March 20, 2017 at 3:52 pm

Lit Fest | Uncanny Empathy in Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s Fiction

The 2017 Spring Literary Festival welcomes author Sarah Shun-lien Bynum for a reading on Wednesday, April 5, at 8:30 p.m.,  and a noon lecture on April 6—both in Walter Hall Rotunda.

By E.M. Tran
Graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in Creative Writing: Fiction

Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s writing immerses us in a character’s mind and experience—whether that character is a young teacher, a burglar, a mother looking for a brown-skinned doll, or a network television writer, Bynum makes us care in spite of her characters’ flaws. This immersion is even more remarkable considering that, in many of her narratives, she moves from perspective to perspective, past to future and future to past, with such nonchalance, a casual shift that forces the reader to come along without question. We do this gladly because her stories simultaneously contain unexpected humor and gut-punching emotion; they sweep us, delightfully, into a heap of hurt and mirth.

Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

Bynum’s two books that elicit these responses are Madeleine Is Sleeping, a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award and winner of the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, and Ms. Hempel Chronicles, which was a finalist for the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award. Her fiction has also appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Tin House, the Georgia Review, and the Best American Short Stories 2004 and 2009. She is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award and an NEA Fellowship, but, most importantly, her writing explores characters across a spectrum of existence, homing in on a study of identity that keeps us alert with compelling story structure.

Take, for instance, Bynum’s short story “The Burglar,” in which she braids together the concurrent narratives of a husband, a wife, and a burglar. The husband is at work, writing his first episode for a major network television show. He suspects the only reason he has been asked is that the episode’s protagonist is Emmett Diggs, a black man wrongly accused and imprisoned for murder. Bynum is aware, and trusts her readers to also be aware, of the burden of assumption bedeviling the husband—that black people must know what other black people feel. This fact subtly shimmers beneath the surface of the story, cloaking our experience of reading in the same way it has cloaked the husband’s. Meanwhile, the wife is having a personal day, but forgets she has to meet the termite exterminator at the house. She goes home and accidentally meets the burglar instead; the wife notes that he is a black man, roaming her house in search of something valuable to steal, but his race is never again brought to our attention. When we think of his blackness, it is by our own inclination, and we are acutely aware and perhaps ashamed of it. Our gazes are directed to the burglar’s human errors, as if the burglary were like any other new task in need of practice. While Bynum weaves race in and out of this story, it does not shout at us; instead, she asks the reader to think of any character as essentially raced, as so many stories about black characters do, and she challenges our preconceptions along the way.

Each of Bynum’s characters is imperfect, so much so that they might, in another writer’s hands, seem detestable. Instead, we empathize with each. The husband’s TV episode turns into a strand of its own, Emmett Diggs himself prowling the neighborhood and walking in to witness the altercation between the wife and burglar. We learn Emmett “wants to go to the woman, who is sobbing in disbelief and dripping blood on the floor,” and that the burglar has punched the wife and is leaving. We float above the scene as viewers of a television program might, seeing the burglar after this botched escape. Bynum writes of Emmett and the burglar, “before he can cross the room and reach him, before he can open his mouth and say, ‘Hey, brother,’ the boy has closed the door behind him and is gone.” A story that shrouds race throughout forces the reader to focus on the ultimate unavoidability of raced experience in the end. The burglar, someone we would normally see as the villain, is in the end just a “boy,” someone who is who he is because of society’s passive cruelty. He’s surely done something wrong here: breaking into a home, stealing a family’s possessions, and hurting a woman in the process. But Bynum isn’t moralizing. The magic of her writing is that we are willing to believe this burglar is somehow innocent, just a boy—a victim, even, of his circumstances.

Rather than shifting through perspectives as she does in “The Burglar,” in her second novel, Ms. Hempel Chronicles, Bynum focuses only on the singular character of Ms. Hempel, moving across a narrative that jumps through experiences days or years apart. The novel reads more as a series of linked short stories, except that in the end, the reader still feels a sense of cohesion, an understanding of who Ms. Hempel is as a whole even though the way we learn about her is in episodic spurts. It seems contradictory, but Bynum is able to achieve this by consistent characterization while everything and everyone else moves and changes around her character. There is no shattering epiphany or “change” in the dramatic sense for Ms. Hempel; indeed, she remains dependably the same in our experience with her. There are moments in which she reminisces about her rebel punk teen past, her wistful childhood listening to late night radio, her perhaps squandered talent. But those moments serve to inform the Ms. Hempel that we are introduced to in chapter one: a teacher in her late twenties, struggling to understand herself. The Ms. Hempel we know is kind, thoughtful, and unaware of her own impact on others, unaware of her own agency. The entire work embodies that disorienting experience of teaching—adults may change gradually over the years, but the young people they influence grow up and turn into different versions of themselves, into the unrecognizable adults they will probably remain for the rest of their lives. Bynum is able to inject the humor and angst of adolescence into a character’s life so thoroughly that the absurdity of youth feels not-so-absurd for a moment.

This point is driven home at the end, years after Ms. Hempel has quit teaching, when she sees a former student, Sophie, now an adult. Sophie wants to call Ms. Hempel by her first name, Beatrice, admitting that when they were her students, they always thought they should. “You thought of me as a kid?” Ms. Hempel attempts to rationalize. But Sophie says, “I guess I felt that way because we were close to you.” Bynum is an expert at inserting intense punches of sentiment, and Sophie’s admission that “you’re Ms. Hempel forever. At least to us,” leaves the reader feeling as emotionally raw as Ms. Hempel herself because we know how little she felt she affected them, that she assumed herself a tiny speck in a huge universe. And perhaps the greatest achievement in Bynum’s work is the way she expands those tiny specks into full, breathing lives.

Bynum has said in a New Yorker interview that “I find this to be true in general, that stories only happen for me when things don’t go according to plan.” It’s fair to say that Bynum follows her own characters through their lives and ambivalences, that writer and character go along together to face unexpected conflict and everyday epiphany. Sometimes that conflict is external, but most often, it comes internally, in the way most nuanced troubles do. And because she seems to live her characters’ lives with them, Bynum gets into the nitty-gritty, whether her subject is a half-Asian middle school teacher or a young black man poorly burgling a home. In all cases, she is able to universalize their disparate experiences: Everyone feels lonely or desperate or incompetent at some point, like a speck. But in the stories of Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, we see characters’ impact discovered and charted. We meet these people in their own strange and specific worlds, but they never feel like strangers. Because just as Bynum lives along with her characters, she invites us into that imagination too.



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