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Books: The New Yorker Honors UCSD’s Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

San Diego based writer Sarah Shun-lien Bynum has won a coveted spot on The New Yorker's “20 Under 40” list. Bynum heads up the MFA Writing Program at UC San Diego’s Department of Literature.

Though Bynum says she’s “both giddy and completely humbled” to be on the list, she is no stranger to literary laurels. Her most recent novel, “Ms. Hempel Chronicles,” was a finalist for the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Her first novel, “Madeleine Is Sleeping,” was a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award.

That 2004 nomination was a controversial one. Bynum was nominated with four other women - and no men - in the fiction category. This stirred some debate in the literary community.

Bynum found herself “dismayed by how the coverage tended to conflate our gender with low book sales, over "poetic" writing, and literary slightness.”

While Bynum is "deeply heartened" that the New Yorker’s list includes the same number of women as men, she is unsure whether it reflects a new era in fiction, as the backlash she experienced in 2004 is still fresh.

Bynum advises young writers to make the right kinds of friends: other writers. “These are the people who will read your drafts, make brilliant recommendations, help you with application letters, invite you to readings, look at thirteen different versions of your story's final sentence -- and you will do the same for them. Empathy, encouragement, perspective, inspiration -- writing friendships provide all of these necessary things.”

To Bynum, one of the best things about the “20 Under 40” list was being included alongside “two friends …whose work I've always loved: Salvatore Scibona and ZZ Packer.”

Kafka said “writing is utter solitude,” but it seems Bynum might have proved him wrong.

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