Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The most honest way to write about your country: as an outsider

Writer Abroad loves being back in the U.S. for one main reason (besides being close to family): libraries. Writer Abroad loves libraries. Specifically libraries filled with English books (no offense to all the Swiss libraries filled with German books, of course).

Being an author, sometimes she thinks she should buy every book she reads to support her fellow writers. But the problem is, even though she has escaped her tiny Swiss apartment and moved into a big American house, there is still no place to put all the books she already has. Many are still sitting in their moving boxes in the basement over a year later. (God bless American basements.)

She could buy e-books, like she used to do when she was living abroad. But here’s a little secret: she’s old fashioned. She loves actual paper books. Holding them. Feeling their size and weight.

So sorry to any authors she may have offended, but Writer Abroad does use her local library almost every week. It’s a mere three blocks from her house. One of the main reasons she chose the location of her house.

She’s found some good books lately. Probably the best book she’s read this year is Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It proves that you don’t need a long book to make a big statement. This book lets the reader see the world through the point of view of a black man in present day America. It is horrific, eye opening, and, if you’re not already a black American man, a way to see an outsider’s view of America without getting a passport.

Which is the dilemma, of course. It’s an outsider’s view of the U.S. told by an American in the U.S. No American should ever be subjected to such outsider status in their own country. But they are.

At one point, Coates says, “The writer, and that was what I was becoming, must be wary of every Dream and every nation, even his own nation. Perhaps his nation more than any other, precisely because it was his own.”


That’s why, if you’re not an outsider in America, you must go outside of America to be able to write about your country in an honest way.

Moving to Switzerland was Writer Abroad’s solution to seeing her own country, which has inspired her next book, American Life: 30 Things I Wish I’d Known, which she is working on now. She couldn’t be writing it without having left America. Sadly, Coates could have.

At one point, Coates makes a point about U.S. exceptionalism. He says we need to step outside of our country to see it for what it really is—often, a bully, both globally and locally. Going abroad, if you’re a white American, will probably make you come to similar conclusions. Or if you’re not going abroad, this book will give you an outsider perspective. It should be required reading for every American. For a majority of Americans, the book is a passport to another world: their own.

Have you read a good book about seeing America as an outsider lately?


  1. Great post. There is a saying among expats in China: Live in China for a year, you can write a book. Live in China for two years, and you have nothing to say. I found that so true.

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