Immigration Essays

by Sybil Baker

“the voices in this collection echo and shine”



When Baker received a MakeWork grant to write about Chattanooga’s unheard voices, she had no idea that her project would take her from the homes of Chattanooga’s refugees in “Landings” to what Critical Flame calls a “Sebaldian travelogue through the Syrian migration route” in “Reverse Migration.” From her childhood home near Ferguson, Missouri, to her travels as an expatriate living in Asia, to the troubled cities of Eastern Europe, Baker explores the physical and emotional wanderings of what Mary McCarthy calls “exiles, expatriates, and internal emigres.”

“Adventures of a Fake Immigrant” and “Schemers” examines her ambivalent complicity in Chattanooga’s rapid gentrification and the erasure of its historically black neighborhoods.

Using photos, literature, and her own family’s slave-owning history, Baker excavates her own past as well as Chattanooga’s to try and understand the ghosts that haunt her and the city she inhabits. With a poignancy that is particularly relevant for these times, the voices in this collection echo through the text and shine brightly through the dark.


“The German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin once lamented how even though every morning brings us news from around the globe, we are left ironically poorer in possessing any noteworthy stories, because what is being conveyed to us has already been “shot through with explanation.” In ranging from her own family’s history in Possum Valley, Arkansas to the stories of refugees from Sudan, Iraq, Cuba, the Ukraine and elsewhere, Sybil Baker has crafted the perfect answer for Benjamin, an indispensable collection of essays on what it means to be a global citizen who prejudges no one and who remains full of empathy and perpetual engagement with the difficult, utterly crucial questions of race, place, privilege and migration. This is a compliment I would never pay lightly, but Sybil is that rarest of white writers who, because she’s worked so hard at it, genuinely understands a good part of what it means to be a person of color. In this respect, “Immigration Essays” is nothing short of brilliant, both in its conception and use of personal photographs and in its wider historical perspective; ultimately this book redefines our very idea of home even as it writes a love letter to the world.”

– Ravi Shankar, Pushcart Prize Winner and Author of What Else Could it Be


“Any reader attracted to the essays of a big-hearted, fearless, vagabond-worthy writer will absolutely love Sybil Baker’s essay collection Immigration Essays. It’s like taking a great tour without all of the irritations of travel. This is one splendid, fun reading experience.”

– George Singleton, author of Calloustown.


“Having taught for twelve years in South Korea, Baker is intimately attuned to the nuances of Korean culture and the experience it offers expatriates. She makes the location as live and as vividly as her characters do, and she brings the Morehouse family drama to life with keenly observed details.”

– Sarah Norris, author of Chapter 16


“Beautifully told, Sybil Baker weaves a lush, finely wrought tale of two daughters in search of love, two sisters in search of forgiveness in the middle of a foreign land.”

Foreword Reviews


“The author lovingly describes…history, culture and most compellingly, people.”

US Review/Eric Hoffer Award


“Sybil Baker has always been itinerant, as a writer, scholar and citizen. In Immigration Essays, she charts her “reverse migration” from America to Ankara. Along the way, she sheds light on the dark corners of our global village – the housing disparities of the American south, the homeless of Bratislava, the hidden beauty of South Korea. She knits together history and current events, including the mass migration from Syria and the economic changes of South Africa. She examines her own slave-owning ancestors and makes the case for reparations on a personal level. She interviews the exiles living in her home city of Chattanooga. And gives voice to their longing for home. Her collection is a road map to the world with all its complexities and should not be missed.”

– Lisa Page, co-editor of the forthcoming essay collection, #Passing


“Sybil Baker’s beautifully written and compelling collection, Immigration Essays, vividly dramatizes our missed opportunities to be more humane citizens of the world. From her family farm to small town and urban America, and then to places as far away and culturally different as Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe, Baker takes us to places in which we may be slow to recognize beauty, and she brings us thoughtfully and poignantly home, back to the heart. She begins with the fact that we share the planet with over sixty-five million refugees fleeing worn-torn regions, and she points out the likelihood that each of us lives only blocks away from families restricted by poverty and inequality. Using photographs, personal history, literature, and a generous mix of compassion, wit, and irony, these keenly nuanced and hauntingly honest essays inspire us to keep our minds and hearts open in order to richly experience the wider world. Urgently relevant for these times, Immigration Essays is a book I wish everyone would read.”

– Allen Wier, author of Tehano


“More than a collection of ‘wanderings’ Sybil Baker’s Immigration Essays is an amazing and essential odyssey for our times. Ranging from origins in a rural house through ten cities, shantytowns and even the effects of gentrifications in her own city and counterpointed against heartfelt experiences through Asia, Europe and Africa, Baker opens up the world of peoples from places like Sudan, Ukraine, Greece, Turkey, Iraq and more. Here we learn how every place, even our own, is foreign, how every person is an immigrant in some respect with a back story that makes you see them anew. As she writes, ‘By listening and telling stories we acknowledge each other’s value, as different as our lives are.’ Through all this there is an overwhelming hope that despite the racism and poverty she encounters we can ‘commit to embracing and forgiving the world.’ What better vision can we have? You need to read this book, and more, believe in it.”

– Richard Jackson, award-winning author of The Heart’s Many Doors


More from Times Free Press

And check out Sybil over at Tennessee Arts Commission

Sybil wins the Tennessee Arts Commission Individual Artist Fellowship

Sybil interviews with NPR affiliate Murray State.

Chapter 16 writes, “It’s useful…for any discourse about travel to consider the problem of home—its allure, as well as its frustrations, inadequacies, and troublesome ghosts.”

A review of Sybil’s book is up at Small Press Reviews