How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

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It’s hard to go through childhood in your second language. And when your father puts you on the spot by teaching you the wrong way to pronounce the word “knife”, making you the class’s laughing stock, it doesn’t get better.

It’s that time when you find out that parents don’t always have all the answers, or might not have any answers at all.

“As she watches her father eat his dinner, she thinks of what else he doesn’t know. What else she would have to find out for herself.”

This is very much what Souvankham Thammavongsa talks about in her beautiful debut collection: growing up.

Growing up is not easy in even the most privileged of situations. A young Lao refugee with a language and cultural barrier, parents that struggle to make ends meet and don’t speak the language either, will have it more complicated, as Thammavongsa shows through those assorted stories which take us back to various stages of her youth.

Thammavongsa, in a quiet and exact style, takes us back to 1980s and 90s Toronto where her family settled. She tells us about herself, her brother, her parents and her Lao community. She talks about the dreams and journeys of a hard-working family that tries to fit in without losing its legacy and culture. She tells of the memory of a young child and her evolving understanding of the world around her, of a teenager and young adult, learning about friendship, studies, work, sexuality.

Throughout the entire collection she paints a truthful, delightful picture of her parents generosity, character traits and quirks:

“The first time he put the axe in my hand, the handle was surprisingly light. Dad said, “Now you only get one chance, so go for the neck or the face.”

“The songs my mother loved the most were by Randy Travis. Whenever we saw a new Randy Travis music video on television, she would quickly hit the Record button, and everything else slipped from her mind.”

With every story, the reader discovers another facet of Thammavongsa’s family and peers, making them wonderfully real.

She also depicts a bittersweet picture of what it’s like to be so far from one’s home and origins, that sense of not belonging. “My mother was proud that I could still have something from the old even though I had never been there […] but the woman said […] You better start speaking English with her. How’s she going to fit in once she gets to school?”

“And all through the night, we went from door to door yelling “Chick-A-Chee!” until our pillowcases were so heavy we couldn’t carry them anymore.

Her stories are told through different voices of one same person, either centre of the story, or witness. They sometimes dissect a small incident, zooming onto a specific person and a precise moment in time, or zoom out, covering a wider time spam and broader group of people. I really that aspect of Thammavongsa’s writing mirroring very much like how memories work. Some events, though small, brand you forever, almost shaping your path to adulthood; and some others, just paint a general atmosphere of what that period in time felt like.

Those stories jump through time, reminding us that memories are not chronological or linear, but attached to our heartstrings and emotions.

“The next afternoon when we got to the building and we heard him say, ‘Sexy’, she looked up at him and yelled: ‘We’re TWELVE you creepy fuck!’ And because she’d said something I felt I had to say something too so I shouted, ‘I’ll cut it off! We’ll see what’s sexy then’!”

Thammavongsa is a master at showing and not telling, her stories vibrant with strong imagery painting the world she grew up in the way it was, and describing herself the way she is, fierce, loving and accepting.

A beautiful collection.

How to Pronounce Knife is published by Bloomsbury and is available here.

Souvankham Thammavongsa

Souvankham Thammavongsa‘s first story collection, HOW TO PRONOUNCE KNIFE, is published by Little, Brown (U.S.), McClelland & Stewart/Penguin Random House (Canada), and Bloomsbury (U.K.). Her stories have won an O. Henry Award and appeared in Harper’s MagazineThe Paris ReviewThe AtlanticGrantaNOONThe BelieverBest American Nonrequired Reading 2018, and O. Henry Prize Stories 2019. She is the author of four books of poetry, CLUSTER (2019); LIGHT (2013), winner of the Trillium Book Award for Poetry; FOUND (2007), now a short film; and SMALL ARGUMENTS (2003), winner of the ReLit prize. The New York Times said of her, “A talented new voice emerges.” She is working on her first novel.

Reviewed by B.F.Jones

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