Let’s pretend a new policy passed, and that the immigration officers at any U.S. International Airport were instructed to ask all first time visitors to paint a picture of their expectation of the nation they are about to enter. Most likely, the responses would show blurred images of New York’s glittering skyscrapers, or the lavish curves of the Hollywood hills, perhaps a greasy burger in a diner, maybe even the ups and downs of San Francisco streets. They would be perfect depictions of the disjointed portraits of America that are exported across the pond through popular media and entertainment. Yet, if we were to ask the same question as passengers check in to their flight back home, the responses would in all likelihood adhere more strictly to the reality they just experienced. Their conception of the reality they just visited will doubtlessly be more appropriate. But what of their overarching image of the United States? The difficulty with the issue at hand is that, although media paints a relatively uniform landscape, the United States offers an incredibly rich tapestry of diverging cultural realities that are sadly overlooked. This creates an incredibly narrow, almost tunneled vision of America, a restricted misconception which Italian journalist Gina di Meo is working to broaden.
Born and raised in the beautiful and complex reality of Naples, Gina develops a passion for foreign concepts during formative childhood years. “There were a lot of foreigners in our classes. They struggled with Italian, just as I struggled with languages like English. I wanted to communicate with them, show them the beauty that surrounded them, but I was unable to move past the hefty language block that separated us. I didn’t want to feel that way, nor did I want them to feel what I felt”, she tells us. Driven by these heartwarming episodes, she began to teach herself English at a young age, furiously translating song lyrics and movies from English to Italian and viceversa. By the time she received her high school diploma, there was no doubt in her mind of the academic path she desired to engage in. Within a few years, Gina receives a Masters of Arts in Foreign Languages and Literatures from the University of Naples (Università degli Studi di Napoli, L’Orientale).
Almost casually, as Gina herself tells us, she then found herself embarking the path of freelance journalism, finding immense release and liberation in the ability to tell a place’s story, to paint the accurate picture of a foreign reality. In the years to come this feeling does nothing but expand, taking Gina to the United States and all the way around the globe. She joins American groups in Afghanistan and Iraq as a local correspondent, enriching her effort of vividly and experientially representing distant, difficult realities. “That was one of the most intense periods of my life. It was a reality so distant from the images we saw on television, yet just so brutal,” she recounts, “we were even shot at, our vehicle was hit by a rocket. It was frightening, almost like a terrifying out of body experience. I feared for my life”. However, where many would find reason to abandon ship, Di Meo only found “all the more drive to continue to pursue the truth of experience, and bring it to light for those who may never directly expose themselves to it”.
Pushed by the weight and conceptual depth of these experiences, Gina returns her expository talents and ambitions towards the American reality that had so deeply charmed her in youth. Employed as a journalist for ANSA, one of Italy’s biggest and most reliable news outlets, she finds permanent office within the bounds of Manhattan. From here, her desire to bring unconsidered realities to those who can’t experience them “does nothing but expand, driven by the evident discrepancy between [her] experiences and the conceptions Italy has of America”. She sets out, undertaking a dual path as a hard news reporter and travel reporter, on a journey oriented towards representing the complexity of the United States past the uniformity popular media provides. Now, some odd twelve years after taking residence in New York, Gina Di Meo has traveled through the majority of the United States, while working to incorporate each state’s vivid cultural singularities into the complex, composite rendition her American body of work continues to create. As valuable a task as that is, it is by no means simple. Portraying a reality, dressing it with words to present it to eyes stained by wrongful preconceived notions, is amongst the harder tasks one could ever ask of a writer. Gina, however, rises to the challenge with an enticing approach which renders her body of work a treasure for enhancing and perfecting foreign conceptions of America.
Setting off to “showcase an America that goes well beyond Hollywood and New York”, Gina hones in on locations that, though extremely relevant, are often overlooked when considering America as a country. “For one”, she tells us, “growing up nothing really exposed me to the vast and diverse natural beauty that runs throughout the entirety of the country.” Marvels of nature like the Grand Canyon, Utah’s monument valley, or Oregon’s stunning natural park never really come in close proximity of the image of America we’re fed day after day. Gina’s articles, like her expose on the Grand Canyon, serve then to weave these overlooked entities into the quilt of foreign American conception. Remarkably, however, she goes well past reminding her readers of their presence. Gina’s philosophy of journalism orients itself towards a different plane of experience. It goes past a description of a beautiful view, but rather seeks out its effects on human experience. As such, when she writes about New Mexico and Arizona, she does not only state facts, but rather recounts the facets of human experience. She allows herself to see through the eyes of, in this case, the Navajo populations. “I reach out, I try to understand the way a location molds the lives of its inhabitants. I try to arrive at an understanding of what their experience is like”.
In order to do so as successfully as she does, Gina holds herself to the moral standards of one particular axiom: enter as a blank slate, and let the place write itself upon you. As such, even when she talks about New York, she steers away from common place tourist experiences. “They are saturated. I knew them before coming, I saw them a thousand times. They’re gorgeous, but they are, naturally, for show. They’re not representative of human experience, and that is what I want to bring to life”. In a city like Manhattan, that might seem relatively easy, but in smaller, more remote communities, getting a real taste of human experience might prove slightly difficult. To overcome these difficulties, Gina dives straight at the heart of one of mankind’s biggest necessities: sustenance. “The first place I tend to go is a supermarket. You generally only find locals in supermarkets. You get to have a look at what they buy, and how they buy. It is such a wonderful first approach to understanding just how a community might live”, she tells us as she recalls an experience in Detroit. Another example of her methodology comes from her transport methods. “Always take the bus or the subway”, she exclaims, “it’s such a brilliant window to the tapestry of a neighborhood, and you never know where you might end up”. Along the same lines, Gina suggests those seeking an intense human experience to steer away from tourist oriented hotels, and rather seek shelter with a family, or a group of locals that offer a bedroom within their reality. In short, Gina likes to get lost within the cultural idiosyncrasies of everyday life. Through this particularly experiential type of journalism she is able to elicit images of everyday life that are easily comparable to our own, making an understanding of how different life can be elsewhere poignantly evident.
As such, she strives to rid herself of all preconceived notions and provide her readers with an almost purely experiential recollection of her experience as a human. “I have no real structure or routine. I go in with no angle. I let experience take me, taking what is factual and true and adding my own humanity”, is her brilliant way to put it. As an example, in visiting Nashville, she arrived with no precise idea of what to do or where to go. Through the shared connection of human experience, Gina discovered its brilliant musical and culinary scene, one of the most amazing in the country. “Nobody in Italy would point the finger to Nashville as a capital of music, nobody”, she rightfully claims. Gina does not necessarily intellectualize her experience to make it appetizing. It is the reader’s job to internalize the human experience she provides and intellectualize it within a larger context. Once more, Gina is the agent that adds the humanity to a recounted experience, carefully dressing it and bringing to the eyes of her dedicated readers.
Within a country so intrinsically culturally varied, this kind of experiential journalism is absolutely vital in representing such a beautifully complex cultural body. Everything, from food, to music, to habits, to sports not only varies from place to place, but finds itself immensely influenced by history. Different colonizing cultures brought different virtues and traditions to different states. Today, these places, like Louisiana, where French influence runs rampant, exist in an equilibrium between its colonizers’ traditions and the novel, local, jive. The two give and take to one another to form an entirely new cultural identity. The existence of so many of these, Gina says, “is what makes America such a diverse and rich nation. It enriches the cultural landscape, and creates an infinite diversity of human experiences, that need to be incorporated in our way of picturing the U.S.”. All in all, then, she works to bring out the beautiful, enriching , empowering diversity of the American landscape, by simply telling tales of human experience. As she puts it “one thing seen is worth more than a thousand told”. Gina lends Italy her eyes. Through them, we can indulge in her same human experience, internalize it, and amplify it to enter within our conception of the United States.
In doing that, Gina provides a vital bridge between Italian and American experience. She renders vivid images that individuals may never otherwise be exposed to. On the one hand, then, she paints and promotes an immensely more wholesome image of the United States, while on the other she provides the primers of experience necessary for reader to understand a distant reality. In turn, this renders the picture of the United States just so much more inclusive of all the facets that make it the incredible place it is. In showing us the diversity of these experiences, we break past boring Hollywood uniformity and arrive at a portrayal of the United States that is vibrant, honest, and accepting.