We live in an increasingly global world that gets smaller by the day. And with that, power and positions are shifting…I could say faster than ever before, but the reality is that they have always shifted. America’s place in the world is shifting as well, and it will be increasingly important that we can look at and understand our history and our future in this world from a more global lens rather than such an America-centric lens as many do now. To help expand our views, though, it’s important to understand how our attitudes, actions, and decisions are seen by the rest of the world historically and currently, and Suzy Hansen, in Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World, strives to do just that.
Hansen is a journalist living in Istanbul who grew up in a small, conservative town on the Jersey Shore. She pushed against her bubble and attended Penn, followed by a move to New York and then finally to Istanbul, where she has lived for the past 7 years. Her experiences there has caused her image of America to shatter, and this book is part of her picking up the pieces to reconstruct them in a more accurate image of both herself, as a young, white, financially stable American woman, and the United States and their places in the world. It is part memoir, part travel narrative, part literary analysis, and part socio-political ethnography, and her focus is on exploring how Americans have viewed the world from a purely American lens and the effects of that on history, politics, and international relations.
Hansen looks particularly at definitions of race and culture in opposition: for example, American whiteness defined specifically in opposition to non-whiteness (particularly blackness), American Christianity defined in opposition to non-Christianity, etc.. These concepts are not new (see Ta Nehisi Coates’ excellent article on the subject in relation to the presidency), but her framing of these oppositional definitions within the context of US-Turkish relations creates a fresh perspective for exploring them. Turkey as a country is so aware of the US presence in its own history, and yet most Americans know very little about Turkey, let alone our role in its evolution as a country. It is this attitude of “You (the world) are not me (America)” and the subsequent disregard and humiliation of others that Hansen argues is a major part of the rest of the world’s distaste for the US and its policies.
Hansen’s book, as I mentioned, is a jumble of literary and historical analysis intersperse with her own experiences relearning and re-framing her identity as an American within the broader world. She assesses authors from Orhan Pamuk to James Baldwin and brings in plenty of primary and secondary sources to support her arguments. And on the whole, I agree with a lot of her main points. She is aligned with Rick Steve’s philosophy of travel–that we travel to learn about and from others so that when we home, we shine a light on what needs to be improved nationally, locally, and personally and then work to improve our home. However, I felt a lot of her analysis was surprisingly and incredibly dense. She talks for pages without really saying anything, and she hammers home a few main points and her rationale a bit relentlessly and, in some cases, unnecessarily.
I felt the book is much stronger in the memoir passages when she’s focusing on her own experiences and journey of reevaluation. Her prose is both more economical and more evocative, and her points are much more purposeful and impactful. Obviously, an effective argument is not built on personal experience alone; analysis is definitely important. However, storytelling is one of the oldest creations of humanity. It has been used for millennia to teach, share knowledge, and pass on news and information, not just entertain, and we are wired to respond to and remember story and experience. As such, the parts of this book I remember the most are Hansen’s conversations and encounters throughout Turkey. I wish there had been more, particularly around Hansen’s own experience growing up, as I think a little more context about her own background would underscore both the depth and importance of her own transformation even more. Additionally, I felt like that the book itself was reading like she now has all of this figured out, and the warning against such an America-centric view of the world doesn’t apply to her specifically anymore. Full-disclosure: I did not finish the book, so some of these concerns could have been negated if I’d gotten further. However, it strikes me that this kind of perspective shift requires constant attention and intention rather that being something that we complete, if that makes sense.
I think this is a book with a lot of important ideas and suggestions that we as a country would benefit from exploring and discussing. I like the core of the content. But honestly, I just got tired of slogging through it. I had high hopes for it and was really excited about it, but I just did not find it to be coruscating the way many critics did. However, enough people disagree with me that it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, so I would encourage you to give it a shot. This is one where I expect opinions will vary tremendously, generating a lot of vital conversation, and it’s more important to read than not.