Spilling the Tea: Q & A

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Sybil Baker, a writer and professor of creative writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and Brynija Loyd, an incoming freshman at UTC and aspiring writer, have an interesting relationship. Although Sybil is Brynija’s mentor, their connection is special and Catalpa’s Tiffany Herron visited them in Sybil’s office to learn more.

Tiffany Herron: I hope I’m not interrupting anything.

Sybil Baker: No, no. We were just shootin’ the shit, as they say.

Brynija Loyd: What? {Laughing}

SYBIL: You’ve never heard of that?

BRYNIJA: No. Never. {Still laughing}

SYBIL: It’s like sitting around talking about nothing in particular.

BRYNIJA: Oh, like ‘spilling the tea’?

SYBIL: It’s more like talking about the weather. Isn’t ‘spilling the tea’ more like gossip?

BRYNIJA: Everything is gossip. I’m gonna use it. ‘Shooting the shit,’ I like it.{Laughter}

TIFFANY: Sybil, what interested you in becoming a mentor?

SYBIL: When I returned from sabbatical in Cyprus I wanted to contribute more to the community. After writing the book Immigration Essays I started thinking about ways to give back and decided becoming a mentor was something I could do. [I was] Feeling like I needed to connect more with Chattanooga. I had tenure, I volunteered with the Bridge Refugee organization.

TIFFANY: Was there a certain program you chose?

SYBIL: No, I emailed the Chattanooga Girl’s Leadership Academy about their mentorship program. I mentioned my profession and asked if there were any girls who were interested in writing. I underwent a background check, and was invited to the school to meet my mentee.

TIFFANY: Brynija, how did you learn about the mentorship?

BRYNIJA: A person from the school’s office came and got me out of class. I thought I was in trouble. {Laughing}  I came down and there was Sybil.

SYBIL: I asked her if she would like to have a writing mentor. BIG smile, and we hugged right away. We just connected from the beginning. I met her mom, she is really involved and super supportive. I wanted to provide opportunities but I didn’t want to overstep. But she [Nichole] was like ‘yeah, whatever.’

TIFFANY: How do you remember that first meeting, Brynija?

BRYNIJA: I thought, why are they doing this to me? I was scared. When I actually met Sybil in person I thought, “Who is this random white woman in my face?” {Smiling} It was back when I didn’t know anyone who thought writing was as important as it was to me.

TIFFANY: How did you feel when you learned Sybil was an author?

BRYNIJA: I got really excited. I thought they [mentor] are going to make me doing something stupid and science-y. It [writing] was a new outlet for me. I was only receiving outside input [on my writing] from my mom.

TIFFANY: Were you apprehensive at all about having a mentor?

BRYNIJA: When I left CGLA [transferring to East Ridge] I thought she was going to drop me, but she introduced me to so many people and so many new things. My appreciation for her tripled.

TIFFANY: How long they have you known each other?

BRYNIJA: Um, well I was 14.

SYBIL: Yeah, so that was, what, four years ago?

TIFFANY: What were your impressions of Brynija were as you got to know each other better?

SYBIL: What’s not to love? Watching her grow up, she is very mature in a lot of ways. She is saving money for school and has a lot going on. Luckily she does have a supportive mom. She [Brynija] is learning to navigate the world and is independent so it is not surprising she has a strong work ethic. She has been accepted to UTC for Fall 2019, graduated high school a semester early and is now working close to full time. I am impressed by the way she has always been open for everything, to new experiences. I will like to continue [helping provide] that.

TIFFANY: Brynija, what genre do you prefer?

BRYNIJA: I’ve written songs and poetry. I’d like to write more short stories but endings are hard. I think poems and their endings are indefinite. I like writing those [poems and songs] more.

TIFFANY: Sybil, I know you write mostly fiction but Immigration Essays were more Creative Nonfiction. Are you from Chattanooga?

SYBIL: No, I grew up in Fairfax, Virginia, but my parents’ roots are from North Carolina and Arkansas. We eat grits, turnip greens, buckwheat pancakes and drink iced tea. [I relate to] the culture in that sense. It is ‘Southern light’ not hard core South.

TIFFANY: Brynija, do you think being born and raised in the South, in Chattanooga, affects your writing?

BRYNIJA: Yes, deeply, because I am a black woman in the South. All the history [of being black] has been indoctrinated in you. The way I talk now is not Southern. People say ‘Oh you grew up in the North’ but I didn’t. I watched a lot of TV and learned from soap operas how to speak with a green voice, without an accent.

TIFFANY: Sybil, how do you see your role as a contemporary Southern woman?

SYBIL: White Southern people, we don’t interrogate our own whiteness. It’s a project but we don’t do it or even consider how, historically, we’re here because of slavery. I am trying to read more books by [African American authors], fiction and nonfiction. It [racism] seems more obvious in the South but there is racism everywhere. Living abroad I consciously realized ‘oh, I’m a white person.’ I was the racial minority.

TIFFANY: Brynija, where do would you dream of living if you could choose anywhere?

BRYNIJA: I have lived everywhere in Chattanooga, from one side of town to the other. But even if it’s Nashville, I want to go somewhere there is snow. Of course everyone dreams of New York, but just somewhere I could meet new people. Michigan might be nice. Someplace where there are all of the seasons.

SYBIL: I have to meet with a student, but go on without me.

TIFFANY: Brynija, what comes to mind when I say ‘contemporary Southern woman?’

BRYNIJA: I think of someone who goes to church, has a resting bitch face, a huge fuck-off vibe, and at the same time, a woman who says, educate me about something. She’s strong but also says ‘bless your heart.’ Sometimes I think that catch phrase [bless your heart] alone describes the South. Contemporary Southern woman is liberation and education. Am I that? Is that me? I am a version, a spectrum of all these things. I went to a predominantly white elementary school. In my head, everybody is black, easy no bias. In elementary and high school I hung out with racially ambiguous kids. I didn’t really think of stereotypes or wonder if people were racist. But then I got the nickname ‘Oreo.’

TIFFANY: No, really?

BRYNIJA: {Laughing} Yes, really, Oreo, and I didn’t understand it. When I got older, my mom had to give me a whole lecture about being black. There are people I know who are black, who told me what they thought I should know about being black specifically. With this new education I saw the world a little differently. When I met Sybil, I even thought maybe she’s compensating for white guilt. But then she did things she didn’t have to, and she continued to do things she didn’t have to do. That was how I knew she was sincere. Yeah, I see people look at us funny when we are out in public but I don’t care. She is more than a mentor. I was even apprehensive to talk to you. I mentioned to my friend how I felt when I got your email about the interview. I thought maybe you were going to Sandra Bullock blind side me. {Laughing}

TIFFANY: {Laughing} What? You mean from the movie? You thought I was going to blindside you? Oh no.

BRYNIJA: {Laughing} Oh yes, Sandra Bullock from The Blind Side.  

TIFFANY: You know I’m not white right? {Laughing}

BRYNIJA: {Laughing} I also talked to my mom and she said I better do the interview. And then I also thought Sybil wouldn’t let anything like that happen to me. That’s why I decided to do it.

The next day I receive an email from Sybil:

I didn't mention the most important thing about knowing Brynija—

It has been so fulfilling to meet such a natural and hardworking talent and to watch her writing continue to grow and develop. Even better is that she is such a thoughtful, wise, and loving person. I can't wait to say "I knew her when."

Tiffany Herron is an emerging writer and graduate student in creative writing at the University of Tennessse at Chattanooga.