Host John Freeman kicked off the gorgeous literary conversation at the January gathering of the California Book Club by talking about what drew the selection committee to Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s short story collection, Likes. He noted, “We wanted a book that…made us feel that slippery edge of seduction.” When he introduced Bynum, he asked her about the meaning of the title and to what extent she was exploring likes, as in affinities, across the stories in the collection.
Bynum commented that “one of the forces that pulls me back to writing again and again is the nature of obsession and is the nature of following one’s predilections, listening to one’s inner voice, giving you permission to pursue those sometimes peculiar things that please you. So I do think that idea of ‘What pleases us? What ignites us? What continues to attract us?’ is something that excites me.” She remarked that as a younger writer she felt she needed to move on and progress to new subjects with each piece of writing. She said, “One of the acceptances that I’ve relaxed into is the acceptance that I am going to keep returning to those same wells over and over again. The things that I like are the things that are going to energize me…and I just need to give in to that.”
The conversation turned to the epigenetics of the American short story, which Freeman traced back to Edgar Allan Poe’s stories. Bynum commented on Poe’s belief in the unity of effect, which calls for a writer to determine what emotional effect they’d like their story to have on the reader before writing the story. Noting that she is also influenced by short stories from elsewhere in the world, she said that she embraces Poe’s lineage, especially the way that horror and the fantastic creep into his work —and that of several other writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Of them, she remarked, “These early American writers don’t have necessarily strict senses of genre…. There is kind of, to use your word, porousness with genre.”
Freeman spoke about Bynum’s prose style and how her stories examine surfaces very closely. He asked if there was any association for her between her style and the messages and lure of Hollywood. Speaking about her style, Bynum said that the way her mind and memory work is heavily reliant on the five senses: “So the smell of something will suddenly conjure up a lost association or a lost detail. Or if I’m trying to recollect a particular event, I’ll often try to remember, Oh, what was the music playing when that dinner conversation happened?” She uses sound, sight, smell, and sensation as a “compass” via which she can “revisit past experiences.” In other words, sensory details function as guideposts. They open up portals to the past and allow her to access space that is beyond the logical. Moving on to Freeman’s inquiry about a relationship between her style and Hollywood movies, she called herself “a lifelong lover of Hollywood movies” and commented that “they’ve entered my vocabulary of sensory memory.” She mused, “I know that Hollywood’s often maligned for being a place that’s inherently superficial, or a place that values surfaces over depth, but for me, it’s the surfaces that allow access to depth.”
Author Stuart Dybek, who was one of Bynum’s professors when she studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, joined the conversation. Dybek and Bynum expressed their mutual admiration of each other’s short stories. Dybek talked about a colleague who had taught the fairy tale and asked students to write them. What Dybek noticed when he borrowed the exercise was that while men could easily copy the fairy tale, doing so was “deadly for women.” He asked whether Bynum consciously tries to hold on to the tale, while abandoning stereotypes.
Bynum said that this isn’t a conscious act for her, just a matter of trusting her instincts and trying to “capture the feeling of fantasy” in the early Disney fairy tales that enraptured her when she was growing up. She said, “I wanted to try to tap into the absolute enchantment that those stories had on me at the time,” and also acknowledged that this desire had the potential to be a trap, whereby she reinscribed a tale’s patriarchal energy in a new story she was writing. However, she examined the deeper, richer tradition that preceded the stories on which she was raised and called it a tradition of “women sharing stories orally.” From that perspective, the Disney era of fairy tales is a mere blip in a much longer lineage.
Bynum said, “I also just loved the freedom of not having to be original.… Working within the fairy-tale tradition, the whole notion of originality gets thrown out the window. There is no such thing as an original fairy tale. It really is about, how do you add your own stitch to this big tapestry that so many unnamed storytellers have been crafting together through time?”
In February, we’ll be reading the Pulitzer Prize–winning poetry collection Postcolonial Love Poem, by Natalie Diaz. Diaz, Freeman, and a special guest will talk about her book at 5 p.m. on February 17. Please note it on your calendars and join us!•