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Times Literary Supplement: Suzy Hansen’s “Notes on a Foreign Country”

Not long ago, a curious artefact of American culture suddenly went viral: a short promotional video for a casual dining chain called Sizzler, once one of the most popular in the country. “All across America, a song of freedom rings, a song that’s growin’ stronger every day”, declares its soaring ballad. “That’s the Sizzler way: get a little freedom in your life.” This startlingly unironic song plays over similarly earnest footage of dogs chasing frisbees, hard-hatted construction workers frowning at blueprints, and sailors smooching their girls at sunset, all intended as a promotion of the restaurant’s then new buffet feature.

Though the video’s sensibility feels closer to the 1950s than the twenty-first century, it dates from 1991, the year of the first Gulf War. “Mostly what I remember of this war in Iraq was singing on the school bus”, writes Suzy Hansen in Notes on a Foreign Country. She sang “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood, at whose MTV clip – an even more crudely sentimental piece of red-white-and-blue mythology than Sizzler’s – she recalls tearing up. Like me, she grew up in the suburban America of the 1980s and 90s, and there received the standard-issue education of our generation, its lessons haphazard and strangely contextless. “History, America’s history, the world’s history, would slip in and out of my consciousness with no resonance whatsoever”, she writes of herself on the cusp of adulthood.

Her outlook began to sharpen when she left her blank hometown of Wall, New Jersey, for the University of Pennsylvania. She later found a job at the New York Observer and worked there until the age of twenty-nine, when she won a two-year writing fellowship from the Institute of Cultural World Affairs. Created by the globally minded son of an American plumbing parts magnate, the ICWA fellowship, in the words of a prospectus from the programme’s foundation in the mid-1920s, sends holders abroad to attempt the task of “interpreting a people, or a group, to itself and to others”. Or, as Hansen more bluntly puts it, “the committee wanted to see what would happen if they dropped an ignorant person into a foreign place”.

Read the whole thing at the Times Literary Supplement (free registration required).