We Were Determined to Play: A Conversation by The Ferrante Project Editors

A collective of sixteen women writers of color experimenting with freedom, anti-fame, and anonymity.

Book Cover of The Ferrante Project: The Freedom of Anonymity on dark blue background

After we finished a bottle of mezcal in one of our kitchens, out of a burning desire to unshackle ourselves from the anxiety of notoriety, to restore a sense of play, to contraindicate the cult of personality, posturing, and preemptive celebrity at the expense (sometimes) of the quality and provocation of the work itself, we announce a collective called The Ferrante Project: The Freedom of Anonymity. 

We invited contributors to submit works anonymously with the agreement that we would not reject anything we received. In a published anthology of the same name, the collective brought together sixteen works by women writers of color experimenting with freedom, anti-fame, and anonymity. The following is a conversation among the editors who share how they wrestled with including the contributors’ names and how what they imagined to be a playful liberating exercise also included writing pain and rage.

—The Ferrante Project Editors

 

Anonymous Wolf Should we start by sharing how the idea came about? 

Anonymous Fox We talked about the importance of play. That’s my recollection. One of us shared that she had joined a group of moms who wanted to play together. They were to go roller skating, etc., but they never managed it. And how writing does not feel like play, particularly when attached to tenure and the academy.

Anonymous Dinosaur Yes, we had read an article on parenting, “All Joy and No Fun” and we were determined to play. We were so pissed off. But, we never actually managed it.

Anonymous Anteater As a full-on homosexual who is child-free, I hadn’t been thinking about parenting. I was just enjoying my mezcal, and leaning into that hard. Anyway, I think there might also be ways that we as women of color in the academy and in the literary world are often asked either explicitly or implicitly to write into a set of presumed assumptions about who we are, what we have to say, and how we might say it. Or, I guess, we resist those notions, but either way—it’s a trap. I think I wrote my whole dissertation on the trap of the claiming/claimed subject or some such thing—this question of when “being” gets to happen inside of the writing toward nothing at all. 

Anonymous Wolf Then we started dreaming about what it would look like if women writers of color were given the space and freedom to write anonymously so they wouldn’t have to perform what is expected of them. That’s when we discussed Elena Ferrante’s extreme excavation of previously unexplored material—female friendship— and also denouncing the asshole who worked to expose her identity. 

Anonymous Dinosaur I remember reading Ferrante for the first time in a fugue-like state. I lost track of time and space. It seemed she was absolutely free to speak without mediation. I didn’t realize how rare it was. It was like lancing a boil, throwing open huge windows to blinding light. I think that this project provided a similar space. Grateful to be a part of it. I was so giddy the night that we decided we would move forward. We could decide on our experience and make a pathway for others.

Anonymous Fox We invited a number of women to participate, the idea being that it would be a playful exercise. Yet everybody wound up writing painful, premenopausal shit, largely about aging, body problems, relationship woes, and deep psychic wounds.

Anonymous Anteater There might be something in those works that is about pain that is play for the writer, though. Play is also about taking a leap or running around in circles giggling like a maniac. I think the maniac should be able to come out especially when we write the underbelly of something.  

Anonymous Fox I remember being worried about quality control. We committed to publishing whatever people sent, sight unseen. 

Anonymous Wolf It was terrifying to me, as an editor, to commit to publishing work sight unseen. But I do think that knowing that one’s work will get published and supported is the kind of trust the contributors found liberating. Many of the contributors worked in different genres and styles than they usually do. And I think that for many of us the “playing” included writing outside of our tendencies or trying something new.

Anonymous Fox The other event that instigated this project was the New York Times piece featuring Black male writers.  

Anonymous Wolf Yes, some of us felt alienated by the New York Times piece, “Black Male Writers for Our Time” (November, 30, 2018) featuring 32 Black male writers, with its fixation on the staging of the Black male body and presentation of the cult of personality rather than the work itself.  

Anonymous Anteater Oh right, that’s where the bit about notoriety came in. Personally, I am deeply interested in the hyper-celebration of some writers as part of the capitalist regime and how attractive that can be for us as writers. But I’m also interested in what might be set free without it—Raúl Zurita’s writing from prison, as an extreme example. As a more mundane example, what it might mean to not have that capitalist voice in our heads, however muted it might be. 

Anonymous Wolf Is it possible not to have that capitalist voice in our heads as writers?

Anonymous Anteater Well, as a poet (primarily), I say yes! What poets want is fame, and prizes, and to be lifted up on some whispery pedestal as if to say, “Look: here’s the real thing.” I’m being only slightly facetious.  

Anonymous Wolf Actually, I do think at the heart of it what any creative wants is some kind of recognition of being seen or heard … I don’t think when anyone is trying at art they are thinking about fame, but there is a way that the system requires a performance or a positioning that makes it all monstrous and almost impossible to escape for many. As if the only way to survive is to get fame or Twitter followers when this is not true. It’s a trap. 

Anonymous Anteater This world makes me die inside all the time. Fame, Twitter, blah blah blah. We accept the world as it is more than I think we should. I get it, though, there’s really no way out of the regime. The moment you think you’ve outsmarted it, it morphs into something equally insidious and new. 

Anonymous Fox As for me, I like Twitter as a space of creativity. As editors we also disagreed about the meaning of anonymity in relation to this project. I felt strongly that nobody’s name should be attached at all, if we were truly to be emulating Elena Ferrante, or that all of us should have had the opportunity to choose pen names. To my mind, it retains the trappings of what you’ve just critiqued, the anxiety of notoriety, so long as we see author names—some more famous than others. Two women I initially invited to participate declined when they understood their names would be attached.

Anonymous Wolf I wonder how the project could have been different if it had been truly anonymous with pen names. I felt that the tension of the known and unknown was what was interesting to me. Also having a collective of women writers, giving their names to support experimentation. It’s a risk for everyone, including the editors. I mean what if someone had submitted something that was fucked up. Then all our names are on it. This is true if something is brilliant too. We can all claim it.

Anonymous Dinosaur This implied a radical trust between editors and writers all together. 

Anonymous Fox Someone did submit something that was fucked up. Then she retracted it and submitted something less controversial. Remember? 

Anonymous Wolf Yes. It had never occurred to me that someone would use this opportunity to say something publicly about someone beloved in our community. If she hadn’t retracted her submission should we have published it anyway?  

Anonymous Fox The project would have obligated us to. We committed to publishing anything, without censure.

Anonymous Anteater For me the point of the Elena Ferrante Project was to get to something that we might call “art,” to give women writers a unique venue to do something that they would not normally do in writing, to open something up in their own creative processes. The fucked up thing was not about that at all. It was beside the point (or counter to) the project we sought to bring into being. 

Anonymous Wolf Right. I felt to not produce art for this and instead of using it as a space to say something you would never say in public was cowardly and exploitive. When we dreamt up The Ferrante Project it was before COVID-19 and quarantine. It feels like it was a different world then. Is it relevant now? 

Anonymous Fox That’s not for us to know. It’s relevant if it matters to someone else. 

Anonymous Wolf Do we want to share what it was like to write anonymously? 

Anonymous Fox I can’t say that I wrote anonymously. Our names are attached to the project. I still don’t know what it’s like to write anonymously. I felt pissed off when I wrote my contribution, and moderately betrayed by what felt like a bait and switch.

Anonymous Dinosaur I don’t typically shy away from darkness, difficulty in my work.  To be subversive in this project meant that I was striving for lightness, sweetness. That was the challenge.

Anonymous Anteater Same. I typically, in poetry, use writing to attempt to say what I might not otherwise say. What I mean is that I go to the deepest darkest places that plague and haunt me in, I guess, an attempt to reckon with something, purge something, stab at something. In this case, I wanted to try out something formally that I hadn’t done before (or thought I hadn’t). I wonder what that striving for lightless felt like for you, how it changed the writing. 

Anonymous Wolf What I realized working on my contribution for The Ferrante Project was that there are still subject matters I avoid because I don’t want people I love to see themselves in my work and eventually get hurt. While writing, I tried both to work outside of what may be identified as my voice but also to write about something that I kind of felt shameful to admit. In this way I found it very exciting and I do plan to try writing anonymously in the future. Most recently I have been rereading and also watching My Brilliant Friend. Ferrante writes so beautifully about the ways patriarchy and macho culture make it impossible for women to breathe. The violence inside of families and communities, so honest. I always wonder if she could have done this without a pen name.

Anonymous Dinosaur How did this project surprise you? Did it turn out in a way that you envisioned? If not, how is it different? 

Anonymous Wolf I love to collaborate and it energized me to work with editors who are so different from me personality-wise. I was surprised most of the experimentation or risk taking was less with form but more with content. I am also surprised how when we dreamt this up it didn’t occur to me how much I needed to be freed up aesthetically in my own work. But also how relevant this project feels now when there is so much attention on works by POC and the ways writers are also pushing back on performing their identities.

Anonymous Fox I’m looking forward to the sixteen artworks by visual artists, also commissioned for this project. Although it wasn’t possible to pair images of those forthcoming works with the text, I’ll be interested to see how and when those artworks are produced and shown. The pandemic has altered the project’s timelines, slowing everything down. I’m proud that we will have pulled off this first phase, given how many different women needed to be wrangled.

Anonymous Anteater I thought there would be more gestural or conceptual pieces, but that might be because that’s the world I live in. I was surprised, or moved, I guess, by what I perceive as a deep vulnerability throughout the issue. It has rawness.  

Anonymous Dinosaur Yes, I agree that it has this uncut gem truth to it. I really enjoyed our conversations on anonymity and on what it meant to hold this space for writers who were trusting us and trusting our project. 

The Ferrante Project: An Aster(ix) Anthology, October 2020 is available for purchase here.

Contributors to the collective include: Cathy Linh Che, Angie Cruz, Natalie Díaz, Ru Freeman, Sarah Gambito, Cristina García, Jamey Hatley, Dawn Lundy Martin, Ayana Mathis, Vi khi nao, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Deborah Paredez, Khadijah Queen, Emily Raboteau, Paisley Rekdal, and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon.

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