I met Suzy Hansen when we both lived in Istanbul and attended a fundraising dinner for refugees. It was fall of 2012, and the refugees in question were a handful of West Africans trying the then unusual tactic of crossing into Europe through Turkey. One topic of conversation was the Turkish government’s increasing authoritarianism, but the latest outrage was barring Istanbul’s drinking establishments from setting up tables in the back alleys. The resistance responded by gathering to drink beer in the shadow of the twelfth-century Galata Tower. In other words, there were authoritarian clouds on the horizon, but no one knew about the dark turns ahead.
Suzy moved to Istanbul in 2007 on an ICWA fellowship and has been based there as a foreign correspondent since. Fleeing the recession, I moved there in 2010 to work a university teaching job. In the past year, we both have published books rooted in our early years in Istanbul—hers is a memoir called Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in the Post-American World, and mine a novel called Not Constantinople. Last month, over Skype and email, we had a chance to discuss writing as expats, James Baldwin, our love of Istanbul, and our current transnational political moment.
—Nicholas Bredie for Guernica
Guernica: Why don’t we start with the figure of the American abroad, what it’s like to represent that experience? For me, when it comes to writing the American abroad, it’s like two sides of the same coin: there’s the American innocent who appears in Henry James’s The Ambassadors and then the flipside of that, The Ugly American. I think in some ways they’re the same character from different perspectives. So when you were writing about yourself in your early years in Istanbul and other parts of Turkey, Greece, and Afghanistan, did you ever think of yourself in those terms?
Suzy Hansen: James Baldwin talked about this kind of innocence in The Fire Next Time: “It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” I read Baldwin when I was twenty-two or twenty-three and I didn’t really understand what he meant at the time. One thing I was aiming for in the arc of Notes on a Foreign Country was to show the ways I had lived up to his terrible conception of the American innocent as someone who lived with little to no sense of responsibility for American history.
But in conceiving my own “character” in the book, what I really wanted to do was examine my ignorance. What does it mean to be ignorant? These questions have become more relevant since the election, and I always bristle when I hear people talk about “non-college educated” voters or whatever. What does college have to do with it? What does it mean to be educated? What does it mean to be sophisticated about the rest of the world? To care? What are the things that we as Americans should know about foreign countries? When I was writing, I saw myself as an average, somewhat educated American—I grew up in a fairly provincial, inward-looking place but went to a good college and spent my twenties in New York—and I wanted to bring the reader along with me in this examination of all the things I didn’t know when I moved abroad. What I could offer readers was this incredible experience and the process of trying to fill in the holes of my ignorance with the reader who may not have had the chance to think about it in the same way I did.
Guernica: I wanted to know what you think about it this passage from a great interview in the Henry James Review between Baldwin and his biographer David Leeming. Does any of that resonate with your writing about American innocence?
DL: […] if you had to pick two words that are basic to whatever we mean or Christopher Newman [a character in Henry James’ The American] would mean when we speak of the “American Dream,” wouldn’t they be freedom and, perhaps, innocence?
JB: Yes, but freedom and innocence are antithetical. You can’t have both.
DL: […] So, when you speak now of freedom…
JB: I mean the end of innocence. The end of innocence means you’ve finally entered the picture. And it means that you’ll accept the consequences too.
DL: By innocence, then, you mean the false objectivity that gives you the illusion that you can stand outside of something and describe it accurately without touching it, without paying your dues.
JB: Yes. And I also associate innocence with the role of the victim.
Suzy Hansen: What do you think he means by “I associate innocence with the role of the victim?”
Guernica: It reminds me of the way that white Americans are able to judo their guilt into a kind of victimization. Take Trump, for example: the deck is always stacked against him, even though he was given all of his money. It’s like the character David in Giovanni’s Room where instead of owning up to his relationship with Giovanni, he lets Giovanni go to the guillotine, and he portrays their relationship as an aberration. That book is about his inability to own his actions.
Suzy Hansen: In the case of Trump’s voters, I think it’s that they’re able to act as if they are themselves the victims of something without recognizing the things that they’re themselves responsible for. And the fact that they are using race, obviously, as a means of gaining power. But what Leeming says about “standing outside of something” and thinking you can describe it resonates with me. What I was trying to do with all of the chapters in the second half of the book was to take some of my journalistic assignments that I did over the years in Greece, Egypt, Turkey, Afghanistan, and then America and reconsider them through the lens of American involvement and responsibility. When I was conscious of the history the US shared with these places, I could better understand my own reflexes and attitudes toward that place. I thought I was being objective, but I was never being objective, because in some way I was, my country was, involved in those places.
Guernica: Reading how you portrayed that experience, what struck me was that what is made manifest when you’re abroad is your “Americaness.” It’s suddenly tangible. If you are just an American in America, you don’t even think about what that is constituted from. So were there certain things, certain experiences, where you’re suddenly like, “Oh my god, I just did an incredibly American thing?”
Suzy Hansen: I wasn’t the Ugly American in the most obvious way. I was very quiet and keeping to myself and sort of saying “thank you” all the time to the Turks for letting me be here. But when my best friend told me about how a Turkish person had reacted to September 11 [by saying], “Oh now it’s happened to you too,” or when I read that passage in the Reluctant Fundamentalist where the character smiles when he sees the Twin Towers fall. It’s amazing to me now that these things surprised me, but I didn’t understand what that anger was rooted in. I think by then I knew that that was not just about these vague hatreds. What I was suddenly becoming more conscious of was that there was this history—in Turkey and Greece, and in places like Pakistan and Egypt—that was less well known. I don’t think a lot of Americans know our history with Greece, or that we had one.
Guernica: My vision of Greece is always white columns and Club Med, that kind of thing. I have a Greek friend so I’m being a little bit flippant. I knew about the history of American-backed right-wing governments, though you don’t think about Greece like you think about Chile or something.
Suzy Hansen: You don’t think of Turkey like you think of Chile either. And they’re not necessarily the same experiences. Well, Greece might be. It was a very layered experience because on the one hand I was sitting there doing these interviews in Athens and realizing, “Okay, this magazine has sent you to do the story to write about these people.” I was reading books about Greece, and I was trying to educate myself, but the Greeks I was interviewing kept making these references to historical moments they assumed I knew about. To them this is just second nature, part of who they are. And they are essentially talking to the American like we know each other, but I knew nothing about our shared history whatsoever. I was missing out on a connection that I should have been having with this person, and I realized how tragic that is. Meanwhile, back in New York everyone is portraying the Greeks like a bunch of irresponsible children, as if Americans never had anything to do with Greece’s historical trajectory.
Suzy Hansen: They are still portrayed that way, and there are ways in which the Greeks are responsible for that crisis, of course, but the contempt that Americans express for various foreign countries is just embarrassing.
Guernica: In Don DeLillo’s The Names, the protagonist, who’s based in Greece, couldn’t give a shit about what America has done in Greece or Turkey. The only important question that comes up in that book, and several characters ask it, is “are they killing Americans?” It’s the only question that these characters who are part of these multinational shady organizations are concerned with. That and comparing Hiltons in various locations. That book was really haunting.
Suzy Hansen: That book was so way ahead of its time. Abroad, you do become conscious what it means to be American. If nothing you’ve really been told about yourself is true, or you haven’t been told a lot about it, you start questioning everything. That’s why I have a Cold War chapter in Notes on a Foreign Country. It felt like the root of all this, at least for someone of my generation.
Guernica: American Empire, just like American innocence, is a kind of fraught concept, right? Supposedly during the Cold War, and after, we’re not just not an empire; we’re also anti-Empire. We’re not the bad Europeans who had been now ruining the world for 150 years. But then the question is, what are we?
Suzy Hansen: This is exactly the problem, because this Empire, our Empire, hasn’t really been defined. We don’t really understand what we are, don’t know how we compare to the old ones. We don’t have a new word for it. But then that makes it hard for us to understand our role in it. Obviously British imperialists had a clearer sense of themselves. We have this kind of fuzzy sense of having power but not really having direct power over the rest of the world. That does allow us to remain innocent. Don’t you even feel a little bit strange when you say the word empire?
Guernica: Absolutely, it’s such a slippery concept. We don’t set out to control areas of other countries, but of course we do, not only ones purely administered by our government, but also one’s administered by our corporate infrastructure. ExxonMobil is the empire within the empire.
Suzy Hansen: Judging by your music list for Largehearted Boy, it seems like you have some Turkish lefty friends, right? I was going to say that I think this is complicated not just for us, but for the rest of the world as well. On the one hand, there are a lot of Turks who would be happy to hear an American take some responsibility for Turkish history, or just say it’s about time. There are also others who would say, “Look we have so many people who constantly blame America for everything, this is such a waste of time, we have to actually take responsibility for ourselves, or the government does, and all of that America stuff is a conspiracy theory.” A lot of this confusion comes from the sort of sneakiness of American empire, the fact that it was constantly denying its own existence and its own crimes as it was wielding more and more power.
Guernica: The most troubling or unsettling thing about where America is in the world is that this identity forged in denial could be sustained in that the height of American prosperity. The ethos of “don’t look back,” “live for tomorrow,” “tomorrow is going to be better.” “Don’t mind the mangled bodies and wrecks that got you here. They are in the past, and you know as Americans the future is what’s most important.” What happens when the wheels start coming off of that formulation?
Suzy Hansen: I always saw September 11 and the financial crisis as a real crisis of white men from an older generation, baby boomers, because I think that this sense of America as the most powerful, and the best is very important to their conception of themselves as powerful. Those two events represented a loss of power because “how in God’s name could these guys have done this to us?” It was just so psychically damaging. Then the financial crisis revealed our system is bullshit as well, so what meaning do we actually have here? And then for conservative white men, the mere existence of Obama drove them insane. All of these things made these people feel very vulnerable, and very much like the meaning of their lives was lost, and so they had to regain it in some way and how do they regain that? That specter of decline has had a tremendous effect on white people in the US, made worse of course by a real decline in wages and opportunities.
Guernica: It feels like the lid is off that now. I think there is a lot to grieve about the whole Trump thing, but the one good thing is that all the insanity is forced into the open and maybe that’s where things can start to come around—when you are an American abroad your Americaness is suddenly manifest. You can’t just blend in and do American things. Suddenly American things become foreign things, and you have own them.
Suzy Hansen: It’s also making foreigners much more direct in speaking about America. I just traveled with my mother in Italy, and I hadn’t seen so many foreigners very directly saying “what in God’s name have you people done? This man is a disaster.” You have the Italian taxi driver telling you your president is a disgusting human being, and I think this is something really new for a lot of Americans who haven’t really thought about how the election of this man affects everybody else in the rest of the world. I’m sure in the past people hated Nixon—they hated Bush—but for the most part, people hold back or they say, “Well we know your government is the problem, but we love Americans.” Now it’s like “What have you done?” Interestingly, I don’t think we’re having that conversation yet—what this has all meant for America in the world. It’s all still very domestic.
Guernica: Your book’s subtitle is An American abroad in a Post-American World. Did you feel a particular urgency writing the book for now? Was there something in your reporting that made you say, “Ah, something has shifted?”
Suzy Hansen: I think it was personal. The financial crisis had an enormous impact on me as well—I was abroad then, and I just remember realizing that the endless promise on which America depends had ended, and also that my own life was no longer as predictable as I’d thought. At the same time, I was seeing how the ridiculous financial games played by bunch of men in New York—men who knew nothing of how their actions would impact others—was affecting people thousands of miles away. This was also a time of drones in Pakistan and the futility of the war on terror—my 2010 trip to Kabul was heartbreaking–and, again, this insane hatred of Obama, and, yes, it all started to seem like a time when the idea of America was fully unraveling. The truly end-times feeling that came with ISIS and then Trump started after I had already started writing.
Guernica: I wanted to ask, as someone who loves Istanbul but broke up with it a few years ago, if there was a moment where you felt the magnetic pull of the place? I mean aside from the dome and minaret skyline, the history, etc. I will never forget the feeling of waking up on a Sunday morning to hear an accordionist slowly making his way down my crooked street and that certain slant of hazy light that assured me I couldn’t be anywhere but Istanbul.
Suzy Hansen: That’s a hard one because I loved everything about Istanbul, even the ugly parts seemed beautiful to me. I realized you can have an aesthetic connection with some places that is inexplicable. But I would say it was something I describe in the book, happening upon this kind of decrepit parking lot with a bunch of street dogs sitting in the dirt and some guys sitting and drinking tea on plastic chairs watching the sunset against that famous skyline. It was such a prime piece of real estate—the view was worth a million bucks—but nothing had been built on it. Anyone could go and sit there, and for some reason this struck me as more human, more democratic, and I loved that the tea guys were so proud of their city. Those were the last years before the money really started pouring in, and of course, that place is gone now.
Guernica: I’ve been reflecting a lot on that Istanbul, the one before the money, before the terrorism, the coup attempt, and the crackdown. It’s the setting of my novel. It’s an odd feeling because when I wrote the book, and even while I revised it, I sincerely believed that Istanbul would continue to exist in some form. But everything I read or hear from friends leads me to believe that, famous skyline notwithstanding, the city is unrecognizable compared with its 2010 self. Is that how you feel, and thinking back to your early years in the city, could you have guessed what would befall the place?
Suzy Hansen: I think in fact even the skyline is not the same. Things have changed on several levels. You have the unbelievable overdevelopment and, some would say, destruction of Istanbul itself. Everyone is constantly complaining about the amount of construction, the loss of trees, the transformation of the shoreline, the devastation to the environment. You lived near Taksim Square, as I do now, where the Gezi Park protests happened, where all the nightlife and art spaces once were, and that you truly would not recognize. So on a physical, visible level, daily life has been much transformed.
And then of course there is the political aspect, and that not only manifests in the form of journalists and academics and politicians arrested, in stolen referendums and ever-expanding autocracy; it manifests in a kind of constant psychic stress. Many Turks have been even physically sick over what has happened in the last few years. So many of them just want to leave, and are leaving, but the vast majority in the opposition cannot. They get on with their lives but it is not easy.
No, I can’t say I would have ever imagined it going this way. But looking back, those early AKP years of 2007–2008, also seem like a mirage. I saw Istanbul and Turkey in a dreamy, naïve way; what I thought then is not necessarily to be trusted.