On Wandering and Writing:

An Interview with Sybil Baker

by Iris Mahan

Chattanooga, Tennessee. Most historians agree that the name derives from the Muskogean words for ‘rock’ and ‘dwelling place.’ It is also called the Scenic City, a reference to its picturesque views and the natural beauty of its situation in between the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and the Cumberland Plateau. Chattanooga is best known for its outdoor recreational activities, music and film festivals, and the urban revitalization of the past decade that has put it on top of several national and global destination “Best Of” lists. Slightly less known is its robust literary scene, which includes Meacham Writer’s Workshop at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga (UTC), the Southern Literary Alliance, the Chattanooga Writers Guild, a newly launched independent bookstore Star Line Books, and plenty of open mic nights for poetry and fiction readings at places like the Camp House, the Barking Legs Theater, and the Hunter Museum of American Art. It was recently announced that Charlotte Caldwell, the former residency director at Wassaic Artist Residency in Wassaic, N.Y, purchased a building on the Southside with plans to establish Chattanooga’s own artist-in-residence program.


Writer Sybil Baker, a fixture on this literary scene and a UC Foundation Associate Professor of English at the UTC, is the author of the recent nonfiction collection Immigration Essays, which explores the history of Chattanooga against the backdrop of her own familial history and the experiences of her life abroad. She joins our Development Associate Iris Mahan here in a charged discussion on identity, personal and political responsibility, and the contentious idea of ‘home’ in the context of our modern global lives.

You mention in the foreword that this book of essays came about when you received a MakeWork grant “to write about Chattanooga’s unheard voices.” This lead you to Bridge Refugee Services, where you began documenting the stories of some of the individuals assisted by their programs, which became the essay “Landings.” The book grew as you contemplated your own history, your travels, and the larger social and political landscape. How did you make the decision to open up the subject material, to consider a wider gaze?


When I first began the essays, I wanted the focus to be on the subjects—the unheard voices—I interviewed. Unfortunately, the drafts of my essays did not give justice to their stories, which sounded flat on the page. After turning to work by Rebecca Solnit, Eula Biss, Leslie Jamison and Montaigne, I decided to put the interviews in a more layered context. At the same time, the original C&R Press editor (the press was sold before the book was published) recommended that I explore more of my own Southern heritage and international experience, and once I did that, the essays moved to that wider gaze. I had been guilty of something I chastise my students for—not considering my own life experience as worthy of examination. The decision to open the subject material was a gradual one, borne out of failure—the essays weren’t working and I was desperate to make them better. It took me a while to believe that my own experiences might be worthwhile to write about.


In an interview with Marley Simmons Abril from the Bellingham Review, you touch on the decision to include photographs alongside the essays in a Sebaldian way, as a means to explore “the intersection of the personal and political.” What is your feeling on the responsibility of the personal to become political? What did you feel was your responsibility in writing these personal narratives, in the interviews you conducted with refugees, and in the recounting of both familial history and the history of Chattanooga?


In the essays, I try to focus on my own complicity in local gentrification and worldwide globalization, rather than excluding myself from those problems. I have tried to be mindful of the people and places I write about, while staying close to the truth of each essay as I envision it. When I interviewed the refugees, I offered each of them an opportunity to read the interviews before they went to print (although none of them took me up on it), and in one of the stories, I left out some information at the refugee’s request. With the familial history and the history of Chattanooga, I tried to credit the many sources I used and made sure that the information I published was accurate. Because of the MakeWork and the Tennessee Arts Commission grants, I (with the publisher’s support) chose to use some of that money to publish a lot of Advance Review Copies to give away to those community members, organizations and family members, to thank them for their help.


On a larger scale, living abroad has compelled me to think and write about the personal and political in a way I might not have if I’d remained in the States. Recently, I wrote a piece called "Philosophy, Politics, and the Role of the Artist." In that I wrote:


And yet, decisions about what to write or not write are always political. For example, the decision to write a novel or short story set in the millennium and to not acknowledge that our country is at war, is a political decision. To write about characters who are only white and upper middle class is a political decision. To scrub wars and race and class differences from a work of fiction is a political decision, an erasure of the reality of so much of the world. Baldwin’s exhortation still applies—it is important for artists to not only look at what is happening but to who, and I would add, why.


I think people often confuse polemics with the politics of writing. Didactic and polemic work can often be boring, but writers in many countries are very aware that every artistic choice is political. Even the language they choose to write in is political. I do believe that we cannot escape the political in our writing.


“There is a gift to not remembering much of the past,” you say in “No Exit,” and you talk about your own habits of forgetting, yet these essays are an act of remembering. To me, so much of the resurgence of white nationalism seems rooted in the willful forgetting of what it means to be a refugee. The way the refrain of go back to where you came from demonstrates an unwillingness to reckon with the history of the United States as a haven for refugees and immigrants. I’m thinking of the James Baldwin quote: “white people are trapped in a history they don’t understand.” How does remembering help to engender understanding? Are we ever really—as you observe in the face of a young displaced boy in "Reverse Migration"—“old enough to understand how the future draws its outlines from the present?”


This is a great question, and one that I think doesn’t have a simple answer. For example, what are we remembering or what are we forgetting? When my father’s side of the family remembers the family’s past, they remember that we were rich and had a plantation, and were a family of preachers and educators. That act of remembering is a way for our family’s narrative to work as a way to justify (and erase) what it actually meant to hold slaves. Memory is not always accurate and is sometimes selective. As you mention, the refrain of “go back to where you came from” “forgets” that all the people in the US (except Native Americans) are or were related to refugees and immigrants, many of whom arrived without papers. While the world and this country has changed, I think it’s important for us to empathize with a person’s brave and often desperate decision to leave one’s country, whatever the reasons. But we also “forget” that the US has historically hardly been a country that has welcomed immigrants indiscriminately. For example, in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibited immigration of Chinese laborers, and that law was not repealed until 1943.


In conversations, I have found that many people confuse refugees (people whose lives are in danger and are legally allowed to enter another country) with immigrants (also legally allowed to enter the country), undocumented persons, and migrants. The confusion over these terms, and the confusion over why people are leaving their countries (hint—it’s often because of wars we support), has certainly hurt us trying to deal with people in humane ways.


It’s understandable that as human beings we remember and forget in order to justify our own lives, to create histories and meaning. We want to believe that we have worked hard to get wherever we are, and we have created narratives to justify that. For example, I write about my father, who did work very hard to achieve the middle class dream, and I want to take nothing away from that. But it is certainly useful to look at the circumstances (white, male, born in a certain time and place) which enabled him to succeed. I don’t think examining the why and how necessarily takes away many of the great successes of our country.


I strongly believe, as Baldwin asserts, that until white people have dealt with the legacy of slavery, it will be hard to move forward as a country. And I don’t think we are there. Roxane Gay recently wrote a column on July 25 about her misgivings about a new HBO series called Confederacy, in which the Civil War never happened and slavery still exists. I agree with her that this series of “slave fan fiction” reflects a limit of the imagination. Gay writes:


These creators can imagine a world where the Confederacy won the Civil War and black people are still enslaved, but they can’t or aren’t interested in imagining a world where, say, things went in a completely different direction after the Civil War and, say, white people are enslaved. Or a world where slavery never happened at all. What would happen in a show where American Indians won the conflicts in which they were embroiled as the British and French and other European nations colonized this country? What would happen if Mexicans won the Mexican-American War and Texas and California were still part of Mexico?


In the end, I think these limits of the imagination are an even bigger problem to engendering understanding and possibilities than remembering and forgetting. And this is where art can help, by exploring possibilities and un-limiting the imagination.


You raise an important question of social responsibility in the essay “Fools,” when, in response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, you and your neighbor George donate $10 to the Red Cross, knowing that the gesture “was no sacrifice and meant nothing in the big picture”—that it was an act borne of feelings of “guilt and helplessness.” Your husband Rowan calls you both fools. I’m wondering how this relates to writing, or the role of writing. In our increasingly volatile present moment, are we fools to write about issues outside the comfortable sphere of our lives, that don’t affect us in any tangible sense? Can literature or storytelling create real change, make any kind of difference in addressing these subjects? Put simply, are writers and artists fools?


Yes, writers and artists are fools, but we should embrace the term. Fools are often the truth tellers—my favorite fool is from King Lear—he tells the truth when people don’t want to hear it, but is also protective of the vulnerable King.


In regard to your question about writing about issues outside “the comfortable sphere of our lives,” there are so many things that might seem far away—the US wars, refugees, as well as poverty in the US—that exist to allow us to continue to live “the Dream” as Ta-Nehisi Coates calls it. The US is the global power, one in decline, and I think it’s naïve of us to not examine how events that seem outside the sphere of our lives allow us to live in the empire’s bubble.


On the other hand, I think it’s probably misguided to believe that we can affect any kind of real change—for better or worse. A desire to affect change assumes that we know the best approach. My own approach to life is inspired by the Stoics. In Walker Percy’s The Movie Goer, the character Aunt Emily represents the Stoic philosophy. She says: 

I don’t know quite what we’re doing on this insignificant cinder spinning away in a dark corner of the universe. That is a secret which the high gods have not confided in me. Yet one thing I believe and I believe it with every fibre of my being. A man must live by his lights and do what little he can and do it as best he can. In this world goodness is destined to be defeated. But a man must go down fighting. That is victory. To do anything less is to be less than a man.


Gender specifics aside, Aunt Emily’s advice is not too far from Coates—the beauty is in the struggle, or Baldwin (“A man is not a man until he’s able and willing to accept his own vision of the world, no matter how radically this vision departs from that of others.”). While it is important to remember that a lot of people strongly believe in their vision of the world which is diametrically opposed to mine, I have found that approach to work best for me as a writer and a human.


In “Reverse Migration,” the anecdotes of your travels as you pass through certain cities abroad are foregrounded with footnotes that record the later violence that will take place there, especially in Turkey. What made you decide to include them?


In this essay more than some of the others, I used myself as a stand-in for the somewhat ignorant and naïve American. I was not interested in writing an essay only of anecdotes of me and my husband bumbling our way through Southeastern Europe. So much was happening around us that I wasn’t aware of—the refugee crisis would explode a month after we traveled, but the rumblings of that earthquake were there, even if we didn’t always feel the ground shaking beneath us. I thought using the footnotes was a way to “defamiliarize” the text—in that the important historical information was actually footnoted, while the more banal travel essay appeared as the main text. I wanted through the footnotes and photos to subvert and complicate the way I wrote about and experienced travel.


Your brother asked you if traveling had brought you any particular insights, to which you say no, but your inner monologue questions this, “had I lied to my brother? Or to myself?” Does traveling the world really open our eyes or change our perspective? Has anything changed for you since you finished writing these essays or since the book was published?


I wholly support any type of travel, and living abroad for a minimum of a year. Of course, many people don’t have that option, I get that, but for a recent liberal arts major with no career plans, I recommend moving abroad and teaching English for a year. Moving to another place will sometimes shock people into seeing their hometown and country in different and more complex ways. I’m a big fan of the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky, and I find his definition of art very helpful: art helps shake us out of our automatized perception and allows us to see something, as if for the first time. Art allows us to imagine what exists outside of prescribed reality (i.e., expanding the limits of imagination). Travel is one way to jump-start that process of forcing us to defamiliarize the familiar.


I do think that there are other ways to achieve this same effect of making the familiar unfamiliar that don’t require international travel. And certainly people who travel simply to confirm their own beliefs (e.g., the US is the best, Mexico is dangerous) will confirm those prejudices if they are determined to do so.


One of the great things that has happened since the book has been published are some of the contacts I’ve made, which have led me down unexpected paths. Because of the book, I was invited to be a guest author at the St. Martin Book Fair, which resulted in me thinking more deeply about the effects of colonization and technology and meeting some very interesting intellectuals and artists committed to engaging with the world. This summer, I also met someone who is working with refugees in Mexico, and I hope to be able to do some kind of project with him in the future. The book has also encouraged me to continue to explore many of the questions that I raised in Immigration Essays through another book, which will focus on family and politics in the US, Turkey and South Africa—all three of these countries have populist presidents moving the countries toward autocratic rule, and I also have family members living in all three of the countries.


“The History of the Wanderer” and “Wanderings” are essays that are part history lesson, personal travelogue, and literary critique, and are emblematic of the collection’s remarkable breadth of vision. As a whole, the narratives here represent the lives we lead today, rooted both in the local and the global, that a collective idea of home (and self), is ever in flux and evolving, and that wandering (both voluntary and involuntary) can be lonely, dangerous, and personally fulfilling at the same time. Where will your next wandering take you?


This summer I went to Mexico and St. Martin for the first time. I have started learning Spanish and hope to spend more time in Mexico and in Central America. My next nonfiction book project will eventually take me back to Turkey, where I hope to interview Syrian university students enrolled at my brother and sister-in-law’s university. In December I will also be returning to South Africa, and hope to interview some refugees and undocumented migrants there. Next summer, though, I hope to travel with my husband through more of the United States. I just got back from a road trip with my mom that took us through Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas, and I was reminded once again how lucky I am to be able to get in a car, fill it with gas, and eight hours later end up in a place so different from the one I live in.









Sybil Baker’s latest book is Immigration Essays. She is also the author of The Life Plan, Talismans, and Into This World (Foreword INDIE Book of the Year Finalist, Eric Hofer Honorable Mention). She was awarded two MakeWork Artist Grants and a 2017 Individual Artist's Fellowship from the Tennessee Arts Commission. She lives and teaches in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and is on faculty at the Yale Writers’ Conference. She is Fiction Editor at Anomaly. Her novel While You Were Gone will be published in early 2018.

Iris Mahan is the Development Associate at the Center for Fiction. She received her BA in English from the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga and her MFA from Adelphi University, where she was the recipient of the Robert Muroff Scholarship in Creative Writing. She is the co-founder of Village of Crickets, an online literary community that hosts readings, panels, and literary events in New York City, and is the co-editor of the anthology Poetry of Women’s Resistance, forthcoming from OR Books in Spring 2018.


Story image photo by Celia Lismore.



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