are surely others intrigued by the collaboration of a man and woman on books that so powerfully explore issues of gender. The whole experience has challenged some of my assumptions about literature—principally that there is such a thing as an authentic female voice that can be recognized as such. As Ferrante herself has said in her collection of interviews and letters, Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, “A good writer, male or female can imitate the two sexes with equal effectiveness.” So does all this matter?

I question whether we will read the novels differently if we know that the author is not a woman drawing on her own experience of class and gender discrimination. In my recent re-reading of the Neapolitan novels, I forgot all about Anita Raja, Domenico Starnone and Claudio Gatti and became once again totally immersed in the world of Lila and Elena. This is what counts.

Author Bio

p1000230Dr. Karen Bojar is Professor Emerita of English and Women’s Studies at the Community College of Philadelphia. She also has a long history as a feminist activist and served as President of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for Women from 2001-2009. She continues to be involved in Philadelphia NOW and in Philadelphia politics and was recently appointed to the Mayor’s Commission for Women. She has written numerous articles on feminist activism as well Teaching Feminist Activism co-edited with Nancy Naples (Routledge, 2002) and recently published, Feminism in Philadelphia: The Glory Years, 1968-1982 which interweaves the history of feminism in Philadelphia with the broad themes and trajectory of the “second wave” feminist movement. The feminist movement of the late 1960’s and 70’s is largely remembered in terms of national leaders such as Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Eleanor Smeal, but it would never have changed so many hearts and minds, would never have transformed our society without the efforts of so many women in local communities working tirelessly for gender justice.

Karen Bojar’s analysis of grassroots electoral politics, Green Shoots of Democracy, within the Philadelphia Democratic Party was published in June 2016. After spending several years documenting progressive movements/ organizations in Philadelphia, she is returning to her first love, literature, and in July 2018 her book In Search of Elena Ferrante was released by Mcfarland Publishers.

See https://www.linkedin.com/in/karenbojar

Karen Bojar resume



Civic engagement has been a constant thread in my life although the emphasis has varied. When I was young woman in the 1960s, my focus was the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. When I had a child attending public schools, public education advocacy became the main project in my activist life.

In my middle and later years, feminism became the focal point of my life. As a teacher of Women’s Studies and founder of the Women’s Studies program at Community College of Philadelphia, I incorporated an activist component into my teaching and co-authored a book to encourage other Women’s Studies practitioners to do likewise.

I became involved in the Philadelphia Chapter of the National Organization for Women and served as chapter president from 2001-2009. When I retired, I turned my attention to documenting the history of Philadelphia NOW. My commitment to recording the history of Philadelphia NOW was motivated in part by my regret at having missed the glory days of second wave feminism. I have heard many statements of regret from those who “missed the 60s”–sometimes because they were too young, sometimes because they were focused on careers or family responsibilities. I did not miss the sixties. I had the misfortune to get involved with some left wing fringe groups who thought of feminism as “a petty-bourgeois deviation.” I never believed that, but did not have enough confidence in myself to mount an effective challenge. Although I considered myself a feminist, my identity as an anti-war, anti-racist activist was more powerful than my feminist identification.

Writing the history of Philadelphia NOW has given me a glimpse of what I missed and a sense of how different my 20s and 30s would probably have been if I had been spending my time with wonderful women like the founding members of Philadelphia NOW. Ironically, I became a feminist activist in the 1980s when I no longer desperately needed feminism to help me sort out my personal life. In some ways, writing this history is my compensation for being missing in action in the 1970’s.

In the mid-1980’s my activism took a political turn and I became a Democratic committeeperson, something that would have shocked and appalled my earlier self. When I was a young anti-war, anti-racism activist in the late 1960s and 1970s, if someone had told me that I would spend almost thirty years of my life as a Democratic committeeperson, I would have been incredulous. And I certainly would not have expected to be winding up my activist career writing a book encouraging others to do likewise. For me, the wake-up call came with the election of Ronald Reagan. It really did matter who won elections. This may not seem like a major revelation to most people, but it was for me.

As someone who came of age in the 1960s, I shared the distrust of many in my generation for electoral politics and viewed choosing between Democrats and Republicans as choosing between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. My first vote for president was cast in 1968 for Dick Gregory, of the Peace and Freedom Party; I thought I was too radical to get involved with the hopelessly compromised Democratic Party. I did not want to settle for piecemeal reform, or engage in the messy compromises that are part and parcel of participation in the electoral arena. But somehow, despite this distrust of the major political parties, I always voted. I think I never missed an election—although I admit my faulty memory may not be accurate here.

Over the years, my involvement in civic and advocacy organizations such as Parents Union for Public Schools and the National Organization for Women (NOW) began to merge with my work in electoral politics. I increasingly saw electoral politics as a way to advance a progressive agenda. I am quite certain my introduction to Democratic Party politics would not have gone so smoothly, nor would I have maintained the commitment over the years, if I had not begun my life as committeeperson in one of the most liberal wards in the city.

I will not run for re-election in 2018 and have already recruited a wonderful young woman to take my place. I can also take credit for recruiting some extraordinary women to take the helm of Philadelphia NOW.

That is the challenge for this stage of life, to stay involved not as a leader but as a supporter of a new generation of activists. I also hope to continue to contribute to the feminist project as a member of the Mayor’s Commission for Women, as a member of the board of Americans for Democratic Action and as a writer who (I hope) advances the cause of social justice through her writing.






Teaching Feminist Activism

411v3dgopbl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Teaching Feminist Activism by Nancy Naples and Karen Bojar is designed as a resource for feminist faculty interested in linking feminist theoretical perspectives on political activism with feminist pedagogy and experiential learning. This edited collection presents diverse theoretical approaches, methodological strategies, and practical teaching tools for Women’s Studies faculty in a variety of college and university settings. The editors include analytic pieces with some accompanying teaching materials that address the relationship between feminist research on activism and feminist classroom strategies for teaching feminist praxis in Women’s Studies. The collection includes descriptions of internship programs, relevant videos, and related teaching materials that have proven valuable in working with students to encourage their understanding of feminist political activism through experiential learning about political activism.

Contributors to the collection represent a wide range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary locations: ethnic studies, literary studies, sociology, social work, economic development, architecture, anthropology, political science and education as well as Women’s Studies. All can be described as activist faculty.

From Reviews of Teaching Feminist Activism: Strategies from the Field

“This book is an essential resource for helping Women’s Studies and other faculty conceptualize and carry out feminist and activist projects outside the classroom. Full of concrete examples and multiple resources, the provocative and thoughtful approaches detailed here will challenge and inform one’s thinking, teaching, and research.”
-Frances A. Maher, co-author of The Feminist Classroom

“A valuable collection of essays that will interest anyone engaged in teaching some version of feminism or activism, whether labeled as such or not. Reading across these different circumstances and efforts is both illuminating and inspiring.”
-Marjorie L. DeVault, author of Liberating Method: Feminism and Social Research

“This collection is sure to stimulate interest in trying to connect the classroom with the wider world of feminist organizing and action projects. The diversity of experiences on which faculty report is broad indeed, and the frankness with which they discuss the problems as well as the rewards is reassuring. There is something here for every teacher to find relevant and inspiring.”
-Myra Marx Ferree, author of Controversy and Coalition: The New Feminist Movement Across Four Decades of Change 


Feminism in Philadelphia

fem-in-phillyFeminism in Philadelphia: The Glory Years, 1968-1982 documents the rich history of the second wave feminist movement in Philadelphia, with a focus on the key role of the Philadelphia Chapter of the National Organization of Women. Most histories of the second wave in general and of NOW in particular have focused on the national level and the movement is largely remembered in terms of national leaders. However, it would never have changed so many hearts and minds, would never have transformed our society without the efforts of so many women in local communities, working tirelessly for gender justice.

Feminism in Philadelphia is not the full story of second wave feminism in Philadelphia. Many low-income women, disproportionately women of color, struggled in obscurity for racial and gender justice; their actions were not recorded by the local press, and they were much less likely to leave detailed records. There were other feminists focused primarily on creating feminist free spaces—book stores, clubs, music festivals—rather than building feminist organizations. Much feminist activity was improvisational, not documented. NOW left a paper trail!

NOW’s emphasis on building a structure of national, state, and local affiliates operating on all levels of government enabled the organization to function effectively in the political arena, and was certainly a major factor in the legislative victories of the 1970s. Sometimes the victories were swift and decisive (e.g., the desegregation of Help Wanted ads), at other times long and protracted (e.g., the nine year battle to integrate Central High), but the trajectory of NOW in the 1970s was victory after victory.

As the movement grew and more people joined, they brought new ideas about the direction and focus of NOW. The entrance of new members in the mid and late 1970s, many of whom were abandoning the then disintegrating New Left, led to an increasing number of NOW members questioning whether gender equality could be attained under capitalism. In the mid-to late 1970s, the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) attempted to infiltrate NOW on the national and local levels. The Philadelphia chapter almost dissolved in the late 1970s. The SWP played a role in the turmoil, but the near collapse was probably as much a result of volunteer burnout as of SWP disruption.

As the decade wore on, there were conflicts due to personal animosities, ideological differences and racial tensions. Philadelphia was a segregated city in the 1960s and 1970s; it is not surprising that the local NOW chapter reflected this. NOW chapters expanded through the social networks of the founders, and as they acknowledged, those networks were largely white and middle class. In 1980 Jocelyn Morris set up a new chapter in Philadelphia–Germantown NOW, formed to focus on the connections between sexism and racism and to build support for the passage of the ERA among women of color.

Feminism in Philadelphia concludes with the struggle for the passage of the ERA. Many NOW members made enormous personal sacrifices in the final years before the June 30, 1982 deadline for ratification. They came tantalizingly close to reaching their goal. Although the ERA did not pass, the ERA campaign itself became a training ground in the basics of the political process and Philadelphia NOW members who had been part of the campaign considered running for office. 1982 marks end of heady social movement phase; focus in the backlash years was on protecting gains and building feminist institutions rather than winning further victories.

Feminism in Philadelphia is available at:

For more information, please see: https://www.facebook.com/FeminismInPhiladelphiaTheGloryYears19681982/






Green Shoots of Democracy

71glWEQur9LDrawing on the experiences of grassroots political activists from different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds, Karen Bojar’s Green Shoots of Democracy explores how self-identified progressives have managed (or failed to manage) to work within a big-city political machine.

The book is based largely on interviews with progressive committeepeople and ward leaders, past and present, from neighborhoods all over Philadelphia who have been willing to share their insights about working within the Democratic Party. Bojar focuses on the work of progressives in the Philadelphia Democratic Party in these pages—but the lessons gleaned from their experiences are applicable well beyond Philadelphia’s borders.

Although Americans have a long history of volunteerism, grassroots partisan politics is often not considered a worthy volunteer endeavor―not as worthy as, for example, working in a homeless shelter or a literacy center. Green Shoots of Democracy argues for a more democratic, transparent party structure, essential to encourage idealistic young people to engage in grassroots politics, and to counter the widespread perception that electoral politics is dirty business rather than an honorable civic project.

The nascent pro-democracy movement described in Green Shoots is not the first time such a movement arose within the Philadelphia Democratic Party. Fueled by the reform movement in the Dilworth/Clark years, in the 1960s and early 1970s four of Philadelphia’s wards became open independent wards operating according to transparent, democratic principles. In 1998 largely due to demographic changes, a 5th ward entered the small group of open wards. Then progress stalled until the committeeperson elections of 2014. The 2014 movement for ward democracy was largely fueled by demographic change in gentrifying neighborhoods but also by a younger generation of political activists in the Philadelphia’s working class neighborhoods.

Green Shoots provides insight into the political perspectives of millennials interested in grassroots politics. Although millennials are reputed to be far more interested in civic participation than in partisan politics, some clearly understand the connections between the civic and political spheres and increasingly want to become involved in both.

The young activists profiled in the book are challenging the top-down modus operandi of the Philadelphia Democratic Party—which is no longer one machine but has rather fragmented into groups of competing factions. There will soon be opportunities for significant change in the Philadelphia Democratic Party, which is currently staffed by ward leaders and committeepeople already in their 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s.  The current configuration cannot last much longer. Change is coming.

Although Green Shoots is intended primarily for self-identified progressives, the analysis of strategies to encourage voter participation and a voice for committeepeople in the ward structure is applicable to a broader range of political philosophies/political parties.

Green Shoots of Democracy is available at:


For more information: