SEPTEMBER 18, 2017
I FIRST PICKED UP Suzy Hansen’s book with slight trepidation; the title, Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World, emitted a whiff of the exoticization that so often accompanies the “other” when Americans write about their experiences in another country. The genre of female-centric inspirational travel memoirs, with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love as perhaps the most famous example, has become (in)famous for its focus less on understanding the complexities of the world and more on how the rest of the world can act as a catalyst for the protagonist — generally a white, young-ish, Western woman — as she embarks on a journey of self-discovery and finds joy, fulfillment, and love in the process.
On the surface, Hansen’s book appears to have a similar premise. A young, white, American woman decides to leave New York to take a writing fellowship in Turkey, and through this experience, she has a series of small realizations that culminate in an epiphany about her identity. The introduction of Notes on a Foreign Country, however, vehemently refutes the Gilbertian narrative, opting instead to characterize her years as an American abroad not as “a joyous romp of self-discovery and romance” but as “more of a shattering and a shame.”
The rest of the book evolves out of the fragments of this shattering. While she does reject the romantic idea of living in a foreign land, Hansen still indicates to the reader from the beginning that, yes, this book does focus on her — her identity as a white American woman, her gradual realization of the privilege of ignorance, and her complex relationship with the world around her. All of these pieces of her as an individual and as part of the collective white Americanness that she attempts to identify and define throughout the book snake through the historical and political narrative that she weaves.
Hansen’s anecdotes in the first chapter, which many Americans who have lived abroad will recognize, place Hansen face-to-face with people and situations that challenge her preconceptions of Turkish culture, of Islam, and of what it means to be a liberal American. She discusses her experiences hanging around with a group of wealthy, liberal, secular Turks, and finds perplexing their contempt for their own country and prejudice against women who wear the headscarf. She goes to conferences with Western journalists and finds their treatment of Turkey shallow and reductive. She spends months hunting down a famous theater actor who was friends with James Baldwin, but comes away from the long-awaited meeting feeling under-informed and ignorant because the meeting played out in a way very different from her expectations.
She also finds friends who help her see and process the paradoxes. Rana, a “cool and independent-minded and loving” woman, is a constant companion who takes her around different parts of Istanbul and challenges her preconceived notions about Turkish society. The lessons Rana imparts upon her do not always, or even frequently, come in the form of a beautifully cheerful revelation about the joys of Turkish culture. Instead, they come through moments of profound discomfort, such as when Hansen is harassed by a delivery boy, and Rana takes her around the neighborhood to tell everyone about the delivery boy’s transgression and to solicit vows of retaliation from all the neighborhood men. This idea of neighborhood justice unnerves Hansen, undermining her liberal convictions and setting the tone for the shattering of her American innocence: “If I was going to live in Turkey, I had to learn to think like a Turk. These were not my rules to break.”
Far from being limited to Istanbul, Hansen’s account stretches from the mansions of the Bosphorus to the coal mining town of Soma. She talks with shopkeepers, journalists, academics, activists, taxi drivers, actors, politicians, and miners, and each conversation, whether one of conflict or camaraderie, illuminates an aspect of the larger relationship between the United States and Turkey. Through these interactions and thorough research, she provides a political and historical analysis of the “kind of long-distance imperial relationship” between the United States and Turkey and the unraveling of her own unwitting complicity in the relationship.
After examining Turkey, Hansen turns her attention to Greece, Egypt, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran — all countries within Turkey’s larger neighborhood and all with complex historical relationships with the United States. While Hansen certainly makes insightful observations and comments on the relationship between the United States and these countries, these chapters lack the historical depth and deep empathy Hansen shows in her chapters on Turkey. This is an understandable flaw; Hansen lived for several years in Turkey, while she only spent a few weeks or months in any of the other countries. While these chapters add important context to the US-Turkey relationship, which exists within a larger web of American interference around the world, they lack the familiarity, the unmistakable sense of being there, that can only come from deep immersion in a particular location.
This combination of historical and political analysis combined with Hansen’s musings about her own identity create a narrative that defies categorization. While it bears traces of memoir and of travel writing, her methodology also taps into ethnography and political theory. Moreover, Hansen pulls from a diverse and colorful range of literary sources that span various time periods, geographic locations, genres, and perspectives, from Orhan Pamuk to Don DeLillo, and from Abdelrahman Munif to Eric Bennett.
Perhaps unexpectedly to many Americans, of all the authors that Hansen references, the one who most influenced her is James Baldwin, who lived in Turkey on and off throughout the 1960s during a time of newly unleashed liberal, leftist, and artistic movements in Turkey. Hansen identifies Baldwin’s time in Turkey as the “secret reason” for her own initial interest in Turkey. His presence hovers over the book, as Hansen returns time and time again to Baldwin’s idea of “innocence,” and the loss thereof. Hansen latches onto Baldwin’s establishment of innocence as a defining characteristic of white Americans, along with their inability to understand tragedy. By pulling from Baldwin so heavily, and by returning near the end of the book to a story about a black doctor from Mississippi who attempted to implement a medical system based on an Iranian model in rural Mississippi, Hansen returns to the idea of what it means to be a white American both in the context of being abroad and within the domestic American sphere.
As someone who has lived in Turkey, I found that Hansen’s experience resembles my own. Like Hansen, I tried to understand what my white American identity meant in the world, just as I tried to grasp the political, social, and economic complexities which, with some surprise, I suddenly confronted. Hansen’s articulation of this struggle gave me quite a few moments while reading when I found myself loudly exclaiming, “Yes!” as she encounters and processes experiences very similar to ones I have encountered. She asks probing and difficult questions that left me ruminating about their significance in our current political climate.
This book is certainly an insightful read for any American who is, has been, or will be living abroad, but, as I am certain Hansen would agree, the book should not be read in a vacuum; white Americans need to listen to the words of people from other places, races, and backgrounds. We should not view self-discovery as a personal process; we must put in the time and effort to overcome the danger of the privilege of innocence and lack of consciousness about the world around us, which serves to “[exonerate us] of responsibility, of history, of a role.” Without an understanding of United States’s outsized, insidious, and violent influences around the world, white Americans can feel neutral in their very existence, and thus perpetuate the power imbalances that exist at home and abroad. Hansen’s book serves as a call to serious reflection and action for white Americans, even, and perhaps especially, the liberal, well traveled, and well intentioned.