The exquisite and beguiling short story collection How to Pronounce Knife pierces the heart, leaving the reader melancholy but euphoric. Souvankham Thammavongsa’s ability to instill a spectrum of emotions is a testament to her startling, fresh, lyrical and powerful prose. Her nimble stories offer perspectives on contemporary Laotians living in an unnamed cosmopolitan North American city.
When I suggest that her female characters appear to have adapted to their new country more easily than their male counterparts, Thammavongsa replies, “I don’t think my female characters adapt… they refuse, actually. The child in the title story refuses to stop pronouncing the letter ‘k’ in knife as a way to hold on to something she loves. In ‘Paris,’ Red refuses to settle. In ‘Slingshot,’ the main character refuses to accept that love is everything and that it is enough—it isn’t. In ‘Randy Travis,’ the mother refuses to give up her love of country music. In ‘Mani Pedi,’ the sister refuses to let her brother give up. In ‘Chick-A-Chee,’ the children absolutely refuse to say ‘Trick-Or-Treat.’ The child in ‘Edge of the World’ refuses to give up the power to laugh. Every story is a treatise on refusal of some kind.”
Tidbits of information are scattered throughout the stories. The Lao alphabet has “loops and swirls, its curlicues like ribbons,” but it might disappear, become a lost art form, because the fonts can be readily downloaded. Although Thammavongsa does not write in Lao, she believes that “the Lao language shapes and haunts the way” she uses the English language. When asked if she dreams in English or Lao, she replies, “I don’t dream very much and when I do it is mostly in images.”
Thammavongsa explores the idea of overcoming loss and building new lives against the odds, a phenomenon, she is quick to point out, that is shared by many.
“I grew up in the Keele and Eglinton West area of Toronto,” she says. “Everybody around me came from somewhere else. Our high school yearbook ran 10 or 20 pages of the last name Nguyen. When you grow up in a neighbourhood like that, you don’t spend time explaining to people where you are from and why you are here. I don’t spend much time explaining those things in my writing because I assume people know, and if they do not, I do nothing to help them along.”
Born in a Lao refugee camp in Nong Khai, Thailand, in 1978, Thammavongsa’s family was part of the exodus of refugees that came to Canada from Laos and Vietnam that became known as “the boat people.” In How to Pronounce Knife, the stories’ focus is on refugees who reinvent themselves to adapt, sometimes by changing their given names to provide Westerners with an easier trippingly-on-the-tongue experience.
“In my stories, characters change their names,” she explains. “Dang was called ‘Red,’ Chantakad wanted to be called ‘Celine,’ Jai was renamed ‘Jay’ by his wife. Some were not named at all, and this pressed on my skill of writing in order to give you a character that felt real and alive without a name to hang it all on.
“I think we change our names sometimes because we want to, other times it is the people we love who change our names for us. Our names, and their variations, are a marker of time, and of our relationship with people who know us. People who do not know me call me ‘Souvankham.’ Some call me ‘Sue’ or ‘Sou.’ My mom, dad and brother call me ‘Ning.’ I have been called ‘Babes’ or ‘Sweetie,’ as well. Whoever calls me what says a lot about my relationship to them.”
Thammavongsa reveals the trauma of fleeing, arriving, assimilating, fitting in and the lingering presence of fragments of past lives. Although her characters “do the grunt work of the world”—picking worms, plucking feathers in chicken plants—they also dream of moving into the tree-lined neighbourhoods just beyond their reach.
In the story “Paris,” Thammavongsa says that “the first thing we see is the title. Everything we know about Paris, the city in France, has to do with an idea of sophistication, culture, fashion, beauty, fanciness. And yet we never encounter that at all in the story. We, as readers, are never in Paris. Instead, we are in a chicken processing plant with raw flesh and loosened dead guts. And we are surrounded by loneliness. Everything we encounter is far from Paris and the idea of Paris haunts the reader throughout the story.
“None of the characters ever get to Paris, and the brutality of it all is the thing that just sits with the reader—no one, not even the reader, gets to Paris. It is the very architecture of the story that breaks your heart.”
These somewhat tragic but hopeful lives are depicted with wry humour. The central conflict in many of the stories is the complicated and unequal relationship between the haves and the have-nots.
Thammavongsa delights in sparse language; her minute attention to inanimate objects reveal heart-breaking scenarios. In the story “How to Pronounce Knife,” she writes, “Then he’d hand over a newspaper to the child, who unfolded sheets on the floor, forming a square, and around that square they sat down to have dinner.” The aching, wistful imagery conjures the dilemma of refugee parents transitioning into an alien world without family, friends or cultural roots, so that their children may benefit from their sacrifices.
Older generations, Thammavongsa says, see them-selves in her stories and tell her they were “speechless, with tears of pride, at the sight of me or my name in the New York Times, Washington Post, the New Yorker, Vogue, Time magazine, O magazine. They cry or take pictures and post on social media. And I don’t even know them.”
Thammavongsa writes about large themes in beautifully rendered stories. Much of the charm lies in her literary alchemy—her ability to teach about race relations without preaching. However, she is adamant not to be labelled as someone who is a “voice” for the Lao community.
“I do not put that kind of pressure on myself and I don’t court it. We like writers to be the voice of a generation, to represent something for us, to be heroic. But one thing we should allow a writer to be is terribly boring and useless too. A writer should be given the space to be a mess, that she has the right to refuse this pedestal. I don’t want the pressure to be perfect, to be something like a sage or god to someone. That’s unrealistic and setting people up for a terrible disappointment.
“If we know anything about writers and the writing life, writers are not always the best people and I certainly would not look to them to be anything for me. It’s okay, I think, to be unambitious and to just want to work. I can’t control how people see me or what they want me to be for them, but I can control the destiny of my art and that is what I think about all the time.”
Thammavongsa is too subtle a writer to provide facile resolutions. Her stories she says, reflect “the love and pleasure and joy of writing. Also, the awe and magic of the very act of reading.” Asked whether writing is the art of memory, she replies, “Memory is material, and everyone has plenty of it—but it isn’t art.”
Musing on her writing oeuvre, she says, “I do what I want. When I want it to be poetry, or a short story or a novel—it is. This act of want doesn’t seem very profound or magical, but for someone like me it is. My parents built a raft made of bamboo to get to a refugee camp because they wanted to. I am here because my mother gave birth in a refugee camp because she wanted me. I grew up in a home without books and I write books because I want to.”
Her extraordinary stories offer a rare glimpse into the rich and layered tapestry of Laotian life and I, along with others who have read them, hope that the author wants to continue writing.
© herizons magazine