Meet Our New Intern: Natalie Metropulos

Napa, California

My parents grew up poor. Dad’s situation was such that, on some nights, the only dinner option was a can of pineapples. Mom’s seven-member family lived in a two-bedroom house where she shared a cramped room with her four sisters. When these are your stories, money is everything.

Dad quit high school to support himself. My parents married before they were 20, and Dad worked day and night in the residential building industry to change the course of what would otherwise have been a poverty-stricken future. Mom made sure the money he brought home would get us through the industry’s busy warm months as well as the slower cold ones.

They made an exceptional team, providing a comfortable middle-class life for my three siblings and I. They also instilled in us a strong work ethic, ensured we were college-educated, and impressed upon us the importance of obtaining jobs we could be proud of. And of course, they wanted us to be paid well.

In 1998, when Hearst Publishing offered me an unpaid internship in New York City upon graduation from Penn State, my parents were perplexed. I remember the anger twisting Dad’s clenched jaw. He viewed a college degree as a golden ticket. People with college degrees didn’t work for free.

I turned down the internship. Ultimately, I became a lawyer.

For a long time, I thought that my parent’s unwillingness to support me financially so I could take an unpaid internship prevented me from pursuing a career I would have thrived in and loved. But I’ve come to understand that what I needed wasn’t so much money as it was validation. I needed someone to tell me that the fact that Hearst wasn’t going to pay me didn’t mean that I wouldn’t be doing something of value, or that I wouldn’t be valued. When money is woven into your being from birth as the only legitimate measure of professional success, it’s hard to see how value can be measured in other ways.

It took me more than twenty years to decide that, for me, financial compensation isn’t a reliable measurement for the significance of my experience or contribution. I think I have motherhood to thank for helping me finally come to that realization. I don’t get paid a penny for being a mother, but I see the results of the time and dedication I put into my job, and I’m pretty happy with my compensation package. 

Six months ago, I walked off the partnership path at a highly regarded Big Law firm to find the road I stumbled off of in 1998. I look back to the moment when I turned from that road and realize that I didn’t need money, I needed bravery and ingenuity. Now I’m pursuing a new version of a career I envisioned for myself when I was 20, glad for the opportunity to be an unpaid Editorial Intern at Sundress Publications. At 43, I finally feel brave enough and clever enough to be here.

Natalie Metropulos holds a BA in English from the Pennsylvania State University and a JD from Duquesne University. She is a candidate for an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University. Although it has been a long time since Metropulos’ writing has appeared outside of a legal document, she has been published (nee Natalie Rieland) in Kalliope, Research/Penn State Magazine, and Pitt Magazine. Metropulos writes fiction and narrative non-fiction for children and adults.

Sundress Reads: Concealed: A Memoir of a Jewish-Iranian Daughter Caught Between the Chador and America

In Concealed: Memoir of a Jewish-Iranian Daughter Caught Between the Chador and America, author Esther Amini takes a deep dive into her Jewish-Iranian roots to better understand her parents’ complicated, oppositional personalities and how their history influenced their behavior in America and their treatment and expectations of her.

Amini sought a way to accept parents who caused her to question not only her personal value, but also whether she should exercise her American freedoms or suppress the person she instinctively knew herself to be.

In the prologue, Amini introduces her father, Fatullah Nissan Aminoff, by relating a vivid memory from third grade. Amini’s school friend arrived for a playdate. “Estaire is not here!” her father announced to the friend, who stood with her eyes locked on Amini. Forcing the playmate to leave, Fatullah brushed past Amini, leaving her suffering in silent shame as she questioned whether she existed outside her own mind or was truly invisible.

Amini recalls wishing that her mother, Hana, had been home, believing that Hana would have shoved Fatullah aside, invited the friend in, and charmed her with homemade Persian pastries.

Amini closes the prologue by remarking: “By third-grade [sic], I was practicing shrinking, abiding by Pop’s rules to avoid his wrath. I ate little, spoke minimally, breathed soundlessly while my mother worked at becoming ever more visible, expanding to the point of bursting, no matter the consequence. I was the consequence.”

With this powerful scene, Amini throws open the door to her life in New York, the daughter of Jewish-Iranian immigrants who emigrated to America in 1946, escaping persecution in Mashad, Iran, one of the holiest Muslim cities. She illustrates her feelings about herself and toward her parents— embarrassment, shame, anger, confusion, love—so clearly and effectively that as I read, I became tearful, enraged, uncomfortable. Changed.

Amini described many of her memories so powerfully that I carry her stories and her pain, along with the effort it must have taken for her to seek understanding rather than distance, with me like they’re my own.

There’s Hana telling four-year-old Amini she would buy a doll Amini asked for at the store, then giving Amini an empty box, without explanation. This memory haunts Amini. Why would her mother do this? How could be so careless with Amini’s feelings?  

One of Hana’s favorite stories to tell Amini can only be described as terrifying.  With pride, Hana would relate how, at age four, she tried to drown her two-year-old half-brother, Solomon, whom she professed to adore, sitting on him as he thrashed and fought for air. When her stepmother heard the ruckus, she punished Solomon, not Hana. Even at age 70, Hana felt no remorse and applauded her stepmother’s response. Hana’s biological mother had abandoned her, dying during childbirth. She considered herself an orphan. Cheated. Owed.

Amini cannot accept that Hana really believed in her own entitlement to do whatever she wanted to whomever she wanted and receive total absolution and command unwavering devotion. But Hana’s pride in that story suggests she did.

Amini’s father, Fatullah, engaged in equally disturbing behavior. He screamed at her to stop reading, chided her for wanting an education. “Men marry beautiful women with smiling eyes, not shriveled eyes wedded to thoughts! Estaire, stop thinking. No man will marry you.” Describing his adoration for his own mother, a docile woman who was effectively muted by her husband’s demand for silence and submissiveness, Amini underscores that her father valued a closed mind and mouth as much as the Persian-Jewish suitors he presented her to for marriage. When Amini began attending Barnard, he refused to eat, dress, or go to work, creating an impossible choice: quit college or accept responsibility for his death.  

Amini spent the better part of her life trying to be a dutiful Jewish-Iranian daughter while enjoying American freedom and opportunity. She struggled to relate to a father who forced her to hide herself in the same way he and her mother had been forced to hide as Jews in Mashad, and an outspoken mother who cursed her own lot—married off at age 14 to a man she despised—yet desired the same fate for Amini.

In her quest for understanding, Amini illuminates the oppressive, dangerous, and traumatic environment of Mashad, Iran for Persian Jews in the 1930s and 40s, yet so much of her parents’ behavior remains inexplicable. I did not finish Amini’s memoir satisfied that the struggles Amini’s parents faced fully explained them. Questions remain unanswered, among them the doll-less box, but readers will have to make peace with the unknowable. Amini seems to have.

Her commitment to finding a way to accept her parents’ values and expectations fills the white space between the words of her memoir. After being immersed for hours in Amini’s vivid recollections, readers may find themselves surprised, as I was, by her capacity for empathy.

Concealed: Memoir of a Jewish-Iranian Daughter Caught Between the Chador and America can be found here.

Natalie Metropulos is working concurrently on a middle-grade fiction chapter book and a nonfiction picture book series about wildlife photography. She holds a B.A. in English from the Pennsylvania State University and a JD from Duquesne University and is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University. Metropulos has been published (nee Natalie Rieland) in Kalliope, Research/Penn State Magazine, and Pitt Magazine.

Sundress Reads: What Is Empathy: A Bullying Storybook for Kids

What Is Empathy? A Bullying Storybook for Kids is a children’s picture book about social and verbal bullying, which many children encounter every school year.

Author Amanda Morin states a clear intention for her book before introducing a highly relatable tale told, alternatively, from the perspectives of Sofia and Ava. She aims to “help prevent kids from bullying by teaching them to approach the world with a more empathetic lens[,]” and “show your child the power of understanding another’s person’s point of view.”  

In Morin’s preface to caregivers and parents, she provides discussion points adults can utilize when reading What is Empathy? with a child. She also briefly distinguishes tattling from talking to a trusted adult, comments on an adult’s ability to stop bullying, and remarks that you can more effectively convey feelings using the phrase “I feel” rather than the more accusatory “you made me feel.”

In a separate preface to readers, Morin encourages readers to be curious about each other’s feelings and to ask questions kindly to gain a better understanding of another’s perspective. She describes being empathetic as acting like an investigator seeking to understand others.

Primed by these prefatory letters, I expected a story about bullying, told from the different perspectives of two girls, resolved through a powerful tool: empathy. In that regard, the book met my expectations. What is Empathy? provides a springboard for a robust discussion about overcoming bullying with empathy, and Sofia unquestionably learns the power of being empathetic.

That said, I found myself wishing that Morin had incorporated more of the points she made in her introductory letters into the story.

What is Empathy? is the story of Sofia and Ava, who are neighbors and best friends before Sofia’s family moves. Family circumstances prevent them from seeing each other over summer break, but Sofia is confident they will pick up where they left off when school resumes. When Sofia boards the bus on the first day, she finds Ava seated with Madison, a girl who moved into Ava’s neighborhood after Sofia moved away. From the three girls’ first encounter, it’s clear that Madison doesn’t want to befriend Sofia and will disrupt Sofia’s and Ava’s friendship.

Madison is a bully that kids will recognize. Morin uses Ava’s character to illustrate another type of bully – someone who silently acquiesces to bullying behavior, fostering an environment in which bullying thrives.

Telling Sofia’s perspective, Morin conveys how Sofia feels when Madison prevents Sofia from sitting with her and Ava on the school bus and at lunch, excludes Sofia from recess play, and embarrasses her in front of her classmates. Throughout, Ava remains silent, confounding Sofia and causing her to wonder why Ava – the friend she trusted with her most private family secret – no longer likes her.

When Morin switches to Ava’s perspective, the reader learns about Ava’s struggle with feeling insecure about the status of her relationship with Sofia, anger with Sofia for moving, and shameful about how she treats Sofia.

Ultimately, both girls turn to their mothers, who teach the girls about empathy and identify emotions that might be motivating Madison’s and Ava’s conduct.

Morin is successful in showing the girls’ perspectives in a way that makes readers feel empathetic for both girls. But I wanted more guidance from the adult characters and for the kids to communicate more about their feelings. Morin’s prefatory letters prepared me to expect inquisitive characters that not only wonder, but ask, about others’ feelings. When Sofia and Ava were guessing whether certain feelings were motivating theirs and Madison’s behavior, I wondered: If Morin is trying to encourage readers to ask questions, why not use the characters to demonstrate that desired behavior?

I also questioned Morin’s decision to make Sofia the most empathetic character in the book. My spidey-sense warned: tread carefully here. Certainly, empathy can help a child better understand a bully and diffuse the impact of bullying. And, I worried that a young reader might think that the onus is on the bullied to question what is motivating the person mistreating her and to tolerate hurtful behavior. As Morin notes in her Letter to Readers, bullying is never okay, and being kind to someone does not mean you should let them bully you.

A quick review of Morin’s introductory letters reminded me that Morin intends an adult to read and discuss this book with a child. A thoughtful adult can easily address the issues Morin raises in her preface — but omits from the story — by asking listeners how the characters could have handled the situation differently and what questions they could have asked one another. Perhaps most importantly, an adult can restate that talking with a trusted adult is always a good idea.

If you are looking for a relatable story about bullying that will engage a younger audience, What is Empathy? belongs on your reading list.

What is Empathy? A Bullying Storybook for Kids can be found here.

Natalie Metropulos is working concurrently on a middle-grade fiction chapter book and a nonfiction picture book series about wildlife photography. She holds a B.A. in English from the Pennsylvania State University and a J.D. from Duquesne University and is pursuing an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Chatham University. Metropulos has been published (nee Natalie Rieland) in Kalliope, Research/Penn State Magazine, and Pitt Magazine.