Born and raised in New Jersey, Ms Hansen became a journalist (she is a contributing writer for The Times Magazine), moved to New York and, after September 11 – when Americans, as she puts it, “had all lost their marbles” – moved to Istanbul. Her book is a deeply honest and brave portrait of an individual sensibility reckoning with her country’s violent role in the world. In the period between 9/11 and the election of President Donald Trump, she lives in Turkey and travels to Greece, Egypt, Afghanistan, Iran and the Mississippi Delta. She uses these places, their complex histories and fraught present, as lenses through which to look at her own nation.
Ms Hansen is not only unnerved by but also genuinely interested in the ways her country fails to “interrogate” itself. She asks why, given the extent to which America has shaped the modern Middle East – the lives it ended, the countries it fractured, the demons it created, its frantic and fanatical support of Israel – it “did not feel or care to explore what that influence meant.” She is unsettled by how absent or illusive or, worse, unnecessary this fact is to many Americans, including herself — for, before anything else, “Notes on a Foreign Country” is a sincere and intelligent act of self-questioning. It is a political and personal memoir that negotiates that vertiginous distance that exists between what America is and what it thinks of itself. That dramatic, dizzying and lonesome chasm is Ms Hansen’s terrain.