We have responsibilities to our stories: A Conversation with Writer & Artist Amalia Melis – curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Amalia Melis was born and raised in New York. She is a freelance hard news/feature writer who has worked from New York and Athens, Greece.  She has published interviews with two Pulitzer Prize winning authors Michael Cunningham and Frank McCourt. She is an essayist and fiction writer as well. Her short story, “Immigrant Daughters,” won the 2nd place New Writers Award from Glimmer Train. Her essays have been published in Guernica, Michigan Quarterly Review, Glimmer Train Bulletin, MacQueen’s Quinterly, KYSO Flash, Ducts, etc.  She is the founder and organizer of the Aegean Arts Circle writing workshops held in Andros, Greece each summer since 2003. An artist as well as writer, her assemblage sculptures have been part of group art exhibits in the U.S., Germany and Greece. 

Kristina Marie Darling:  Your novel-in-progress considers questions of family legacy, displacement, language, and otherness with impressive subtlety.  What is the connection between storytelling and family — or storytelling and community — for you as a writer?  

Amalia Melis:  I was the family sponge. My ears tuned in to anything being said anywhere in the house, even the whispers. Family stories captured me from a young age. The men from my island family were seamen and many of the whispering women left their mother’s homes to cross a sea into new worlds. Family stories were like magic carpets taking off from Greece and landing in Astoria; the Greek immigrant neighborhood in New York where I was born and raised. 

 I rode in the caique (small boat) with a great grandfather who was a lemon merchant from Smyrna (Asia Minor in Turkey) who crossed the Aegean to buy lemons from Andros (lemons were an important commodity from way back in Andros) he spotted my great grandmother, fell in love and moved to Andros and so the family story unfolds on my father’s side. My mother’s side was always from the island it seems. Fast forward to observing my family and all their Greek immigrant friends who sat around in New York talking, reminiscing about where they were from in Greece, singing Greek songs which caught them under a magic spell which brought out that longing for the “homeland” and all that that meant. I was weaned on family stories that had Greek history, family folklore, wars, poverty, migration, settling uncomfortably in new lands, namely New York, all intwined with anecdotes from our working-class real lives. In this push/pull dance I had to define life within the American world I was born in to and the Greek one which permeated everything I knew. I wanted to give voice to this immigrant life, the dreams and longing of those brave enough to be in a new land but not bold enough to become American or to return to where they came from-that tension created this thick sadness I felt 24 hours a day.  I carry it within me to this day.  I was curious about the actual homeland too. We took very few trips to Andros island when we were kids but it seemed to me that we were there every summer. Every scent, every village face, every song, church feast was permanently engraved in my heart. I wanted to make up stories about that island and those village lives carried over the Atlantic Ocean where they remained suspended in the “in-between”, which by the way, is the space I am most comfortable in myself, even though I was born and raised in New York. I do not feel completely American even if I was born in New York. Even though as an adult I have tried living in Greece numerous times I do not feel completely Greek. I live in the “in-between”.  

In my unpublished novel (working title) “Daughter News” I try to honor the blue collar Greek-American Astoria community I lived in, the way I remember enough of it to imagine it. I took personal family legacy-an unexplained grandmother’s death, family secrets, world events like the successive assassinations in the U.S. of JFK,  Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, riots, etc. and let the chaos electrifying the air around me ferment long enough to write to the child in me about what was fearful and what could not be controlled. 

I always felt like there was a gray blanket of sorrow over Astoria-in the traditions we followed (religious and otherwise), in maintaining the language of our homeland, in identifying with the “other”. We never became part of the American landscape as fully as we should have considering we (my sister and I) were born there.  My sister is American, loves Greece and happy in the U.S. so I should speak for myself since I am the only one who has wandered from my early 20s to this day back and forth across the sea to New York back to Greece back to New York back to Greece. I have to write about this condition I suffer from. It inspires me.  Even if reality in both places was ugly. We had a dictatorship in Greece from 1967-74 and slow poke letters sent to us would hint about the crack downs. Community in the 70s was ugly in New York too. Everyone feared everyone. Each immigrant group seemed to cling to their own small communities fearing what and who was “unknown”. Whites feared Blacks, Americans feared Greeks, Italians, Puerto Ricans. I hate to say it but that fear still lives in the United States. Various groups may have obtained some rights, but untold deaths and injustices continue to occur based on fear: fear of race, language, physical look, social class, etc. The examples are too many.  My job as a writer is to take moments (personal and greater moments in society) and mold them into stories. When I write fiction none of what I write is true. It is influenced by truth though. It took a long time to give myself permission to take painful family events, stretch the truth to make them into fiction so I could breathe. That is why this novel Daughter News took years to become what it is.

KMD:  In addition to your work in fiction, you are also an accomplished essayist, with a stunning piece that just appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review.  What can essayists learn from fiction writers about the craft of writing?  

AM:  In the recent Michigan Quarterly Review essay I took my own personal loss (I lost my husband in a tragic accident) and flew over to Hios island where refugees were pouring into Europe by way of Greece’s borders. It was a horrific experience with so much human tragedy. Syria was blowing up, misery everywhere, people lost, displaced, desperate and in that madness, I needed to be with these refugees. I was and still am struggling with my own unexplained loss. I gave away my husband’s shirts, socks, undershirts to people who had nothing. I wanted to believe I may have kept someone warm for an hour on those dark island roads where mobs of people dripping wet emerged from the sea. I touched, cleaned, dressed them right there, babies, adults, children, a pregnant woman. It was excruciating. I wanted to hug them and make their lives right, I wanted to make my life right. I could do nothing, actually. I went back again a few months ago and brought more of my husband’s clothes with me but the scene has changed. I no longer ran into families, children, women who once had a life in Syria and who used to vacation in places like Myconos. The people trying to get through to Europe now are mainly groups of young men who seek jobs and are not running from political/religious persecution. This issue will blow up in our faces if the world does not tackle the immigrant/refugee situation.  Unfortunately, refugees have become a weapon in the war between Europe and Turkey.  There is a larger war going on along Greece’s eastern borders which are the European Union’s borders too. I write about that and what I personally experience while sticking to facts. That is the difference for me as an essay writer.  I will take the event/moment which moves me/angers me/hurts me and I will explore it using only facts but I add my feelings about the facts I am witnessing. I express myself with word style that comes closer to fiction writing. I am more poetic in my essays something that never happens when I write as a hard news reporter or feature writer. I have done so many types of writing and each one demands its own style/rules. I like the freedom essay writing provides because I can use creative writing tools while wearing my reporter hat. 

KMD:  Your nonfiction frequently engages politically charged subjects, ranging from the global financial crisis to the lives of refugees.  What is the relationship between writing and social justice for you as a creative practitioner?  

AM:  I am a white canvas and I reflect events I need to react to because I am part of this “cosmos”. I cannot be neutral to events happening around me or further away from me or inside me. Strikes, war, racial inequality, the destruction of our environment and more. It goes against my very being. I do not know how to be passive or neutral. I will react to political events, I will react to social upheaval and to how my personal world changes. I have a child and I need to fight to make the world better for her and the next generation. I can fight by writing.  We are all connected and affected by events happening anywhere on our planet. The essay as a form allows me as a writer to engage in expressing my intense feelings about real events like the ten year plus financial meltdown we lived through in Greece after years and years of political corruption and wrong decisions. It all exploded in our faces and the world watched. We were the guinea pigs of Europe and I blame no one but us for our predicament. I published many essays about the cracks in Greek society reacting to the financial meltdown before us and the fear of losing our homes, losing our futures, increased suicides (something Greeks were never known for), mass exodus of young brilliant minds, etc. all these crucial social changes were ours to deal with, write about, react to. 

KMD:  I’ve had the pleasure of following your social media posts, which frequently showcase your gorgeous visual art.  What does your practice as a visual artist open up in your writing?  Relatedly, how has your command of narrative and storytelling informed your work in other mediums?  

AM:  I make assemblages (three dimensional sculptures) out of discarded pieces I find; preferably metal and wire. I do remember clearly the day it happened. I was walking down an Athenian street and everything thrown on the street sort of lit up in my path as if I was aware of metal, wires, trash, etc for the first time. It happened at the time I attempted to write my first novel. I was exploring a kind of writing I knew nothing about. I worked as a hard news reporter in Greece and in the U.S. I was a feature writer, a corporate communications writer but fiction writer? Never. I never studied fiction writing so I was totally lost with no tools. The immigrant story I have carried inside me since my grandmother’s death followed me since I was I guess, 7 years old. While I was writing this novel my story crossed dimensions from written word on paper to discarded metal sculpture. I also wanted to tell the story I was working on in a physical way and that is what I attempted to do. It also kept me away from that intimidating blank page so I really jumped on this new physical process. It was intense, I worked hours at a time without knowing where I was or what time it was. I was in the “zone”. 

I continued to write the novel and I kept creating these assemblage sculptures (if you see my balcony in Athens and all storage spaces anywhere near me you will understand). After several years of working on my novel it reached a point where I am now satisfied with it. My art work has moved on too. I am not attached to immigrant themes per se, I play, make shapes that are more abstract and that is the space I am happiest in. No clear definitions or expectations of shape or content. Each piece is born when I find the discarded metal and I shape it and weave threads, votive offerings, beads, and before long the piece is telling me what story it wants to tell. This process has taken on a life of its own. I love it. I uncovered another part of me. Maybe it has to do with letting stored memories/experiences emerge. As a child I was inspired by my father’s workshop in our basement in Astoria. He collected “things” and I was his helper helping him cut wood or hold the nails while he built things. My uneducated father’s mind fascinated me. Had he had the chance to go to school and learn English I think he would have become a filmmaker or some creative professional. I admire the immigrant spirit in him and in my mother because resilience made both of them who they are today. Their hard work, imagination, creative spirit has influenced me. My mom is a self taught painter and at 89 she paints all day like it is her religion. Most people I knew in our family circles were uneducated, hard working immigrants who had no time for art. They worked hard, they were ethical and provided for their families. 

KMD:  In addition to your own creative practice, you champion the work of others through your role as director of the Aegean Arts Circle Workshops.  Can you speak about the importance of literary citizenship?  

AM:  My creative baby is Aegean Arts Circle. The creative writing workshops I created 18 years ago are my lifeline. I was alone (as a writer) when I moved to Greece and I needed community. How do I get community? Create it. I attended one writing workshop led by Dorothy Allison in another country and I wanted to create something like that in Andros the island my family on both sides, is from. Because of Dorothy Allison’s writing prompt and her advice to send what I wrote to Glimmer Train I entered my first short story (Immigrant Daughter) to the magazine’s contest and it won second place in their New Writer Short Story Award. Years later that short story stretched out to become my novel. The road has been long and painful. I was blind to the process of fiction writing, I was in a new country and I needed community. So with the creation of Aegean Arts Circle I found writers I read and respected, convinced them to work with me even though none knew who I was or where in Greece they were actually going. Word spread and 18 years later this writing community has blossomed. I take what I do very seriously with Aegean Arts Circle. I offer a trusting small workshop space, fill it with writers who take the process as seriously as I do and we work with one invited instructor. The island is lovely, quiet, but the process is magic. We read our new work, we trust, we work hard and we eventually publish. We support each other, we communicate with each other (most of us live at different ends of the globe) and most come back year after year with new ideas for new novels, books, stories, poems, essays. I love it and want nothing more than to continue to be the breeding ground for writers to spread their wings. The workshops are not about degree programs; they are the sacred space we want as writers. 

We have rights and responsibilities to our stories, to making them the best they can be, to making them strong enough to communicate subject matter that is difficult to tackle in many cases and that happens here at the workshops. We have revealed writing that has dealt with hard topics like death, loss, family secrets, myths and these become enriched and transformed on their way to a larger audience. I love to hear that workshop participants end up with book contracts or published short stories and essays. 

We become part of each other’s lives, each other’s writing and there is nothing more powerful than to be part of this process. Of course, I love being the proud guide to the island and its culture for everyone who comes to Andros. I want to introduce them to local cuisine, local customs, local architecture, history. I am proud of Andros and it is the only place I personally feel peace. I belong. I am allowed to breathe and write in Andros.  I watch the island have its effect on the writers and I hear it in their poetry and stories every year. I am the proud parent (in a way) when I watch stories start off as seeds, blossom into powerful essays, memoir, poems and fiction that go off into the world to affect others. I take part in each workshop as a participant too so I am thrilled to be able to write new material and to share it with fellow writers. 

KMD:  What else are you working on?  What can readers and art appreciators look forward to?  

AM:  I am working on a hybrid book about loss. I am trying to tackle my own loss and express it with writing and visuals using journal excerpts about facing sudden death; the process from shock to numbness to a thawing of the heart to possibly learning that there is life out there again. I want to try and share what the grief process means to me. My two published essays this year have done just that and readers have reached out publicly and privately to let me know that my truth is also theirs even if their grief and loss is very different than my own. This means a great deal to me. I am not alone. I have painted, written poems, made new assemblages, taken photographs all orbiting around loss and grief. I want to find a way to put all these expressions into a hybrid book that will honor my husband’s memory, loss and the glory of life so I can move on. So that means I am standing on new ground that scares me once again. I am not sure what will emerge. I was hoping this year’s workshops would have given me the safe space to ask questions, to reveal what I have written so far, listen and respond to stories the other writers are working on but that was not to be. The Corona virus changed our world order. I actually made 27 new assemblages during quarantine, I have written poems and journal entries so I have not been sitting around. I have a huge assemblage about refugees, lost souls and hanging from it are over 250 votive offerings depicting arms, legs, torsos. I hope to put an art show together.  I hope to find the agent who will love my immigrant women novel “Daughter News”.  I hope to work on the 2021 Aegean Arts Circle Writing Workshops to be offered to a future world that might try to heal from its fears of racism, viruses, disregard for our planet.  I look forward to being part of the change in our political landscape by motivating others overseas to vote. I hope to continue to volunteer and be part of the board in an island organization that feeds those who have fallen through the cracks. Life changes can happen to any one of us and we must tap into our own humanity if we are to create a better world as humans, artists, writers. 


A Novel Excerpt from Amalia Melis

book excerpt amalia for kristina june 10 2020