Sybil Baker’s new novel, Into This World, draws the reader into two worlds, slowly at first, then faster and faster as it moves relentlessly toward a climax of secrets revealed and relationships changed.
One world is the exotic yet familiar community of American expatriates in Korea, cruising drunkenly through a culture they don’t attempt to understand. The other, more interesting world is the troubled relationship of two sisters—one Caucasian, one adopted from Korea by an American GI—and the knot of family secrets surrounding them.
The staid white Allison and the confident Korean wild child Mina begin the novel as a pair of opposites. But by the end they seem more like their own unique yin-yang symbol, so different but circling around each other always, each one holding the seed of the other for better or worse.
Baker’s three books all draw on her 12 years living in Korea and traveling around Asia. “They’re all about the allure and alienation of Americans traveling in or living in Asia,” she said.
The Life Plan (2009) is a comic novel about a woman trying to keep her marriage together by chasing after her husband who has left to study massage in Thailand. Talismans (2010) is a darker book, a collection of linked short stories about a woman traveling around Asia trying to find out what happened to her father, a Vietnam veteran who moved back to Vietnam and then disappeared.
“One of the nice things about being with small presses is that I can just write about whatever I want,” she said. “I have friends who are published by the bigger presses. Often there is a lot of pressure to write same book over and over.”
The Huffington Post called Baker one of “today’s strongest emerging talents in literary fiction and poetry.” If her summer teaching schedule is any indication, the rest of the world is also noticing: the Yale Writers’ Conference in June and City University of Hong Kong in July.
Baker returned from Korea in 2007 to become an assistant professor of English and creative writing at UTC, as well as assistant director of the Meacham Writers Workshop. She is also fiction editor for Drunken Boat, an online journal of art and literature.
“It takes a while to write about a place when you’re closer to it. I think I had to leave Korea to write about it,” she said. “My novel I’m just starting now is set in Chattanooga. I moved here in 2007, and I haven’t felt like I was ready to write about it until now.”
The idea for Into This World, published last May, began at the Hunter Museum. Baker helped organize a teachers conference held there in 2010 and joined other participants in writing a response to a painting. She wrote about “Confrontation” by Hughie Lee Smith, showing two girls in a desolate landscape. Baker decided they were estranged sisters, one of them Korean, and wondered why they were estranged. “That was the germ of the novel. I have to thank the Hunter for that,” she said.
Into This World is quite a page-turner, without having any of the throwaway qualities of fiction that usually gets that label. The set up is simple: adopted sister Mina goes to Korea looking for her birth mother, and Caucasian sister Allison follows to be sure she’s okay.
Looking back after finishing the book, it’s clear that the relatively mundane events of the first few pages—a drunken call from Korea, worried parents, the American sister reflecting on the torch she carried 12 years for her boss until quitting that day—foreshadowed the unfolding of a complex story of great emotional subtlety. The ending is the culmination of an intricate weave of revelations and reversals. It grows organically from that first scene with the inevitability of a knot of DNA unraveling to give up its secrets.
“Allison becomes the person who wants to know the truth no matter what,” said Baker. “At the beginning not so much. She doesn’t want to deal with the truth. Once she deals with how she’s been stuck in her life, who her father is and who her sister is, she wants to expose it to the whole family, even if that makes the family fall apart. Mina is concerned about finding out the truth of her own identity, but she doesn’t care about dealing with family.”
As Mina comes closer to finding her mother, she loses something of herself. But as the once passive Allison searches for Mina, she becomes a stronger, more sympathetic character and is, in fact, the engine moving the novel to its dramatic finale. The book ends on a moment of stunning clarity and emotional power. Without negating the suffering that led to it or pasting a literary smiley face on a complex story, the final scene and the very last image place a beautiful full stop at the end of this rich literary composition.