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'Likes': Tales That Dig Below The Surface Of Familiar Experiences


There are some experiences that turn your life so completely upside-down that reality feels almost in flux, like the falling down the rabbit hole that is becoming apparent.

SARAH SHUN-LIEN BYNUM: I think that "Alice In Wonderland" analogy is so apt because parenthood and navigating that uncharted territory is filled both with the wondrous, but also with terror.

PFEIFFER: That's writer Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum. Her new collection of short stories is called "Likes," and it's filled with tales that dig below the surface of familiar experiences to find what she calls the mysterious energy of fairy tales that often lies beneath. The first story of the collection captures this blend of the mundane and the eerie. That's where my co-host, Audie Cornish, started her conversation with the author.


This is a story about a mother who's taken her little girl to what sounds like a renaissance fair carnival on the grounds of a private school. And the perspective shifts from this mom, who's kind of preoccupied with all of these anxieties about whether her daughter should be going to that school, and the daughter, who is being lured into another realm by a fairy king. Am I getting that right?

BYNUM: Yes. Yes.

CORNISH: (Laughter) OK.

BYNUM: That's absolutely right (laughter). And that was, I think, when I first started writing it, it was a chance to give voice to all of these parental anxieties I was feeling - getting into the right preschool, is my child's development normal. And the story wasn't telling me much because by sticking just with the mother's perspective, the story was already telling me something I knew. But then when I included the little girl's perspective, the story began to go in much stranger directions because a kid's logic and a kid's way of looking at the world is wonderfully so much weirder than...


BYNUM: ...Ours is.

CORNISH: And also, they're in the process of figuring out what's right and wrong, right? There's a kind of pre-morality, right?

BYNUM: Yeah.

CORNISH: And it's not necessarily pretty.

BYNUM: (Laughter) Yes. Right. Some of it is quite self-serving (laughter). And by opening up this story to include two point of views, the story expanded to become both stranger and, as you were suggesting, darker because it stopped being about just those sort of daily anxieties and about a much larger threat that faces parents and children.

CORNISH: I want to talk about another story I think that gets at this idea and also what's changed over time - right? - over these years. The story "Likes" involves a father who's trying to kind of figure out his daughter through her Instagram posts. I was wondering if you could read a passage from that for me.

BYNUM: OK. (Reading) Some days, his daughter's quietness in the car felt blank and mysterious. But some days, it felt excruciatingly full, like an inflamed internal organ about to burst. On one such afternoon, the dad said carefully, I'm not going to look at you. I'm not going to say anything. I'm just going to keep my eyes on the road. I'm going to keep driving. And when you're ready, you say whatever you want. After a moment of silence, she said, I'm considering it. And then, can I curse? He nodded. She asked, you won't make any faces or have any expressions at all on your face? He nodded again.

They drove for several more minutes. The effort was killing him, also the dread. He wasn't sure if he had the capacity to receive whatever feeling it was that she was full of. When they were only three blocks from the therapist's office, she said to the windshield, I have no friends.

CORNISH: You know, it's interesting. For many people who have endured quarantine over the last couple of months, they're there with their kids, but their kids kind of have a way out - right? - because of their embrace of social media. And so it's this weird thing where they kind of have their back to you in a way, right?

BYNUM: Yeah. And this story, even though it seems as if it's told from the dad's point of view, we get these glimpses of her Instagram feed. And these photographs offer a window into the daughter's inner world that I think is much more wild and tangled and rich than the medium or the format of Instagram itself might suggest.

CORNISH: Has your daughter read any of this?

BYNUM: She - I gave her the advance reading copy, and she was really so touchingly proud and excited and...

CORNISH: So no mom, those were lame Instagram posts you imagined?

BYNUM: No, no. No, no. In fact, she said, you plagiarized my Instagram posts.

CORNISH: I was wondering about that.

BYNUM: (Laughter).

CORNISH: How'd that go over?

BYNUM: (Laughter) So now, you know, a few years have passed since I wrote that particular story. And she's old enough now to be a little ironic about it. And she'll say, oh, yeah, that story, with air quotes around it, loosely based on a certain 11-year-old girl you knew (laughter). So she has a sort of wry sense of humor about it now.

CORNISH: I want to ask this last question, which is - people may be looking around and seeing what they think are very dark times. What do you think is the role of the fairy tale today? I mean, do you feel like you're laboring at something that doesn't make much sense? Or, you know, is there something that makes it relevant, kind of a story form for the now?

BYNUM: I think that at the heart of so many fairy tales, there's the story of a child or of children surviving under unimaginably harsh circumstances. And I think maybe that's something that a fairy tale offers to us now. I look at my daughter, and I've just been so humbled by her resilience and her resourcefulness in the face of these crises. She's been isolated for the past six months, and yet she's still finding ways to keep going. She's still dancing in the kitchen every morning. And I think the innate toughness that we see in so many fairy tale characters, I think that's something that makes me hopeful about our kids coming out of these crises right now.

CORNISH: Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum - her new book is called "Likes" - thank you so much for speaking with us.

BYNUM: Audie, thank you so much. It's been such a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD'S "HEDRON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.