Hansen, an American journalist living in Istanbul, grapples with a new understanding of her homeland and its place in the world in Notes on a Foreign Country (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Aug.).
How did this book come about?
After I moved to Turkey, I had two friends, a writer and a book editor, and I kept telling them about these realizations I was having about myself [and my worldview] as an American, but I didn’t realize what I was articulating at the time. They were noticing it. I wanted to write a book about Turkey, but they said, it seems like your book is about America.
How do you distinguish the two Americas that you describe in the book?
I borrowed this from other writers—Mohsin Hamid and Kamila Shamsie. We’re very aware of the America at home and this special history we have as a democracy and the rights that we have as individuals; we have this sense of ourselves as a special nation. Hamid says that there are certain things about America that make it very special, and that is why over the years a lot of people have wanted to go there—but that’s the America at home. The America abroad is just an entirely different idea. It is a different kind of imperialism, and often quite brutal, and quite violent, and selfish. More than anything else, we’re just not aware of the very people who we have this power over. The rest of the world knows us so well. It’s as if they know us better than we know ourselves, in a way, because we’re not aware of this second America as much as they are. But it’s part of us.
How did you decide the balance between the history you include in the book and your personal narrative?
I was reluctant to write a book this personal, but I felt that I’d be wagging my finger if I didn’t bring the reader along with me and let them know that I was realizing this ignorance, this unawareness I had about the world, this lack of consciousness or this lack of responsibility. With the history, I wanted to give the reader something beyond just my experiences. I thought it was important to say, okay, look, this is what happened in Greece in the 20th century, this is what happened in the Arab world—things that I thought were important to our sense of ourselves as Americans and our national identity.
What is your advice to Americans who want to live abroad?
Living abroad is a wonderful experience. You grow in a different way, you have this freedom to think differently, to be a different person, because you’re outside your normal parameters. Some people find this completely disorienting—I did at first—but I think it’s an unbelievable privilege to live in the rest of the world and learn about different cultures. I highly recommend it.