Chapter 39: Suzy Hansen on Reporting from Abroad
I’ve long admired the writer Suzy Hansen, whose sharp and insightful writing from abroad about American foreign influence has resonated with me for years. Her excellent Pulitzer Prize finalist memoir, Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World, opened my eyes to the possibilities of reporting in the first person. And her dispatches from Turkey have always left me feeling inspired and curious about reporting abroad.
After a decade plus abroad, I connected with Suzy via Zoom in New York, where she has spent the pandemic writing, editing, teaching and working on a second book. We spoke about how she got her start in journalism, what it’s like to be a foreign correspondent, how she feels about freelancing, and how her memoir came to be.
How did you get into journalism?
I didn’t really want to be a journalist. After I graduated from college, I decided to take a year off and live in New York, as everyone does. I wanted to be a writer, but I had not thought about being a reporter or a journalist. This was back in 1999, and it was the end of the first dot com boom so there were all these new websites and magazines. I was reading Salon.com quite a bit (it was more of a literary magazine then) and I started seeing that academics were writing for them but in a more mainstream, journalistic style that struck me as very interesting. So I applied for an internship at Salon and to my surprise, I got the internship. I ended up getting a job there in the book section doing Q&As with authors and book reviews. Eventually, I realized I needed to learn how to report to stay in the industry long term.
Did you ever consider going to graduate school for journalism?
I thought about it a lot over the years, but I didn’t end up doing it. I got my start in journalism before the 2008 financial crisis and at the time, it was really just a giant party for media. There were tons of magazines, tons of newspapers and tons of jobs. It didn’t feel as if you had to go to journalism school, whereas now, it’s harder to get those jobs so you might need to go to school to make contacts, to know the industry. I completely understand why anyone would go to journalism school now.
Before you moved abroad, did you have any romantic illusions of what reporting abroad would be like?
Interestingly, I got my impression of what it was like to work and live abroad from a friend who was a humanitarian aid worker. I saw her having this very interesting life and learning about all these places and being engaged in important issues and serious things and I think that’s what I was attracted to. I really didn’t know any foreign correspondents. I was moving abroad and had no idea what I was going to do once I got there, which was why it took me quite a long time to adjust. I think to a large degree, my motivation was really about leaving New York. I was not a super well-traveled person. And there were certain things that I felt you had to leave the country to understand. That all turned out to be correct.
How did your book come about and when did you know it was going to be a memoir?
I always thought that writing a book was a very serious thing and felt you had to find the right topic. One of the reasons why I decided to be a foreign correspondent, or to move to Turkey, is because I simply felt I needed an area of expertise. I thought I would write a book about Turkey, but once I got there, I found it very difficult to understand Turkey. I quickly realized my limitations – my ignorance or just how little Americans know about what it takes to actually understand a foreign culture. But I still thought, I’m going to be a real foreign correspondent and I’m going to write a book about the Turks someday.
When I was telling friends of mine that I was going to write this book about Turkey, they said to me, we think your book is about America. I was really horrified by that suggestion because I didn’t come there to write a memoir about myself. But I think over time, this question of Americans’ relationship with the rest of the world became more and more interesting to me. I also wanted to examine the role of the western journalist in the world, so I started thinking, maybe I will write this book about the United States and foreign policy. At first, I thought I would just interview foreigners.
But then, when I started reading and saw that there had been countless books, novels, memoirs and journalism about that very subject by non-Americans, the question became, why is it that Americans do not understand or do not feel connected to the rest of the world? Why are they not aware? Why do they still have these illusions of who they are in the world when the rest of the world sees it very, very differently? That was when I started thinking, this has to be a memoir because it has to analyze an American psychology and because I was the only one who I really wanted to rip apart, I felt like I had to write about myself.
Was it difficult for you to write in the first person?
I found first person much easier to write. The main reason is that it’s more flexible. I wanted to write a book that mixed history, reporting, psychological insight and literary analysis. I wanted a mix of genres. And first person is much more flexible in terms of weaving in between these genres.
I was, of course, terrified to put myself out there, especially because I was exposing my own ignorance and also being a white American and having to really confront the issues of white Americans and be tough on yourself in that regard. I felt that you couldn’t write a book like this unless you are going to be really, really self-critical. We tend to have a very negative idea about first person because of the confessional memoir genre or how women sometimes get pigeonholed into writing in first person or there was that idea at least some years ago. But first person really is a wonderful form of literature.
What was the process like of getting your book published?
I had been the editor on the publishing industry beat at the New York Observer so I knew a lot of people in that industry and I think the publishing world was a bit demystified for me because of that. I didn’t have an agent when I moved to Turkey. I would go see agents and they would say, well, give me a book, give me a proposal and maybe I’ll represent it. I felt I first needed to see if I had a voice, because I was writing in a journalistic style for magazines at that point and had been for a long time. I felt I needed to have my own voice but I didn’t really know if I was confident enough to have one or if I had even developed one. Around that time, I was making money fact checking books, freelancing and editing a book. Because I was making money, I would set aside some time to work on an essay that eventually became my book proposal. I didn’t tell anyone about it, I didn’t talk to an agent about it, I just tried to see if I had a voice.
In six months, I had an 18,000 word essay, which is the introduction of my book. I gave that to an agent. I had no table of contents, I had no idea what the book was going to look like. The agent said, I think you have something here but we don’t know what this is. Most books at this point go to auction but mine did not. My agent just gave my book to one or two editors to see if they were interested, and that’s how it happened. It was a little bit of an unconventional route.
Do you have any advice for young and aspiring journalists?
Mentors for me were the most valuable part of starting out in this industry. I got very lucky and I’m very grateful, but I don’t think any of my career would have been possible without them in a lot of ways. In addition to mentors, peer support is really important as well. It’s hard when you’re young to say, please be my mentor, have coffee with me. But the thing is, often you will find someone really does enjoy being a mentor and they’re almost too humble to think they can actually help someone. You have to be persistent and people will see your sincerity if you truly want to learn from them.
Have you ever grappled with feelings of guilt for being a journalist, especially a foreign correspondent, covering the lives of people who are less fortunate than yourself in a country that’s not your own?
I think you can probably see that in my book. I’m very conflicted about the entire profession in a lot of ways and the thing is, if you are having these feelings, it means you’re a thoughtful person and that is important. You should really think deeply about your responsibility as a journalist covering people who are less advantaged than you, writing for publications that might in some ways, someday affect the way a country or a culture is perceived and might even affect the way another government treats that country. By the time I went through all of the thinking that went into my book, I almost felt like I actually couldn’t be a foreign correspondent anymore because there was no way for me to overcome some of my reflexes, my prejudices, these things that are deeply ingrained in me. I was thinking it was impossible and that I could do more harm than good. And I think that it was only because I had to make a living that I kept doing it.
What are your thoughts on freelancing?
I think there’s a very important choice people make at some point in their career – if they want to be a freelancer or on staff. I think this is a temperament question because freelancers do not really have any rights. There are going to be more protections and advantages in place if you stay on staff somewhere.
However, there are a lot of wonderful things about being a freelancer. You work from home or you work in the field, you make your own schedule, you can stay home and read all day if you want to. But you’re also subject to the whims of publications and you live a very precarious life. I treasure my years in Istanbul as a freelance writer. It was a wonderful life, but I have also gone through tremendous, tremendous stress being a freelancer either because of money or because of this lack of rights issue.
There’s also the issue of rejection and resilience. I had a million pieces killed. I had stories rejected, I had story ideas stolen from me. I’m a pretty sensitive person actually and I don’t know how I got used to it at some point. It was just the business, and I had to keep going. What I’m describing here is slightly masochistic. This is not a natural way of living. But if you really can allow yourself to enjoy the benefits of it, which is the freedom, then I think you can find a certain balance.