I’d organized a tour as part of a teacher’s conference at the Hunter Museum of American Art on how to use art in writing assignments. We were shown several paintings and then told to choose one as a writing prompt. I was drawn to a painting called Confrontation by Hughie Lee-Smith, which showed two girls not looking at each other on a surreal and crumbling beach front (on loan from the Smithsonian American Museum of Art). The painting expressed alienation and disconnection, and hinted at a destructive past. I asked myself, who are these girls and what has happened that makes so disconnected? Almost immediately, I decided the girls were sisters, but one was adopted, Korean. The novel took off from there.
What do you love about Chattanooga?
That it’s got a bit of everything—hiking, swimming, restaurants, bars, art galleries, live music, cool coffee shops. And that I can walk to all of those places, including work.
What do you miss most about Korea?
The food and the street life. And meeting people from all over the world.
You seem to have a love affair with the South and Asia. Can you explain those two passions?
Southern blood runs through both sides of my family; even now my relatives live in the South. My dad was born and raised on a cotton farm in Possum Valley, Arkansas, and my mother’s father was a dairy farmer in Clemmons, North Carolina. My dad’s southern roots can be traced to 1620, my mom’s to before the American Revolution. I grew up around southern accents, southern food, and more importantly, in college, I fell in love with southern literature: Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Wolfe, Carson McCullers, and that love affair continues to this day.
Asia was more of an unexpected gift. Ever since college, I’d fantasized about living abroad and in 1995, South Korea was the place that would take me. After the first year I was ready to leave, but then I got a job teaching at a university, which enabled me to travel around Asia for months at a time on my breaks. By 2007, I reluctantly left a country that had been my home for twelve years, a home that had enriched me immensely. Luckily I’m now on faculty at the City University of Hong Kong’s low residency MFA program, which enables me to return to that side of the world with relative frequency.
Who should have won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction?
Edith Pearlman for Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories.
What life lessons have you learned so far?
From my parents: If I can’t afford to pay for it in cash, don’t buy it.
From Koreans: I can live quite happily for years in a small apartment without a car, air conditioning, oven, dryer, dishwasher, microwave, or western-style bed.
From Asians (in general): If I’m not saving at least thirty percent of my income, I need to change my lifestyle.
From my South African husband: If I can’t talk to my spouse (and anyone else who appears on our front porch for a drink) for at least four hours, three days a week about our lives and the world, then I need to realign my priorities.
From my women writer mentors: I can live a fulfilling and happy life without having children.
From myself: Following all of the above enables me to write.
Named one of “today’s strongest emerging talents in literary fiction and poetry” by the Huffington Post, Sybil Baker is the author of two books of fiction, The Life Plan, a comic novel, and a linked short story collection, Talismans. Her MFA is from the Vermont College of FineArts. She spent twelve years teaching in South Korea before returning to the States in 2007. She is an Assistant Professor of English (Creative Writing) at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga where she is the Assistant Director of the Meacham Writers’ Workshop. She is currently on faculty of the first international MFA Program at City University of Hong Kong and is Fiction Editor at Drunken Boat.