INTERVIEW: Suzy Hansen on viewing America from Turkey

INTERVIEW: Suzy Hansen on viewing America from Turkey

William Armstrong -
INTERVIEW: Suzy Hansen on viewing America from Turkey

People travel on a ferry from the European side of Istanbul to the Asian side. AFP photo

Over 10 years in Turkey, journalist Suzy Hansen has produced an impressive series of long, deeply reported explorations of various tough issues.

In “Notes on a Foreign Country,” she turns her attention to her home country. The book (reviewed in HDN here) examines the dark side of U.S. engagement in the world, giving a searing critique of American amnesia and the belief in the “inherent goodness” of the U.S.

Hansen spoke to the Hürriyet Daily News about her book and 10 years of reporting from Turkey. 

This is your first book and it has been getting quite a bit of attention. What has the whole process of writing and publishing the book been like?

I'm very happy with the response. Most of the reviews have understood the intention of the book, which was mainly to explore what it means to be abroad as an American in the 20th century. What do you learn when you are living abroad? What does it tell you about your own country? What are the weaknesses and prejudices you discover when you're attempting to understand foreign countries? Americans have a unique problem in seeing the rest of the world clearly because we're invested in the idea of our own exceptionalism and the idea that the rest of the world wants to be like us. It’s a deeply unconscious assumption that even the most well-intentioned and self-critical thinker may have. 

A few people have been a little offended by the book, saying "America has done good things too, can't we acknowledge that?" But because this is such a time of confusion in the U.S., for the most part people are open to critique, self-critique and understanding American identity in different ways.

The book opens in Soma, the small town in western Turkey and the site of the worst industrial accident in the country’s history at the coalmine in May 2014, which killed 301 people. Why open with such an episode?

At the time I was writing it was the freshest episode to me. It was one of the most emotional experiences I've had as a reporter in Turkey and in general. I felt a different kind of brutality going on between the government and its citizens. It surprised me and reminded me of my own naiveté, my own failures, once again. When I first came to Turkey I was very distracted by the "secularism vs. Islam" narrative. I failed to look at Turkey through different lenses and I think I neglected to follow what was going on with Erdoğan's economic policies. I wasn't writing that much in the first five years, but just in terms of my own interest and study I don't think I was paying enough attention. 

There was something about this narrative of Erdoğan and the [ruling Justice and Development Party] AKP being pro-business that had seemed to be a good thing. I had basically thought, "OK he's pro-business, which means he's somewhat like us." I would describe myself as a leftist, but still there's this desire on the part of Westerners, Americans, or outsiders, when looking at people identified as Islamists, to try to see how we can feel better about them. And the fact that Erdoğan had been using this free market rhetoric that is so familiar to Americans was also comforting and familiar to me.

In Soma, one of the miners told me: "Why didn't you come here earlier?" It was a very poignant comment. If I could have answered him honestly I would have said I was caught up in this idea of Turkey's economic boom, just like a lot of people. Also in Soma some of the miners were talking about this deep American history with Turkey in terms of labor unions and anti-Communism and everything else, and how that led to changes in Turkey's economic and labor policies. So it seemed like the obvious place to start.

One of the writers you reference throughout the book is James Baldwin, who spent about 10 years in Istanbul in the 1960s. Why does Baldwin’s work and perspective resonate so much?

He is my favorite writer. Actually one of the major reasons I moved to Istanbul was because I learned that he had lived there. He had said that he felt very comfortable there as a black and gay man. So part of why I wanted to go was kind of a romantic reason about my favorite writer.

Baldwin actually never wrote about Turkey. But he gave some interviews to Turkish journalists while he was living in Turkey. Among the things he said was that he was recognizing this new empire that America was extending across the world. He was seeing that in Turkey because of course Turkey was one of the main recipients of American aid through the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine. Baldwin was watching this with trepidation because the U.S. had not even solved its own problems yet, specifically about race. White Americans had not dealt with their own problems with power, and if they're extending their empire across the world then they're also extending their problems across the world. I saw how understanding how Baldwin saw the race problem back home could help me understand the relationship between Americans and foreigners abroad. I could use him as an intellectual and moral guide.

At one point in the book you go back to the U.S. to report on problems in Mississippi and its failing and unfair healthcare system. It reminded me of George Orwell’s “The Road to Wigan Pier,” in which Orwell documents the shocking working and housing conditions of miners in the industrial heartlands of Yorkshire and Lancashire in northern England. The book was published in 1937, when Britain was near the height of its imperial power but still had this poverty back home. 

In 2012 I spent a lot of time in Mississippi. This was after I had been living abroad for a few years. Mississippi is the poorest state in the U.S. and you could say it is kind of proof of the failure of the American Dream. In the 1960s people said Mississippi was how we could judge whether there is social justice in America, because if Mississippi doesn't improve then we can assume that there's no social justice. And indeed it hasn't really improved. In some ways it has declined. It was striking to have lived abroad, looking at proclamations of American exceptionalism and then going back to this place that exposes the lie at the heart of the myth. 

I had never been to a place quite like the Mississippi Delta, which of course was also the heart of American slavery. But it seemed necessary, especially after the financial crisis and the gross inequality in America had been exposed, to include a portrait of the U.S. at home and to describe what it was like to come home and see it differently for the first time.

You came to Turkey in 2007. A lot has happened in the 10 years you've been here and you’ve reported on a lot of it. Just reflect a little on how things have changed. 

It was hard because when I first came to Turkey everything was changing so quickly. Up until recently, Turkey had not really been on the radar for editors. As a freelance writer it was very hard to get pieces published about it, which is why for many years I went to write about lots of different places.

But as I was writing this book Turkey was becoming more and more appealing to readers and editors. In fact, as I was writing my editor actually wanted me to make the book more about Turkey. But I was just trying to get my head around everything that was happening. It's very hard to write a book when it’s all going on around you, but at the same time this is a book about all the things I don't understand. So it sort of worked: I could chronicle my own attempts to understand what was happening in Turkey, my own confusion, and how much we still don't know about the whole situation. This included the Gezi protests, the Soma disaster, the uptick in violence and bombings, and the military coup attempt and everything that has happened in the aftermath.

Over those 10 years there has been a big shift in the atmosphere. Not so long ago Turkey was seen abroad as a democratic model for the Middle East, but now it’s seen as a kind of basket case. What do you make of this shift?

A lot of us who were in Turkey at the time, especially Turks, were very skeptical of this idea of Turkey as a "model." It's very different from a lot of the countries that people were saying it could be a model for. It has such a specific, complicated history and trajectory so it didn't really make much sense. 

I do think there were a few years in there where a lot of people in the Middle East thought: "I might not be crazy about Erdoğan or the AKP but at least it’s working." But I don't think there was the kind of enthusiasm that Western writers were projecting. Again, this reminds us of this tendency for Westerners and Western writers - and I implicate myself in this at the beginning - to see the Islamic world as a problem that needs to be solved. It is a well-meaning liberal mistake but it's a very dangerous one. For Turkey and for Turks it also created this scenario where people were not seeing the dark things happening behind the scenes.

But it's easy to forget what a different time it was in 2007, 2008 and 2009. The military was threatening to intervene and there was a lot of angry rhetoric about Islamists. And I think because the Islamists were cleverly manipulating this system, using rhetoric about democracy and human rights, it was easy to believe that everything was going to turn out well. A lot of this had to do with Turkey's history. I remember a lot of people at that time, especially minorities, wanted to do away with the old Kemalist system. And the AKP emerged as the one that seemed to be enthusiastic about doing that.

One of your most recent articles was a long read giving a panoramic picture of Turkey in the aftermath of the July 2016 coup attempt amid the sweeping purge. How difficult is reporting in Turkey after the coup attempt?

It's not necessarily difficult for me. It's more difficult for Turkish journalists, for whom it has been a nightmare. For me, I usually write one long article per year on Turkey and in that one I wanted to just crystallize what was happening and the feeling of terror in society. Personally I’ve been really heartbroken to see what's happening. 

The reporting is difficult because people don't want to talk and are afraid of talking. There’s no reason to risk anyone's personal situation so you have to be very careful and sensitive. Editors tend to have a lot of rules about wanting to use people's names or initials but you can't really do that in this situation. If you're going to do that you won’t be able to get close to the truth because people will be afraid to say what they believe. So it's a difficult and stressful situation. Foreign journalists have come under more pressure in recent years but I personally haven't experienced anything. 

You’re in the U.S. at the moment for the launch of the book but you’ll be coming back to Istanbul. Will you be staying in Turkey for the foreseeable future?

I think I'll always live there one way or another. I have no plans to move as of now. There are certain familial reasons for wanting to come back to the States more often, but I love Turkey and living in Istanbul and I have a deep connection to it. So I hope to stay.

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