Elena Fer­rante

Sto­ry­telling with stereo­types

The Guardian - Weekend - - News - Trans­lated by Ann Gold­stein

Stereo­types are crude sim­pli­fi­ca­tions, but gen­er­ally they don’t lie.

If I say that Ital­ians eat spaghetti, it is not a lie; I’m sim­ply re­duc­ing a com­plex re­al­ity, with its great cul­tural tra­di­tion, to a plate of pasta eaten by some­one with a Si­cil­ian cloth cap on his head. I do the same with, let’s say, Amer­i­cans, eaters of grilled steak in cow­boy hats, or the English, bowler-hat­ted drinkers of tea as soon as the clock strikes five. All in all, there is noth­ing wrong with sim­pli­fy­ing: sim­pli­fi­ca­tion is like a first glance into a crowded hall, or a child’s draw­ing of Mamma and Papa. The prob­lem arises when we don’t know that these are stereo­types, crude con­struc­tions, full of prej­u­dice, and take them for re­al­ity.

The sto­ries we tell tra­di­tion­ally make great use of stereo­types, whether they re­port facts that re­ally hap­pened or come from the imag­i­na­tion. Scorn­fully dis­miss­ing them as such isn’t help­ful. If we want to el­e­vate and en­no­ble these stereo­typed sit­u­a­tions, these stereo­typed char­ac­ters, we could say that they some­what re­sem­ble the nar­ra­tives of fairy­tales. With­out re­course to these, no story would flow, orally or in writ­ing, in the the­atre, in film, on tele­vi­sion.

In fact, a story comes es­pe­cially eas­ily when the nar­ra­tor doesn’t even know that he’s us­ing proven for­mu­las: the wolf and the lamb, the devil and the good god, the cor­rupt and the hon­est, the hero and the traitor, the king and the queen, beauty and the beast. The same is true of stereo­types, es­pe­cially if we don’t per­ceive their na­ture, feel their crude­ness – which hap­pens when we draw on our own lives and are con­vinced that our sto­ries per­fectly re­flect re­al­ity.

It’s use­less to point out to the sto­ry­teller that stereo­types are abun­dant in real life. The nar­ra­tor says he’s sorry: look, the thief re­ally was Neapolitan, and there re­ally was laun­dry hang­ing in the al­ley. More com­plex is the con­scious use of stereo­types to form a story that’s purely en­ter­tain­ing; it re­quires great skill and ex­per­tise. In this case stereo­types be­come func­tional; the writer obeys rules; the story is a jour­ney with in­evitable stop­ping points – very fa­mil­iar, yet al­ways en­joy­able.

It’s a risk, in the end, to start from stereo­typ­i­cal sit­u­a­tions and char­ac­ters, and then to push them. This can suc­ceed or not; it’s like writ­ing from in­side the con­di­tion we find our­selves in ev­ery day. Don’t we ori­ent our­selves in the world ac­cord­ing to con­ve­nient gen­er­al­i­sa­tions, prej­u­dices we take for in­de­pen­dent judg­ments? And isn’t it up to us, sooner or later, to try to con­front this re­al­ity, which be­comes know­able only if we ven­ture out­side the frame?

The work is good when, from the co­coon of the stereo­type, we get at real life – which, be­cause it’s real life, darts un­pre­dictably in ev­ery di­rec­tion and can never be con­tained

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