Friday, August 16, 2019

How to get a book project back on track





I have been struggling with a self-imposed January 2020 deadline for my revised/expanded version of Feminism in Philadelphia. It’s now abundantly clear I will never meet this deadline unless I scale back the project.

When I published Feminism in Philadelphia 6 years ago, I was racing to meet a deadline—a presentation I was scheduled to do on documenting our history at the national NOW conference. Feminism in Philadelphia charted the growth of the second wave feminist movement with an emphasis on NOW, the major engine of institutional change. This was certainly not the complete story of the history 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. No doubt, much of what occurred was not documented, or if documented, not deposited in libraries or archives accessible to me.

Feminism in Philadelphia focused on activism and advocacy, but a major strand of the story was left untold—the enormous energy devoted to building feminist service organizations. Founded on a shoestring by committed feminists,the battered women’s shelters, the rape crisis centers, were beginning to receive significant funding from government and from private foundations. Yes, the funding came with strings attached and the radical edge of some of these organizations was blunted, but more women were receiving services and the women who had been providing them for free could now get jobs as service providers. I had to expand the book to include this story.

My original plan was to survey the full range of service organizations built by second wave feminists in Philadelphia, but it soon became apparent that it would take far more time than I had planned and that the book would be much longer than I had intended. It’s not so easy to find a publisher for a 500 page book. So instead of trying to include the history of every service agency, I decided to focus on the two kinds of service organizations which were the most prevalent in cities and towns across the country—-those providing services to victims of male violence (e.g., rape crisis centers and shelters for battered women) and those providing women’s healthcare services. This is manageable and allows me to support my thesis that second wave feminists excelled at institution building. The institutions they built were for the most part geographically based, often with deep roots in local communities.

Their approach was very different from that of a younger generation of feminist activists who have a different set of tools at their disposal. My primary focus will be on the Women’s March which began in 2017 as a Facebook post, which then went viral and demonstrated the power of social media to quickly mobilize large numbers of people. However, the March demonstrated the limits of a social media driven mobilization. When conflicts arise, there exist no agreed upon mechanisms for resolving them and for holding leadership accountable. Although a non-profit, Women’s March Inc., emerged from the initial march, it was not a membership organization with the power to set the agenda, elect board members and officers; thus, there was no mechanism for holding leaders accountable. Zeynep Tufekci in Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, her study of internet-driven protest movements around the globe, noted that without an organizational structure which allows for decision making, these mass mobilizations can lead to what she calls a "tactical freeze." Can social change be achieved without the kinds structured organizations that fueled the second wave feminist movement? Will 21st century feminists find a new path? These are some of the questions I want to explore.

Friday, July 12, 2019

HBO has released the first official image from the second season of My Brilliant Friend



HBO has released the first official image from the second season of My Brilliant Friend, and I was so happy to see that it would feature the actresses from the first season-- Margherita Mazzucco as Elena and Gaia Girace as Lila.

I was surprised by how much I liked season one. I’ve been in the grip of Ferrante Fever since 2013, have read all Ferrante’s novels at least three times and have written a book, In Search of Elena Ferrante, to help me better understand why these books have had such a hold on my imagination and on the imaginations of millions of readers worldwide. Given this history, I expected to be hypercritical of the new film version My Brilliant Friend on HBO, but loved it and am eagerly looking forward to season two.

Season one director Saverio Costanzo will return to direct six episodes and Alice Rohrwacher will direct two episodes. However, I worry that Costanzo may be the wrong person to portray the brutal treatment of Lila by her husband.

I was troubled by the film’s treatment of middle-aged Donato Sarratore’s sexual assault of 15-year-old Elena during a summer vacation in Ischia. Elena is taken by surprise by Donato, did not resist him, and appears immobilized. The film’s soundtrack, more appropriate to a romantic scene than to a sexual assault, is jarring. For Elena, the experience was a mixture of repulsion and the stirring of sexual desire. Confused and ashamed, Elena flees the island early in the morning the next day; she told no one about the experience.

In an interview with Vulture, Director Saverio Costanzo explained his choice of a romantic soundtrack as a backdrop for a scene of sexual violence, saying he “didn’t want the scene to be realistic and therefore intolerable to the viewer,” so he decided to use “a soft piano tune.”

I think Costanzo’s concern for the viewer is misplaced here. The soundtrack has the impact of minimizing the reality of sexual assault. Given his treatment of sexual assault, I wonder if he can honestly portray the brutal domestic violence of The Story of a New Name, the second volume of the Neapolitan Quartet.

Friday, June 7, 2019

22nd Ward members form Open Ward Caucus

By Karen Bojar
Posted on May 31, 2019 in the Chestnut Hill Local at https://www.chestnuthilllocal.com/2019/05/31/22nd-ward-members-form-open-caucus/

In the 2018 committee person elections, newly elected committee people brought their commitment to transparency and democracy to ward across the city.

For the first time since 1998, five wards chose to have their committee people vote on endorsements rather than follow the dictates of the ward leader as most others do. It was a doubling of so-called open wards, of which the 9th Ward is one.

In some wards, where the new committee people were too few in number to elect a ward leader, they formed what they called an open ward caucus.

Such a caucus formed in Mt. Airy’s 22nd Ward. Caucus members had expected that Ward Leader Cindy Bass would hold democratically-conducted elections for endorsements as she had promised to committee people when she was running for ward leader.

When she did not hold elections, the group decided to conduct its own.

From the group’s press release: “The political association known as the 22nd Ward Open Caucus was created earlier this year to promote a more open, accessible and democratic ward system, to share knowledge among committee people and to increase voter participation.”

The caucus requested that all candidates in the May 21 primary respond to a brief questionnaire and attend a candidates’ forum held at New Covenant Church in Mt. Airy – 35 candidates responded. Caucus members voted on endorsements with a 60% threshold necessary for endorsement and pledged to canvass their divisions for those endorsed candidates.

Open Ward Caucus coordinators Michael Swayze and Maya Gutierrez reported that their slate carried in the divisions represented by Open Ward Caucus members. They said that their caucus took no money from candidates. If the Open Ward Caucus grows, it has the potential to significantly affect election results in the 22nd Ward.

Committee people from neighborhoods across the city committed to ward democracy and transparency have recently formed Open Wards Philly, intended to be a hub for sharing information and ideas about anything related to managing ward organizations effectively and democratically. Several 22nd Ward Open Caucus members belong to Open Wards Philly.

Monday, June 3, 2019

The Party vs. the Progressives: Mixed results in the 2019 primary

The Party vs. the Progressives: Mixed results in the 2019 primary
Posted on May 30, 2019 in the Chestnut Hill Local
by Karen Bojar

See https://www.chestnuthilllocal.com/2019/05/30/the-party-vs-the-progressives-mixed-results-in-the-2019-primary/

The good news from last Tuesday’s primary election in Philadelphia was that the 23% turnout was higher than expected, with some 80,000 more voters than the last municipal primary in 2017. The bad news is that, despite all the energy and enthusiasm the numerous candidates and their supporters poured into their campaigns, 77% of eligible voters chose not to participate.

The historically high turnout wards in the Northwest performed well with some divisions turning out above 50%. The Election Commissioners’ office has yet to provide demographic turnout information, so we do not yet know if the recent uptick in the percentage of millennials voting is holding.

Generational change is coming to Philadelphia City Council, with new Council at-large members Katherine Gilmore Richardson (35) and Isaiah Thomas (34). They join the three incumbents: Helen Gym, who came in first place with an eye-popping 107,148 votes, Allen Domb in 2nd place with 66,124 votes and Mt. Airy’s Derek Green who overcame a bad ballot position to come in third with 60,251 votes. The 8th District’s Councilperson Cindy Bass was also reelected, though she faced no challenger.

The party vs. the progressives: Who were the winners?

Much of the post-election analysis has focused on the relative strength of the Democratic Party machine, vs. the emerging groups of progressive challengers.

The defeat of longtime incumbent Jannie Blackwell by impressive newcomer Jamie Gauthier was certainly a blow to the machine, as was the loss of two row offices, which the party has historically controlled: Sheriff and Register of Wills. In judicial elections, party-endorsed candidates won only three out of six judicial slots for the Court of Common Pleas. One of the judicial candidates who won without party endorsement was Mt. Airy’s Tiffany Palmer who was rated “highly qualified” by the Philadelphia Bar Association.

Yet, despite these losses, some saw on balance a good night for the party. In contrast to 2015, when only two of five party-endorsed candidates for Council at-large won, the entire party-backed at-large slate won in 2019. The 2019 slate, however, included three strong incumbents who had been the victorious challengers in 2015, and in the case of Gym and Green, had support among progressive organizations.

The 2019 challengers also had political and institutional backing beyond that provided by the Democratic City Committee. Isaiah Thomas in particular had considerable support from unions and progressive groups.

Arguably, the party’s 2019 at-large slate was victorious because the party fielded stronger candidates. The 2019 slate was especially strong in the African American wards, in all likelihood due to the presence of attractive African American candidates – Gilmore Richardson, Green and Thomas. The contrast in 2019 vs. 2015 results is striking:


In 2015, city party leaders endorsed candidates Sherrie Cohen, Blondell Reynolds-Brown, Bill Greenlee, Ed Neilson and Wilson Goode Jr. Many wards did not enthusiastically follow. Sample ballots, which each ward committee distributes to voters for guidance, showed no regard for the city’s picks.

No wards carried all five endorsed candidates. Two wards carried four. Twenty-seven wards carried three. Thirty wards carried two. Six wards carried one. One ward carried no endorsed candidates.

In 2019, the party endorsed Domb, Gilmore-Richardson, Green, Gym and Thomas. Ward committee reactions were much different this time.

Twenty-eight wards carried all five endorsed candidates. Twenty-one wards carried four. Ten wards carried three. Seven wards carried two.

According to WHYY reporter Dave Davies, Democratic Party Chairman Bob Brady attributed the 2019 victory to the power of the party.

“The party is strong. We kept it together,” Brady said.

Like the Democratic City Committee, progressive groups such as Reclaim Philadelphia and its partner 215 Alliance had mixed results. Only two out of five of its candidates for council-at-large won: Gym and Thomas. Both, however, already had strong support beyond what was provided by Reclaim. Of their other three candidates for council-at-large, Justin DiBerardinis came in sixth, Erika Almiron placed eighth and Ethelind Baylor was way down in the pack with 2.06% of the vote.

Like Bob Brady, Amanda McIllmurray, political director for Reclaim, claimed victory.

“Last night’s election showed that our movement is on the rise. Four Reclaim endorsed candidates – Helen Gym, Isaiah Thomas, Tiffany Palmer and Jennifer Schultz – won,” she said. “In neighborhoods where we canvassed, our slate of candidates won overwhelmingly.”

Despite its strength in parts of South Philadelphia, Reclaim does not have citywide influence.

Similarly, Neighborhood Networks celebrated the victory of two of its endorsed candidates – Gym and Green – while acknowledging that their other two candidates for Council at-large, DiBerardinis and Almiron, “all first-time candidates with no party backing came up just short of victory.”

Like Reclaim, Neighborhood Networks acknowledged that its influence was largely limited to one area of the city: the Northwest.

“In areas where PNN had a field presence, all of our candidates for these positions were winners,” the organization said in a release.

Neighborhood Networks is conflating “party backing” with Democratic City Committee endorsement. DiBerardinis may not have had City Committee endorsement, but had considerable backing from progressive ward leaders.

The Democratic Party is an increasingly fragmented network of ward leaders, committee people and activists sometimes moving in very different directions. The Democratic City Committee led by Brady does not control this network, and its power has been weakening over the years. As Wilson Goode in 2015 and Jannie Blackwell and Ronald Donatucci in 2019 discovered, longtime incumbency no longer provides ironclad protection.

Despite the fact that the at-large races were a victory for the Democratic City Committee, the overall picture is not so clear-cut. Reclaim and its allies had some disappointments in the at-large races, but it is playing a long game, and time will tell to what extent they can expand on their South Philadelphia base.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Women’s Commission holds hearing on domestic worker rights

This article appeared in the April 25th editor of the Chestnut Hill Local

Nicole Kligerman (left) and Annie Johnson of the PA Domestic Workers Alliance.

by Karen Bojar

The Philadelphia Commission for Women held a town hall on “Dignity for Domestic Workers” on April 17 to educate the community about the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, soon to be introduced by Councilperson Maria Quiñones-Sanchez. The town hall was a follow-up to an April 8 City Council hearing to examine labor standards for domestic workers throughout the city of Philadelphia.

Protections enjoyed by most workers under the National Labor Relations Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Act are not available to domestic workers, a category including house cleaners, caretakers and nannies.

These exclusions go back to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which excluded domestic workers and sharecroppers from labor protections and from Social Security as the price of getting the support of southern Democrats, whose votes were thought to be necessary for passage of New Deal legislation. The exclusion from Social Security was remedied in the 1950s, but the exclusion from labor protections continues into the 21st century.

The National Domestic Workers Alliance is fighting to eliminate this exclusion. To date, California, New York state and Seattle have all passed a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.

Quiñones-Sanchez reported that all women (and some men) on City Council strongly support legislation that would address the plight of domestic workers. Most of these workers are women of color, and many are undocumented immigrants with an average annual income of $10,000, according to an analysis by University of Pennsylvania Professor Pilar Gonalons-Pons.

At the town hall, Annie Johnson and Nicole Kligerman made a powerful case for expanding labor laws to include domestic workers. Johnson, a native of Trinidad, worked as a nanny in New York and New Jersey for more than a decade.

Despite her years of experience and her degree in early childhood education, employers have offered her salaries below the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Johnson stressed that the domestic workers’ rights movement is not just about wages and benefits, but also about dignity. She described the mistreatment she has been subjected to, including cameras filming her every move, even when she was in the bathroom.

Kligerman, director of the Pennsylvania Domestic Workers Alliance, noted that Philadelphiaspecific legislation is still being drafted. Her organization is lobbying for the bill to mandate overtime pay and breaks, paid sick leave and vacation time, to require contracts between employees and employers and to establish an enforcement board. Of course, as she pointed out, laws are only as good as the enforcement mechanism. Councilwoman Helen Gym has called for a formal office to enforce labor standards.

Quiñones-Sanchez noted that recent legislation (fair work week, minimum wage and pay equity) and the legislation she hopes will result from the Domestic Workers Campaign are all connected, and are all intended to make working people’s lives more secure – “to bring low wage workers out of the shadows,” as she put it.

The Commission for Women has supported all of the above efforts, seeing them as part of a larger movement to improve the lives of low-income women and families in Philadelphia.

A regular contributor to the Local, Karen Bojar is Vice Chair of the Commission for Women and a resident of Mt. Airy.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Ferrante Roundtable at Rutgers

On March 28 I had the opportunity to participate in a roundtable sponsosred by Rutgers Italian Graduate society. I learned a lot from the other panelists and from the graduate students, and especially enjoyed meeting the graduate students. Each panelist saw Ferrante through her own lens. One panelist focused on architectural history as a window into Ferrante. I found this a little strange but she probably saw my insistence of the Neapolitan novels as political novels as a misguided interpretation.

To my surprise, despite evidence mounting over the years that Domenico Starnone was one of the writers behind the pseudonym of Elena Ferrante, one panelist claimed that anyone who thought the translator Anita Raja was writing in collaboration with her husband Domenico Starnone was guilty of sexism. By that definition, I would be a sexist.

Surely, there are reasons other than sexism for coming to the conclusion that Starnone was involved in writing the books attributed to Ferrante. This reminded me of the kinds of rhetoric all too common in political circles—inflammatory charges made without any consideration of the evidence. And the evidence is compelling.

When I first encountered Ferrante, I was one of the people convinced that Ferrante's novels were written by a woman. There were just too many intimate details of life in a female body. However, after Claudio Gatti’s well-documented claim that Ferrante was Anita Raja, possibly working in collaboration with her husband Domenico Starnone, I could no longer ignore the mounting evidence that Starnone was involved in the creation of works attributed to Ferrante.

Not only did four groups of analysts using different text analysis programs independently came to the same conclusion that Starnone was in all likelihood the principal author of Ferrante’s novels, but the three of Starnone’s novels that have been translated into English provide considerable support for Starnone’s role. (See chapter 2 of my book In Search of Elena Ferrante for my argument s regarding Starnone’s authorship and the really interesting questions it raises about gender and authorship.)

In a recent Atlantic article, Rachel Donadio provides convincing evidence for Starnone’s s involvement in the works attributed to Elena Ferrante but she goes beyond identifying Starnone as co-author to explore questions about the nature of authorship and commonly held assumptions about gender and literature. Donadio analyzed Starnone’s 2011 novel Autobiografia Erotica di Aristide Gambía published the same year that My Brilliant Friend appeared in Italian. Donadio describes it as a “dizzying meditation on whether men can convincingly write about women and women about men." “Elena Ferrante” actually appears as a character in Autobiografia Erotica and the narrator Aristide Gambía decides he no longer wants to write about aging men: instead he will explore women’s lives, and “the battle … to become a new woman.”

Given the evidence suggesting that Starnone had a role in the works attributed to Ferrante, I cannot help but wonder what makes people (including highly educated academics) stubbornly cling to their positions and refuse to consider evidence that might undermine their beliefs. This is not so different from what is happening now in the political arena where often evidence counts for very little and impassioned belief trumps all.

I asked a friend, a professor of European history and culture if she could explain the panelists’ refusal to consider possibilities other than sole authorship by a woman writer. My friend’s response—“probably a simplistic form of feminism."That would be ironic because feminist theory has moved far beyond a binary approach to gender and acknowledges gender fluidity. Ferrante herself in her many interviews, returns again and again to the idea of collaborative authorship and the belief that “a good writer—male or female—can imitate the two sexes with equal effectiveness. There are allusions to both gender bending and collaborative authorship scattered throughout Ferrante’s work, almost as if she is providing clues to the authorship of her novels—similar to the many clues embedded in Starnone’s works.


Ferrante’s publishers may fear that if a male author is acknowledged as the co-author of Ferrante’s books, many of Ferrante’s readers will be disappointed, may feel deceived and book sales will plummet. My guess is that many readers will be intrigued by the collaboration of a man and woman on books that so powerfully explore gender roles. Many second wave feminists have (in some cases reluctantly) moved beyond the idea that there is an authentic female voice that can be recognized as such. Queer theory and intersectional feminism have emphasized the fluidity of gender and undermined the notion of a stable female identity.

Perhaps Starnone and Raja are uncomfortable about what might be viewed as a web of lies rather than the artful creation of the literary person of Elena Ferrante. Or perhaps they worry that interest in their dual authorship would in some way detract from serious interest in the texts. However, since thanks to Gatti’s investigations and the text analysis software identifying Starnone as the likely co-author, there seems to be little to be gained from denying what is widely known. And readers would certainly benefit from the translations of Starnone’s works, which might follow from acknowledging his role in the creation of the Neapolitan Quartet.

The impassioned denial that a man could have any role in the creation of Ferrante’s novels is just no longer tenable.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

City’s Commission for Women holds 3rd annual summit


At the 3rd Annual summit of the Philadelphia Commission for Women (from left): Executive Director of Commission for Women, Jovida Hill, Commissioner Lexi White and Commissioner Lisa Holgash from Mt. Airy. (Photo by Joanna McClinton)


The Philadelphia Commission for Women held its 3rd Annual Summit for Women and Girls at La Salle University on Friday, March 15. The commission was created by an amendment to the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter, initiated by Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown and passed by the voters in 2015.

The commission is comprised of 10 people appointed by the mayor and 17 appointed by each member of City Council. Its missionsis to make recommendations that advance gender equality to the mayor, City Council and public policy makers.

Organized around the theme, “Our Voices … Our Power,” the summit included sessions on health and wellness, financial literacy, self-esteem and leadership development. The first plenary session was well-received by a largely young and enthusiastic audience with speakers LaTosha Brown of the Black Voters Matter Fund, Gisele Baretto Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s Second Lady, and Rep. Elizabeth Fiedle of Pennsylvania’s 184th District.

Fetterman’s description of growing up as an undocumented immigrant was particularly moving. She was told by her mother not to draw attention to herself, to be as invisible as possible – in sharp contrast to LaTosha Brown’s and Elizabeth Fiedler’s message to the young girls in the audience to raise their voices and aim high.

A major theme of the conference was the shocking racial disparity in maternal and infant mortality, an issue that the Philadelphia Commission for Women has worked to bring to the attention of policy makers and the general public. In a breakout session, “The Reality of Maternal Mortality,” Rep. Morgan Cephas,(192nd District) said the state’s health care system was not meeting the needs of women of color, noting that the high proportion of African-American maternal and infant deaths cuts across socioeconomic lines. Philadelphia’s 8th District Councilperson Cindy Bass has introduced a resolution to hold hearings on this issue at Philadelphia City Council.

In another breakout session, Feminista Jones, author of “Reclaiming Our Space: How Black Feminists are Changing the World from Tweets to the Streets,” also drew attention to racial disparities in infant and maternal deaths as one of the many reasons black women have every right to be angry.

Despite persistent problems, however, many speakers also emphasized there was much to celebrate, with more women serving in elected office than ever before and, as the session “Never Too Young to Break Barriers” demonstrated, young women have become leaders in sports, education and community service.

The Summit concluded with an inspirational speech from City Councilperson Blondell Reynolds Brown, who will be retiring at the end of her term. She emphasized that “women who lead must make it a practice to mentor at least one promising one young woman they can coach and prepare to accept the torch.”

From the executive director of the Philadelphia Commission for Women, Jovida Hill: “It’s gratifying to be able to provide a platform for the city’s women and girls in an environment of encouragement, enlightenment and empowerment. We broke our own record this year, with more than 100 girls from schools and mentoring programs across the city. That the summit grows with each year tells us that there is a thirst for this opportunity for women and girls to come together to uplift one another.”

This article first appeared in the Chestnut Hill Local

Monday, February 25, 2019

Rachel Donadio's search for Elena Ferrante leads to Autobiografia Erotica di Aristide Gambía


Rachel Donadio nails it. In a recent Atlantic article, she provides convincing evidence for Domenico’s involvement in the works attributed to Elena Ferrante but goes beyond identifying Starnone as co-author to explore questions about the nature of authorship and commonly held assumptions about gender and literature.

When I first read Ferrante's novels, I was convinced they were written by a woman. There were just too many intimate details of life in a female body. However, after Claudio Gatti’s well-documented revelation that Ferrante was Anita Raja, possibly working in collaboration with her husband Domenico Starnone, I could no longer ignore the mounting evidence that Starnone was involved in the creation of works attributed to Ferrante. Four groups of analysts using different text analysis programs independently came to the same conclusion that Starnone was in all likelihood the principal author of Ferrante’s novels. Furthermore, references to collaborative authorship abound in the Neapolitan Quartet and in Ferrante’s many interviews collected in Frantumaglia.

When writing my book, In Search of Elena Ferrante, I turned to Starnone’s novels for further clues as to his contribution to Ferrante’s novels; however, unlike Donadio I was limited to those books translated into English. I found many stylistic and thematic similarities to Ferrante. First Execution ,like the Neapolitan novels, explores the ethical implications of political violence. Starnone’s Ties is strikingly similar to Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment; both novels begin with a man abandoning his wife and children for a much younger woman, leaving his wife distraught, angry and unwilling to accept her husband’s betrayal.

Starnone's Trick has thematic similarities to Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. Like Elena Greco, Daniele Mallarico, the narrator of Trick, longed to escape Naples and his difficult family; like Elena, through education and talent he managed to do so. Several of the details of working class life recalled by Mallarico in Trick are reminiscent of descriptions of Elena’s family dealing with the difficulties of a large family living in a relatively small space. Elena at times speculates on what she might have become if she hadn’t had the strength to leave Naples, and what the far more talented Lila might have become if her family, like Elena’s, had allowed her to continue her education. Similarly, the elderly artist in Trick becomes obsessed with the roads not taken.

These similarities between Starnone’s works and those attributed to Ferrante strengthened the case for his co-authorship. However, I believed that if I could read Starnone’s novels which had not been translated into English, I would have an even stronger case.

My hunch was confirmed when I read Rachel Donadio’s article. She analyzed Starnone’s 2011 novel Autobiografia Erotica di Aristide Gambía published the same year that My Brilliant Friend appeared in Italian. Donadio describes it as a “dizzying meditation on whether men can convincingly write about women and women about men." “Elena Ferrante” actually appears as a character in Autobiografia Erotica and the narrator Aristide Gambía decides he no longer wants to write about aging men: instead he will explore women’s lives, and “the battle … to become a new woman.”

I found Donadio’s analysis somewhat hard to follow but that may be a reflection on her source—she describes the novel as “Starnone at his most intricately metafictional… about as easy to summarize as an M. C. Escher print is to describe.”

Both in Autobiografia Erotica as in his novels Trick and Ties, Starnone leaves many clues about his relationship to the fictional Elena Ferrante. It certainly seems like he wants to be found out. The decision to publish under the pseudonym of Elena Ferrante was made over two decades ago, before Ferrante became an international sensation. Could Starnone at this point in his life want recognition for his contribution towards the creation of the fictional character Elena Ferrante and her powerful novels? Starnone has apparently published fourteen works of fiction, eleven of which have not been translated into English, and which I would very much like to read. If Starnone were publicly identified as the co-author of the Neapolitan Quartet, I expect some of these books would be translated and made available to the English speaking reader.





Friday, February 22, 2019

Milan:The Northern Italy Diaries, part V

Milan Cathedral

Milan was a surprise—both a pleasant and unpleasant surprise. We had visited Milan in the 1980s and I remembered it as a grimy city in desperate need of a clean up. Well, at some point between then and now the cleanup occurred and Milan sparkles. According to our hotel staff, the city got a makeover in 2015 when it hosted the World Expo. The cathedral is now gleaming white.

Now for the unpleasant surprise. Milan is one of –perhaps the most--expensive cities we have visited. Although we regretted not spending more time in Turin and Genoa, were happy not to have done so in Milan. That said, I would advise any traveller to Northern Italy to spend a few days in Milan. The Brera Museum alone is worth one full day. When we visited the Brera in 1980, we were astonished at how few people were there in this world class museum. We had its amazing collection almost to ourselves.

Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio, 1606 at the Brera


That’s no longer the case, but the number of tourists is not oppressive as it is in Italy’s other major museums. The Brera has had a major make over with a beautiful courtyard and attractive restaurant. Courtyard at the Brera

Another highlight for me was my visit to the Milan Women's Bookstore- a must stop for any feminist visitor to Milan.

We spent our last day taking a trip to Lake Como. I love the Italian lake district and couldn't resist one last glimpse:

Friday, February 15, 2019

Genoa: The Northern Italy Diaries, part IV

Genoa like Turin is an open air architectural museum, but with a very different feel. There is no French influence as in Turin; Genoa is very much an Italian city—in some ways reminiscent of Naples. Both are port cities built on steep hills with a rich architectural heritage; however unlike Naples, in Genoa for the most part the baroque buildings are in good shape and the city is clean with very little trash and graffiti.

Unfortunately, we both got sick for a few days—Rick with some kind of virus, me with what I think was food poisoning. However, we tried not to let it keep us from enjoying the city, but it did slow us down. Fortunately, the central historic district is very compact, with the spectacular squares, cathedral, museums all within easy walking distance.

In Genoa we stayed in another NH collection hotel,NH Marina, and although it lacks the charm of the small boutique hotels we used to seek out, it had all the creature comforts we now require and the staff was wonderful. When I became violently ill, they came immediately to clean up the mess, change sheets etc. It came on quickly and passed quickly and was no doubt food poisoning. I’m now a bit wary of picturesque little trattorias in the historic districts of European cities and I will be much less likely to order shellfish in one of these charming little restaurants.

NH Marina is in the Porto Antico district, right on the water. I rarely pass up the opportunity to stay by a body of water. Porto Antico

And since Porto Antico is a short walk to the Centro Historico, we had easy access to the cultural attractions without the urban congestion. It was just a five minute walk from our hotel into the outer fringe of the Centro Historico. Cathedral inthe Centro Historico

Unlike the grand squares and impressive architecture of the area around the cathedral, the outer fringe is a medieval warren of narrow lanes, arcades, and picturesque restaurants. I recommend SOHO, an attractive restaurant with very good food at reasonable prices and friendly staff—assuming you are willing to put up with slow service. So many Italian restaurants appear to be understaffed. We ate twice at Soho, excellent food and no food poisoning

The food poisoning set us back and unfortunately, we didn’t make it to the Museo di Palazzo Reale, but on our last day in Genoa, despite the rain, we did manage to see the palazzos of the via Garibaldi, considered by Michelin to be the most beautiful street in Italy. I can see calling it the most architecturally impressive street in Italy, but for me beautiful for has to include greenery. On the Via Garibaldi, the greenery was all in the interior courtyards.
Interior courtyard, Via Garibaldi
Also, two of the palazzos on the Via Garibaldi, Palazzo Rosso and Palazzo Blanco, have been turned into art museums—a consolation for not getting to the Museo di Palazzo Reale.

We had one truly magical day taking a train along the astonishingly beautiful Ligurian coast (the Italian Riviera). The Ligurian coast has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site—and for good reason. We stopped in the town of Portofino, once a sleepy fishing village, now a tourist mecca, but still charming.


We’d also like to see Genoa again some day, but as with Turin, it’s not likely to happen.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Turin, an open air architectural museum:Northern Italy Diaries, part III


Turin Cathedral

Turin was a surprise. Because of its association with Fiat and the auto industry, I expected a grim industrial city and was unprepared for its architectural riches, the legacy of the French Savoy dynasty which moved its capital from Chambéry to Turin in 1563. The French influence is very much in evidence both in the beautifully restored Baroque buildings in Turin's historic center and the spectacular piazzas. Piazza Castello with Palazzo Reale

Turin’s San Carlo with its twin churches is considered one of the most beautiful piazzas in Italy. I’d rank it number two, right after San Marco. twin churches of Piazza di San Carlo

Turin rightly boasts of being a city of museums, and we regret not having had more time for the museums. We spent much of our time walking around the city and only managed the first floor of the Sabauda Art Museum and the Museum of Resistance, Deportation, War, Rights and Liberty,which describes its mission as “communicating the history and memory of the values of the Resistance.” Rick thought the exhibits were badly organized, and that may be the case, but the recordings of personal testimony by surviving resistance fighters and holocaust survivors was compelling.

I couldn’t leave Turn without a brief visit to The Egyptian Museum,the oldest museum in the world dedicated entirely to Egyptian culture . It was unfortunately a very brief visit but I did get some sense of the vast scope of the collection.Anyone with a serious interest in Egyptian art should put Turin on their must see list.

We wish we had given more time to Turin and would like to return someday, but at this stage in our lives that is probably not going to happen.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Hotel Trauma in Turin: Northern Italy Diaries, part II

Hotel Carlina in Turin

Turin was even better than I had expected—an open air architectural museum. However, we had one really frightening experience at the Hotel Carlina, part of a chain of hotels, the N-H collection.

When we were younger, we searched for charming relatively low cost small hotels. An experience in Berlin in 2011 caused us to rethink our choice of hotels. We booked a suite at what was a highly recommended boutique hotel-- every bit as charming as advertised, but our room was a 6th floor walk-up and had no air-conditioning , no internet access, no laundry service. At that point we were down to our last clean clothes. The hotel staff suggested we lug our laundry to a laundromat—not exactly how we wanted to spend our few days in Berlin. We quickly found another hotel that lacked the charm but had an elevator, air-conditioning, internet access, and laundry service. Since then we’ve become wary of charming boutique hotels.

We decided on one of N-H collection hotels in Turin because we knew we could count on a good bed, reliable elevator and internet access, a laundry service, a decent restaurant , bar and good breakfast. If we got sick, we’d have a pleasant place to hang out. If we needed help there would be staff who could provide it—in short everything elderly travelers need to be comfortable.

The NH-Carlina in Turin had all of the above and was housed in a former monastery. But no matter how well you plan, stuff happens. We were awakened in the middle of the night by a loud piercing siren and the message: “This is an emergency; you must evacuate immediately.” There was no indication what the problem was—very scary.

The hotel guests were all outside—some who heeded the command to leave immediately were in their bathrobes. We managed to get dressed and grab our wallets and passports. In future hotel stays I will keep all medications together in one bag located near my pocketbook with wallet and passports.

We learned the problem was a breakdown in the hot water system which had caused major flooding—not a bomb as many of us feared. The hotel staff told us the hotel would be closed and we had no idea when we would be allowed back in to get our belongings. The entrance to the stairs was blocked by armed firefighters, but I somehow managed to convince the one woman firefighter to let me get Rick’s medications and she accompanied me up the flooded staircase to get them.

Finally after several hours we were allowed back into the hotel, told to pack quickly and leave the hotel as soon as possible; the hotel got us rooms in their sister hotel the San Stefano. We actually liked the less expensive, simpler San Stefano better than the Carlina with it’s gorgeous courtyard and rooftop terrace. The Carlina was a more impressive building, but the San Stefano had larger more comfortable rooms and I recommend it as a very good value.

All’s well that ends well, but unfortunately the change of hotels cost some of our precious time in Turin, an open air architectural museum.

More to come on the architectural riches of Turin.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Women’s March at a Crossroads

In January 2017, and again in 2018, millions of women worldwide poured into the streets of to protest the election of Donald Trump. The Women’s March belongs to all those grassroots women who marched for gender justice/racial justice and to the local organizers, who fundraised, secured permits, and planned the events. Their energy and commitment had much to do with the number of women who ran and won in the 2018 elections.

Beginning as a Facebook post and driven largely by social media, the Women’s March demonstrated the power of social media to quickly mobilize large numbers of people. We are now seeing the limits of a social media driven mobilization. When conflicts arise, there exist no agreed upon mechanisms for resolving them and for holding leadership accountable. Although a non-profit Women’s March Inc. emerged from the initial march, it was not a membership organization with the power to set the agenda and elect board members and officers.

Long smoldering conflicts in the organization broke out into the open in February 2018 when two of the co-chairs were prominent attendees at Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s Saviours’ Day event. Many supporters of the Women’s March saw the relationship with a notorious misogynist, homophobe and anti-Semite as a disqualifier for leadership of a movement committed to gender justice and the elimination of all forms of bigotry and discrimination. Co-chair Tamika Mallory’s widely publicized praise of Farrakhan, as well as the failure to include Jewish women in the March’s unity principles, led to calls for the co-chairs to resign.

The co-chairs responded to the outcry by including Jewish women in their unity principles, adding three Jewish women (including one trans and two black Jewish women) to their steering committee and by putting out a statement condemning anti-Semitism. For some, the statement rang hollow given Mallory’s continued refusal to disavow Farrakhan.

Questions were also asked about the co-chairs’ management of the more than $2 million raised through contributions and sales of merchandise emblazoned with the Women’s March logo. Women’s March Inc. is currently trying to trademark the name Women’s March and is being sued by four local Women’s March organizations, which have argued that it can’t trademark a movement. Given these controversies, it’s no surprise that the 2019 march attracted far fewer participants than previous years and saw a dramatic drop in the number of sponsors as well as competing marches in several major cities.

The Philadelphia March(es)

The conflicts on the national level played out in Philadelphia with two competing marches held at the same time: Philly Women Rally, which was unaffiliated with national Women’s March Inc. and Women’s March Pennsylvania, which was connected to the national Women’s March.

The Philly Women Rally at Eakins Oval was the larger event with participants numbering in the thousands and many elected officials among the speakers, including Mayor Jim Kenney, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, newly elected congresswomen Madeleine Dean, Mary Gay Scanlon and Chrissy Houlahan and Jovida Hill, Director of the Philadelphia Commission for Women, who gave a rousing speech drawing on the words of Sojourner Truth: “She told us that if women want more rights than they got, why don’t they just take them?”

Women’s March Pennsylvania, which rallied at Love Park, was considerably smaller with participants numbering in the hundreds. From all reports, however, the speeches were dynamic and the audience was energized. Among the speakers were city council candidates Sherrie Cohen and Melissa Robbins, Yaya Rivera of the Northwest Indivisible Reproductive Justice Working Group and Nina Ahmad, former Deputy Mayor for Public Engagement and candidate for Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor.

“To me, it was not a matter of choosing one event over the other but more about being given a seat at the table,” Rivera said. “It is important for me to share my personal experiences and reasons to why I fight for Title X funding and reproductive rights/justice.”

Ahmad celebrated the election of women of color to seats in the House of Representatives, and the impact of the Me Too movement. Her message to sexual predators was, “Be very afraid – we are coming to hold you accountable.”

Feminist organizations grappled with the issue of which march to recommend to their members. The Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) voted to support the march hosted by Philly Women Rally because, according to CLUW President Danielle Newsome, “We’ve built an institutional relationship over the last three years and respect that they hire union women to build and work the stage. We hope that in the future there can be one unified march in Philadelphia.”

According to Lynne Jacobs, President of the Philadelphia Council of Jewish Women, the Philadelphia Council followed the recommendation of their national organization to support local marches not affiliated with the national Women’s March Inc., and thus supported Philly Women Rally.

Philadelphia NOW decided to encourage its members to participate, but declined to endorse either march. “Some members chose to go to one over the other, but most of us decided we should attend parts of both to support all women,” said NOW President Krishna Rami.

It was a difficult decision for many feminist groups and for individual women trying to decide which march to attend or even if they should attend at all.

“Up until Saturday morning, I was truly ambivalent about marching,” said Mindy Brown, of Northwest Indivisible and a committeeperson in the 9th Ward. “But I decided not showing up would mean giving in to the other side, who’d feast on the stories of internal divisions and lower numbers. The fissures are real and painful, and we can’t sweep them under the rug. But maybe this tension can be an opportunity for us to work on solutions. For me, the Philly March has never been about the national leadership. It’s been about the grassroots. I was glad I went in the end. It felt like younger people had really come out in a lot bigger numbers. They were spontaneously dancing, singing and coming up with amazing, inspiring messages. It gave me hope!”

I heard variations on Brown’s comment from quite a few participants who also noted the number of young women involved and insisted that the march belonged to the grassroots women who built local and regional marches across the country.

Another common theme was disappointment that there were two marches and frustration that the two groups could not come together. “I was disappointed at the paltry turnout for these events,” said Mt. Airy activist Susan Schewel. “I think a lot of people stayed away because they did not know which event to attend. Even though I read what was available about how we ended up with two rallies, (and even a third that I learned of later) it just did not make sense. I wish that the organizers had managed to combine their efforts beforehand. I hope next year Philly has one strong march and rally with diverse voices represented.”

What lies ahead?

Only time will tell how the current conflict in the women’s movement will play out. While concerned about the conflicts, Mt. Airy social justice activist Antje Mattheus said that some conflict should be expected in building that movement.

“We are setting ourselves up for failure if we assume that we can reproduce the success – in terms of attendance and broad alliances – of the 2017 worldwide Women’s March and call it a movement,” she said. “A march is an action. In 2017 it was a very large action, but a march is not a movement.
The ‘cracks’ – lower attendance, simultaneous marches, infighting among leaders, disunity between racial and religious groups – which we now see are normal in social movement development and should be expected because the work to achieve a united movement has not been done. Movement building, especially on the level desired by 2017 Women’s March organizers and attendees, takes much time and dedication.”

This article appeared in the Chestnut Hill Local,

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Northern Italy Diaries, part I

Town Square in Mestre

I usually post our travel notes right after a trip. This last trip we returned to fall clean up, election work, and publicity for my book In Search of Elena Ferrante. The travel notes got lost in the shuffle. Fading memories are a downside of posting months after a vacation. What remains are a few highlights—the best and the worst of the trip.

Travel is getting harder, for sure. It’s much more difficult to get an upgrade. So-called premium seats in economy were uncomfortable; I can’t imagine how bad the non-premium seats must be.

Last year we flew SAS to Scandinavia. The premium economy seats were so good, we didn’t feel any need for an upgrade. We thought about going to Denmark this year—in part for the pleasures of SAS—but the lure of Italy was too powerful.

We have never been to Northwestern Italy, so we decided it was time to see this region, while we're still capable of international travel. Since there are no longer direct flights from Philly to Milan, we flew into Venice, but since we’ve already been to Venice four times we decided to pass on going into the city. Getting in and out of Venice is not easy and with more and more cruise ships stopping in Venice, the crowds are unbearable.

We used to be capable of getting off a transatlantic flight and immediately hopping onto a train for 3 or 4 hours, but sadly that’s no longer the case. So we decided to spend the first night in Mestre (essentially a suburb of Venice) and take the train to Turin the next day. It turned out to be a good decision as we found a wonderful hotel, the Villa Barbarich. The restaurant was probably the best value we’ve ever had in Italy. restaurant at the Villa Barbarich

There’s not a whole lot to do in Mestre but we weren’t up to doing much more than unwind. However, there is a beautiful town square—evidence that Mestre was once a wealthy town. We hung out there for a few hours sipping (in my case) Campari, (in Rick’s) Fernet Branca.

The next day we dealt with the challenges of train travel. If the elevators are working, it’s manageable. If they’re not--and this time the elevator to the platform was not--it was a struggle. Fortunately there was someone who could help us. One of the great pleasures of traveling in Italy is the Italian people who are almost without exception kind and helpful, especially to old folks.

At this stage in life getting our luggage into the overhead bin is impossible and unlike planes, there are no attendants to help. Our way of dealing with this is to always get business class—it doesn’t cost that much more than economy—and get there early so we can put our luggage in the small space allotted for luggage that doesn’t fit into the bins. Granted if we could only learn to travel super light, this would be less of a problem.

Aside from the luggage problem, I like train travel. The train from Mestre to Turin isn’t a scenic spectacular, but there were some glimpses of Lake Garda and the seats are so much more comfortable than those ever shrinking economy class airline seats.

Next stop, Turin.