In addition to her latest book Immigration Essays, Sybil Baker is the author of three books of fiction: Into This World (Foreword INDIE Book of the Year Finalist, Eric Hofer Honorable Mention), Talismans, and The Life Plan. She is a 2012 and 2014 MakeWork grantee and received a Tennessee Arts Commission Individual Artist’s Fellowship for 2017. A UC Foundation Associate Professor of English at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, she is also on faculty at the Yale Writers’ Conference and is Fiction Editor at Drunken Boat. Her novel While You Were Gone will be published in January 2018.
Marley Simmons Abril: What sparked your interest in this project? Can you describe some of the personal or political seeds that grew into Immigration Essays?
Sybil Baker: This project started as something much smaller in range and scope. I received a local grant to interview and then write about a few of Chattanooga’s unheard voices. Then in collaboration with C&R Press, we were going to publish six chapbooks and distribute those chapbooks locally. However, I quickly became overwhelmed by the project and unsure who to interview, as there are so many underrepresented people with stories to tell. Finally, I decide to narrow my focus to interviewing refugees in Chattanooga, a group I was interested in because I’d lived and traveled abroad. I was friends with the Associate Director of Bridge Refugee Services, and because she knew and trusted me, she put me in touch with some people to interview. In addition, I started doing more research about the Martin Luther King neighborhood I lived in at the time and realized that it told a story of the two Chattanoogas divided by race, education, and income. I was also writing about my own experiences living and traveling abroad and as well as those of my family. Writing about those disparate but related elements turned into a series of essays that I came to realize could form a cohesive collection.
MSA: These essays all feature a strong sense of home—both the physical structure and the psychological idea—and you write extensively on the rehabilitation of historic homes and landmarks. What is the role of home in this collection? How can physical structures serve as a scaffold or stand-in for intangible experiences? Is this something you’ve explored in a different way in other essays or writings?
SB: For me, ideally, home is a physical, emotional, and spiritual place—and one structure may not embody all three. However, because of policies and politics, home to many people is often absent or dangerous or illusory. Reflecting on my own homes—our family’s nice suburban home in the 1970s which felt confining, the small apartments in Seoul which felt freeing, and the homes here in Chattanooga that embody complicated histories—has provided a useful way to construct a narrative of my own life. Also, writing about the missing homes of the refugees, my immigrant husband, and those displaced by gentrification, provides another way of exploring those “intangible experiences” of the meaning of home. In my earlier work (fiction and nonfiction), I explore the meaning of place and how a person’s view of “home” (whether that be her country, city, or house) can change once she travels.
MSA: There’s a lot of movement in these stories. You tell about your own family’s wanderings, as well as the migrations of other families. In what way does this sense of motion complement or complicate the value you place on home?
SB: I think because I grew up in a stable family, where “home” was a place of physical and emotional safety but also one of white suburban monotony, travel was synonymous with adventure and discovery. I’ve been very lucky, and take for granted, that I have a home to return to, and that I can choose to leave or stay in a home. My parents both grew up in relatively stable homes, but both left their towns once they were able to, so perhaps my siblings and I inherited that desire to wander. For documented and undocumented immigrants and refugees, migrations can be dangerous and permanent. For them, home—often precarious and confusing—becomes erased and redefined, representing loss and possibility, so that home itself is as transitory as travel is to me, which complicates our notion of home.
MSA: I love the photos and documents that you include to help illustrate your stories. How do you imagine the tension between the personal narratives you tell and the broader social or historical contexts they occur in? Phrased another way: to what extent here is the personal political?
SB: When I began writing these essays I included very few of my own experiences in them. However, I realized I needed more of an emotional stake in the essays, for example, examining how my family’s slave-holding past might be connected to the gentrification I am complicit in today.
The first essay I added photographs to was “Reverse Migrations,” published in Critical Flame. The editor commented that my essay was Sebaldian, after W.G. Sebald, who incorporated his own photos into his work. I went back to Sebald’s work, and decided that I could add photos and documents to more of the essays, and that would add another layer of personalization. My choices of which photos to put in (for example, graffiti in Greece, documents showing discrimination and frustration in Chattanooga, and photos of my family) I hope show connections of the personal to the political. The purpose of the photos is to bring a visual reality to some of the issues I discuss, and add more layers of complexity and tension to the essays. In that sense the photos and documents represent the intersection of the personal and political.
MSA: In “The Adventures of a Fake Immigrant,” you acknowledge a distinction between the temporary rootlessness that you and your husband choose, and the exile or poverty that your subjects endure by necessity. You write that you and your husband “witnessed families for whom living out of a car was a life of privilege. Some of those families were right here in Chattanooga. There was something about our silly scheme that connected us in a small way to those forced to make larger and more significant sacrifices.” What form do you see that connection taking, for both your writing and your lived experience in Chattanooga?
SB: In some of my essays I revisit the theme of a temporary or small hardship that can hopefully bring more connection to souls dealing with more permanent and difficult hardships. My own acts tie in to the Stoic philosophy, which encourages people to experience, at least temporarily, some kind of hardship even when they don’t have to, so that they can feel more empathetic about suffering and are also more prepared when hardships come to them. I hope some of my choices help me to become re-aware of my privilege but also ask how I can use that privilege to connect with others. At the moment, that often requires experiencing situations outside my comfortable bubble, and then reflecting and writing about those situations. I still volunteer at Bridge Refugee Services. I am also involved in local activist organizations that focus on housing policies, and for the past year I have been mentoring a Black high school student from a school where 97 percent of the students come from low-income families. While this student has a supportive school and family, I can give her access to opportunities her community doesn’t know about: taking her to author readings, getting her in local workshops, bringing her to our campus library, introducing her to writers, and giving her books.
MSA: In the introduction, you call the American Dream a “myth,” but your collection includes so many stories of economic, educational, and social successes, including your own. Your essays and portraits show an enormous amount of optimism. As you wrapped up your research, how did you feel about the American promise of opportunity, however imperfect it may be? Did you get a sense of how your interview subjects interpreted the “dream” in their own lives?
SB: It’s interesting that you read my essays as optimistic, because I’m often not very optimistic about the promise of opportunity for many Americans. I would define the success of the American Dream by how much mobility there is in the United States, and in that case, the US—compared to other developed countries—has some of the lowest mobility, which is correlated to our increasing income inequality. My father, certainly, is an example of the American Dream, achieving a large jump in educational and economic status. I see my own life of writing, teaching, and traveling as a fulfilment of a personal dream rather than one representative of the American Dream because I did not move (much) up or down the economic or educational ladder compared to my parents.
I am optimistic for individual people I know but I’m also very aware that opportunities have diminished for many as a direct result of decisions made by those in power. I think that the refugees and undocumented immigrants I interviewed chose to focus on the positives in their lives when they talked to me because they wanted me to think well of them. I assume that they interpret their “dream” as something not so much for them but for their children. They believe their children will experience upward mobility relative to where they are, which in their cases, will mostly be true.
However, I tend to agree with [Ta-Nehisi] Coates and [James] Baldwin, that the American Dream, as represented by the large houses in mostly white neighborhoods, is actually pretty toxic, and the Dreamers who believe they have achieved that antiseptic ideal have done so at a great cost to themselves and others.
MSA: “The History of the Wanderer” is a great meditation on literary and biblical roots of the nomad. You don’t make an explicit distinction between wandering, traveling, and exile, but the stories you tell feature all three varieties of relocation. Where do you place your and your husband’s migrations? How might each of these distinct conditions affect a person’s ability or willingness to share their story?
SB: I would place my own migrations in the wanderer and traveler category, while my husband’s also includes those as well as a bit of the exile. When he was around 18, my husband’s parents and his younger brother immigrated to Canada; he didn’t want to go and remained in South Africa for a year attending university. However, his family lost their money during that time, and he decided to join them to help them financially and emotionally. His exile from South Africa was not forced, but it was also not what he wanted. Eventually we met in South Korea, and six months after we were married, my father became terminally ill. We decided I should to accept a tenure-track job offer near my parents in the States. My husband had a good job in South Korea and loved our life there—once again he moved from a place he wanted to be (Seoul) to a place he did not (the US) out of loyalty and love. Now, he has lived in four countries, and although his family has re-established roots in South Africa and we visit every year or two, I think he feels a rootlessness that I do not. He, in that sense, is a man without a country, or a man with many countries. Even though I have lived abroad (and plan to again) and traveled widely, my identity is as an American.
As I discuss in my essay “Landings,” our decision to share stories and the way we tell them is a political one. Many more refugees than not didn’t want to share their stories with me, perhaps out of fear, exhaustion, or a desire for privacy. My husband does not often share his stories of migration simply because people don’t seem that interested in them. Few native-born Americans can understand the emotional upheaval of leaving your home country and becoming a citizen of another, whatever the reasons.
MSA: In “Landings” you write, “By listening and telling stories, we acknowledge each other’s value, as different as our lives are.” This value—the attention to the circumstances of lives (and deaths) different from one’s own—recurs in “Brief Histories,” and “People I Know.” What work do you hope this collection can do to help fill in forgotten or undervalued pieces of individual histories?
SB: My main hope is that this collection brings awareness and encourages readers to find the forgotten or undervalued individual histories in their own lives.
MSA: You conceived of this project well before our current national climate of legitimized white nationalism. For immigrants, refugees, and the poor, the stakes of misunderstanding or indifference might be significantly higher now than there were even a year ago. If you started over today, how would you re-imagine this project? Would a sense of urgency change your tone, audience, content, or approach?
SB: It’s hard to go back and re-imagine a project that for me is emotionally complete. The book is not a political polemic, and unfortunately, although the stakes are certainly higher for immigrants, refugees, and the poor, the people I write about were suffering long before the current administration took control. The previous administration dropped bombs, silenced whistle blowers, carried out extrajudicial killings, dramatically increased deportation of undocumented people, and didn’t prosecute the banks for financial crimes or government officials for war crimes.
However, under the current administration, those issues and others have escalated even more, resulting in life-altering consequences for the people I write about as well as my own family. Instead of re-imagining the former project, which started from something small, I am starting to work on a new project, ambitious in conception, that will continue to explore the themes of Immigration Essays in more depth. With my own family living in South Africa, Turkey, and in the American South, I want to understand how we, personally and collectively, are enriched, harmed, and tested by history, politics, refugees, race, and religion. I would like to examine how these personal trajectories affect our definitions of family in a globalized context. For example, since my sister-in-law and her son are Turkish citizens and culturally Muslim, I want to explore how the US’s and Turkey’s populist policies affect us regarding travel and communication. I am also going to examine the rise of populist presidents in all three countries (Trump, [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, and [Jacob] Zuma), and try to find any commonalities or notable differences, and examine how these administrations affect my family politically, economically, and emotionally.
Like Immigration Essays, I will use a hybrid approach of personal memoir, letters, research, photos, and interviews, reflecting the complex and multilayered approach the topic needs. My goal is to bring a more nuanced understanding to a complicated issue by personalizing the political.
Read more about Sybil Baker on her website: http://www.sybilbaker.net
MARLEY SIMMONS ABRIL is finishing her MFA at Western Washington University. She works as Assistant Managing Editor and Book Review Editor at Bellingham Review. She is fiction editor at Psaltery & Lyre, and her own fiction has appeared in Steel Toe Review, Menacing Hedge, Flash Flash Click, and others.
Featured image: “Stone Walls Everywhere,” by John Paul Verkamp