Literary Hub

Before the Neapolitan Quartet, There Was Sula

The condition began affecting legions of people in the United States in 2013 and has showed no signs of letting up. Once infected, readers were all too eager to spread the disorder to their family, friends and innocent strangers browsing their local bookstores. In 2015, it was at its height and no vaccine could slow it. Ferrante fever had become an epidemic.

The Neapolitan novels, a four-part series by the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, follow the lives of two young girls, Elena “Lenú” Greco and Raffaella “Lina” Cerullo, as they grow up in a poor and violent neighborhood of Naples, Italy. The books have been lauded for their representations of female friendship and intricate class dynamics. Molly Fischer wrote in The New Yorker that, though there have been other books that focus on female camaraderie, “In depicting a friendship formed in childhood rather than in adulthood, Ferrante’s books find the freedom to press friendship—as a relationship, as the organizing principle of a story—in a direction unlike these others.” More recently, New York Magazine listed the novels as part of the 21st-century literary canon, while Cosmopolitan called the first novel in the series one of 12 books every woman should read before they turn 30. Last month, Ferrante herself announced that Maggie Gyllenhaal would be responsible for adapting her novel The Lost Daughter into a film. A limited series adaption of the first Neapolitan novel, My Brilliant Friend, premiered just last night on HBO.

But before Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels existed, there was a novel by Toni Morrison called Sula, which told the tale of two childhood friends named Sula and Nel who lived in “the Bottom,” an African-American neighborhood in Ohio, in the 1900s. Like the Neapolitan novels, Sula explores the complexities of female friendship, the pushes and pulls of best friends who double as rivals forever in competition with one another, and it is this commonality that lends the two works to comparison.

Of course, Morrison is no slouch. She has won many of the highest honors in literature, and even without these distinctions, the impact of her literary contributions would be undisputed. And yet, her second novel Sula, published in 1973, has not received a fraction of the same pop cultural attention the Neapolitan novels have. No TV series, no movies, no fan fiction and certainly no onslaught of press coverage.

Though Morrison’s first novel The Bluest Eye—which was published three years before Sula—was met with tepid reviews, the latter received a generally positive response upon its release. One writer for Kirkus Reviews stated that Sula contains “dialogue that speaks from the page,” while The Washington Post‘s Jonathan Yardley wrote that the novel was “one of the most beautifully written, sustained works of fiction I had read in some time.” In The New York Times Book Review, Sarah Blackburn wrote that Morrison’s dialogue is “so compressed and lifelike that it sizzles.”

Yet despite these favorable appraisals, early reviewers of Sula seemed to categorize the novel as a kind of niche fiction: one that speaks directly to the African-American experience and therefore mostly to African-American audiences.

In that same 1973 New York Times review, Blackburn writes:

Toni Morrison is far too talented to remain only a marvelous recorder of the black side of provincial American life. If she is to maintain the large and serious audience she deserves, she is going to have to address a riskier contemporary reality than this beautiful but nevertheless distanced novel. And if she does this, it seems to me that she might easily transcend the early and unintentionally limiting classification ‘black woman writer’ and take her place among the most serious, important and talented American novelists now working.

Of course, we didn’t live in a post-racial society in 1973, and we don’t live in a post-racial society now. But to what extent does race factor into the disparate receptions of Ferrante’s and Morrison’s work? Their bildungsromans may take place on different continents and may be classified according to different national and ethnic literary traditions—a search of the MLA database shows no scholarly writings involving both Morrison and Ferrante—but their brazen portrayals of young friends navigating girlhood in a patriarchal society that isn’t so interested in hearing their stories remain eerily similar.

In comparing the Neapolitan novels to Sula, we are not discrediting the novelty of Ferrante’s writing. Her words are radical.

At least this is what journalist and author Lisa Mullenneaux thought when she compared “the devilish character of Lila Cerullo in Ferrante’s novels as an ‘outlaw heroine’ and . . . Sula in the novel of that same name by Toni Morrison” in an unpublished academic paper.

“I was always interested in the theme of friendship in Ferrante’s work, but when I read Sula I saw similarities between the exploration of good and bad and the pairs of girls who serve as foils to one another in each work,” said Mullenneaux. “Morrison basically created a character for whom social norms mean nothing. And Lila is also this character who breaks social codes.”

Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of the novel We Love You, Charlie Freeman, also observed resemblances between the two works. So many in fact, that she took to Twitter to post her thoughts on Ferrante’s fans.

Though Greenidge wasn’t available to comment for this story, some of her followers who interacted with her tweet were.

Jayson P. Smith, a Bronx-based poet and educator who cites Morrison as one of their influences, says, “Race factors into reception of Ferrante’s work as much as it factors into every facet of American culture. When we’re talking about how characters are seen, how characters are depicted, whiteness always plays a part.” Morrison herself wrote about this very phenomenon in her 1992 book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. The book, based on a series of three lectures Morrison gave at Harvard University, endeavors to understand the metaphorical roles of black characters in the American literary canon through an analysis of its overwhelming whiteness.

Nell Pepper, an events coordinator at M.I.T. Press who previously sold books at Harvard Book Store, agrees that whiteness does have something to do with the notion that Ferrante’s work is universal. Pepper went on what she describes as “a Toni Morrison bender” in 2013, so when she began reading Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels a couple of years later, she was immediately struck by the parallels between the works. She would bring up the similarities with customers, but most of them either weren’t familiar with Sula or hadn’t read it. Once, her co-worker (the poet Melissa Lozada-Oliva) told a customer that the Neapolitan novels might be considered versions of Morrison’s Sula, only to be met with a dismissive and adverse reaction, as if a similar story couldn’t possibly have been told 40 years earlier.

“People talked about how the Neapolitan novels were the first time female friendship was depicted,” Pepper said. “Of course they weren’t, but I also feel it was one of the first times in literary fiction where female friendship was talked about with a gimlet eye. It wasn’t in the so-called chicklet YA kind of way. It wasn’t a Judy Blume, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, lighter, happier, lovey-dovey, way of looking at friendships. The books said, ‘This is the strongest relationship in your life. But also, it might kill you.’”

Pepper offers another possible reason the Neapolitan novels have gained so much traction: Perhaps more people have picked them up because they believed them to be less intimidating than Morrison’s work. “There’s something about the [Neapolitan books’] cover design that leads you to think that the novels are gentler than they are. Morrison to me was the paragon of literature even before I read her, and then after I read her, I was even more intimidated by her,” Pepper said.

Though readers might understandably be wary of Morrison because of her literary clout, there may also be a more insidious intimidation factor here: that of readers’ white guilt. Morrison writes about some of the worst of American sins—segregation and inequality, slavery and other forms of systemic oppression—that are as relevant today as they were in the early 1900s. It’s impossible to read her without considering racial politics within the U.S. Ferrante, on the other hand, offers escapism to American audiences. Violence and injustice may pervade her Naples, but at least these horrific acts occur far away from quotidian life and can be read at an emotional remove.

Further complicating our understanding of how Ferrante’s books are received is the fact that the author’s identity still remains largely a mystery. Some, like Dr. Joseph Luzzi, a professor of Italian literature at Bard College, suggest that Ferrante’s secrecy doesn’t affect readers’ interest in her work. “There’s been this sort of race to unmask who the real Elena Ferrante is, which has certainly contributed to the aura, the mystique and the international currency of her name,” Luzzi said. But when he teaches Ferrante in class, he says his students are “able to take the text as an entity in and of itself, independent of the gossip-mongering, and say that what matters is the writing.”

Others, like Danny Caine, owner of the Raven Bookstore in Lawrence, Kansas, believe that Ferrante’s discretion about her identity plays a bigger role in her popularity. Caine sometimes tells customers that Ferrante only gives interviews via email as part of his sales pitch.

“The way books are marketed today, a lot of buzz has to come from social media. It’s really difficult to sell a book, no matter how well written, on its own merits,” Caine said. “The Neapolitan novels were the first time a lot of people had heard of Ferrante—even though she’d been writing for many years and her books had been out in translation before—so I think it’s a story that’s uniquely suited for how books are sold in this decade.”

While book marketing has evolved since the publication of Sula, the complete embrace of minority authors as simply authors without qualification has not occurred as frequently. As for why there haven’t been any film adaptations of Morrison’s meditation on black girlhood, Dr. Dana Williams, president of the Toni Morrison Society, notes that the 1998 film version of Morrison’s Beloved (starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover) was a box office failure, and that Morrison’s works can be difficult to bring to the screen because they’re so complex. “The tendency with black culture, because it is still on the margins of mainstream culture, is to put the best foot forward,” Williams said. “How do you bring this to the big screen in a way that allows people to see some of the complexities? You can’t convince everyone that it’s important to think about the full humanity of people, including the flaws.”

Williams goes on to list difficult moments in Morrison’s work—including when Sula and Nel throw a child into a stream and kill him in Sula—that require the audience to be receptive to the characters’ deficiencies and disturbing scenes.

In comparing the Neapolitan novels to Sula, we are not discrediting the novelty of Ferrante’s writing. Her words are radical. They must be, otherwise what explains the number of readers who feel seen by her protagonists, despite not being Italian or even alive when they were born? Instead, we’re acknowledging the similarities between the works so as not to erase the creative labor of the authors that preceded Ferrante.

In her weekly column for The Guardian, Ferrante herself wrote that there is no such thing as watershed works and that every book is derivative. “Today, I don’t have much faith in those who say, ‘Here is a truly new book.’ What is truly new in literature is only our uniquely individual way of using the storehouse of the world’s literature,” she said. “We are immersed in what has preceded us.”

While we don’t know whether Ferrante read Morrison before writing the Neapolitan novels, it’s clear that she believes that no matter when books are published, they are constantly in dialogue with one another. And if this in true, then we should also be in dialogue with one another and question the racial implications of the Neapolitan novels’ cult classic status versus Sula’s quiet reception. More than that, we should recognize that though the Neapolitan novels may be what readers need in this moment as they display a dismantling of patriarchal mores, feminism isn’t feminism unless it’s intersectional.

“Black literature is taught as sociology, as tolerance, not as a serious rigorous book form,” Morrison said in a 2003 interview for a University of Michigan literature course. Given that the book publishing industry is composed of 78 percent white women, it’s not difficult to understand why this limiting sentiment persists. But as Ferrante fever steadily envelops book clubs, there is some good news: reading Sula one day keeps the doctor away.

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