Amalia Negreponti is a writer.
Amalia Negreponti is a writer, now living in New York. She is a contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Prior to emigrating to the United States, she worked as a journalist for a variety of media, including the BBC, La Règle du jeu, the Huffington Post, and Ta Nea. She has been honored to receive a Young Leaders Marshall Memorial Fellowship, and participates in various policy fora, including The Aspen Institute, the AJC’s Project Interchange, and Track II diplomacy. She has published three books (contemporary history/literary history; a novel; creative nonfiction/philosophy) and is now working on a series of essays and poems about cultural integration in first-generation immigrants.
Like most people, I always had a plan.
Yet it wasn’t long before minor blips started upsetting what I considered to be a blueprint for a happy, fulfilled life. At 15, I sank into anorexia nervosa http://www.huffingtonpost.com
A narrow escape from death due to this mental condition inspired me to precipitously switch my college major from Abstract Math to Law (I needed the discipline of a “rulebook”), Cognitive psychology and psychoanalysis. Becoming a lawyer though, was not for me; and in those times in Greece, a woman becoming a shrink was the stuff of lewd jokes.
That is probably why, still at college, I accidentally floated into journalism. A week-long furlough from my “regular life” to pursue life as a writer in my country’s equivalent of the NYTimes somehow turned into my life. I became a reporter, a cultural critic, an OpEd writer, a war correspondent. I interviewed super-stars and politicians, I attended global policy fora, hosted a TV show on foreign affairs, reported for the BBC, the French Regle du Jeu, advised on media policy, I wrote three books (two bestsellers). Fifteen years later, everything had changed and everything remained the same. Yet I was profoundly unhappy, teetering on the brink of anorexia yet again, ashamed of my strange hollowness and yearning for an incohate “meaning” to ignite my life.
In 2010 my country went bust. My friends started leaving for other European countries. I could not conceive of leaving my homeland and my mother–the two interchangeable in my mind–for a new life. A single mother, she worked 18 hours a day to raise me, her only child. Every Saturday we picked cyclamines and anemones in the forest north of Athens. She tried to draw me out of my insular, solipsistic existence by reciting Emily Dickinson: “I am nobody. Who are you? Are you–Nobody–too? Then there’s a pair of us!”
Then some ancient pagan gods must have decided to intervene. During a short sojourn in New York (researching a book I was writing while covering a conference on the future of digital journalism) one of the Very Important people I was interviewing, expressed interest in me and my book, offering me a job that seemed perfect.
The elation of that night evoked the unadulterated sunniness of my infancy. My mom who was in Greece, and I, pulled an all-nighter on videochat. “Spread your wings” she said, pushing me to pursue my dreams like she had not, sacrifing herself for others.
So I stayed, in America. Greece went–is still going–through meltdown. Alone, I watched the derailment, from New York. I no longer had a past to return to if I needed to. There was only one way for me: forward. In America.
That did not make things easier, though. Red Riding Hood meets the Wolf was an appropriate metaphor for the job and book deal I had been offered. Even more importantly, neither covered the requirements of immigration law.
Soon my situation became Kafkaesque. Although working fulltime, I was not getting paid. My meager savings were running out, and practical problems like Hurricane Sandy, Arctic Vortexes, bad plumbing and heating, and even the roof collapsing over my head twice, were child’s play compared to my immigration woes. I floundered in a murky wasteland of immigration lawyers. One tried to blackmail me; another vanished; a third lost my papers; a fourth refused to hand me my passport unless I met him at an underground storage facility in Clinton, at 3 am. Initially I could not stay on in the US, then I could not leave, even to visit my mother back in Greece. The few people I had hoped would help, commiserated, dissembled, vanished. Quite spectacularly, I managed to contract pneumonia twice. One morning, a deranged biker threw me to the ground, pummeled me, but did not mug me.
In the spirit of Murphy’s Law, one day I slipped on black ice and injured my knee, badly. With no health insurance or money, hobbling and constant pain became my new constant. The grief of my isolation and severance from my homeland and mother did nothing to diminish my nightmares of suddenly finding myself outside the US and not being allowed to re-enter. When I started obsessing each night, about ways to end my life, I realized I was losing my mind.
To find it, I hit the streets.
I walked myself through days of bitter cold and snow; through angry summer nights where you could not breathe for the humidity, the city’s forsaken and mad(dened) crawling out of the woodwork, while the more fortunate passed them by without ostensibly registering their presence. My tenuous existence, oscillating between the two conditions, made feel like a ghost.
I could not bear to even think, trying to beat time, to fill the days sagging with isolation, in the one-billion chance that a chink may open up to me in the unscaleable walls of this impermeable wonderful city. While online all the time, following markets, reading millions of diverse stories, I wrote thousands of words each day, on various topics, from reporting, to essays, to short fiction. Some I sent, others I released on social media, hoping from the fray to engender something more palpable and enduring than the unending timeline of the 4G wifi current humming over our heads…so relentlessly yet admirably different from the ebbing that occurs in your soul when you have no tickets to the Shakespeare in the Park (with cronuts or bagels from Levines on 73rd and Amsterdam) show everyone else is at, so you climb to a high rock, overlooking the theater; but from there it is too far to allow for the suspension of reality, and all you can see are the sound machines and the guttural iron machinery of the theater’s steel skeleton.
Then I cooked. On my half-broken microwave (no stove or oven) I learned to transmogrify my purchases of discounted produce, into tasy stews and curries that nursed my body and spirit to health.
One afternoon, on the West Harlem bus, I sat between a gorgeous Viola Davis doppleganger, and two guys so deeply in love they evoked everyone’s first golden love. Another night, I watched a horde of cheery Lithuanian Haredim, storming out of Magnolia Bakery, help a bedazzling transgender multiracial woman carry a velvet couch someone had thrown out on the street. The sickness inside me abated. It is all indeed like a dream, maybe even an actual dream that may, in time, become part of the sky blue that paints horizons out of our illusions and lives when there is no longer any difference at all between the two. Yet until then what matters is we see it all through, evolving, understanding, bearing witnesss, always learning. Connecting.
People from all walks of life started telling me their stories. In these encounters–always random and fleeting– whole lives were contained and shared: pieces of the daily fabric of so many people existing in different orbits, around the same sun. This inspired me to write, and embark on my new career, as a counsellor and life-coach, as well as a writer, here in New York.
One post-snowstorm afternoon that had rendered the city into white screaming silence, I was walking along the Hudson. Its frozen waves, reminiscent of the vulnerability that binds us all together: everyone, everything in this world. In front of some auspicious luxury condos, a doorman yelled out to another: “I am lonely. Tell me a story”.
I came to learn that in New York, “arrival” can mean different things. For some, it means achieving success and status. For others, tapping into a communion of stories to create our own. Only in the US do the metrics of what constitutes success in the rest of the world, differ. In contrast to the trope economists like Thomas Piketty aggregate, throughout the world what counts is money and money alone. Yet the driving force behind the US’s new rise and supremacy, are new internet-based companies, from behemoths to small ventures. This cosmos of emotion and intellect, corpus and spirit become one, embodies a yearning for evolution that encompasses yet transcends profit, reliant on principles that address universally vital issues (education, research, technology, communication), heaing and elevating the world and the potential of human existence, making knowledge, freedom, democracy, communication, connection, accessible to all, at no or minimal cost.
Even when all alone, when I tap into this zeitgeist, I know I am never alone.