How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa: ‘They’d had to begin all over again, as if the life they led before didn’t count’

Cover image It was that title that attracted me to this collection of stories about immigrants and refugees, cleverly exemplifying the many idiosyncratic challenges English throws at those for whom it’s a second language. Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, Laotian writer Souvankham Thammavongsa is a poet whose own facility for language is demonstrated throughout this fine collection.

I’ve picked out a few favourites but there’s not a dud amongst Thammavongsa’s fourteen stories, all brief with a couple just a few pages long. How to Pronounce Knife quietly conveys the burden resting on a small girl’s shoulders when she’s called upon to read aloud at school revealing her father’s incorrect pronunciation. In Randy Travis a woman remembers her mother replacing her country music obsession with an addiction while in You Are So Embarrassing a mother recalls the harsh words she and her estranged daughter exchanged years ago as she waits outside her daughter’s home, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Picking Worms sees a woman remember her mother’s pride in her menial job and her revenge on the high school dance date who abused her mother’s generosity while in Mani Pedi an ambitious woman’s washed-up boxer brother proves an unlikely hit when he starts working in her nail bar but he makes the mistake of falling in love. In Ewwrrrkk, the shortest piece, a woman’s affectionate memory of her great-grandmother’s warnings about men ends with a sting in its tail.

As you’d expect in a collection whose overarching theme is immigration, many of Thammavongsa’s stories are about loneliness, longing and dislocation often expressed through the memories of children for their parents. Characters are hard-pressed, often engaged in work far below their capabilities, struggling to give their sons and daughters what they see others enjoying while their children are both protective and embarrassed by them. Apparently stern and distant fathers surprise their children with generosity, one taking the trouble to make an elaborate Halloween costume, another adding red paint to white unable to afford the expensive pink shade his daughter covets. Many of the stories are infused with a quiet sadness sometimes undercut with gentle humour, all are remarkable in their eloquent economy. As ever with writing of this quality, I could reel off a slew of quotations but  here are just a few to give you a flavour:

This time it was slot machines. She sat up close as those machines lit up her face and swallowed her hope coin by coin (Randy Travis)

Everything outside was blurry and wet, and there was nothing to be done about it. The windshield wipers sounded like sobs (You Are So Embarrassing)

Now, that kind of giggle seemed foolish for them to do. It was like a far distant thing, a thing that happened only to other people. All they could do now was to be close to it, and remain out of sight. (Mani Pedi)

She dug into her home-stitched bra and pulled out her bare breasts. They looked like eggplants – not new fresh ones you buy from the supermarket, but ones that had been left in the fridge for some time. (Ewwrrrkk)

Before they left for work every morning, they folded the mattress four times like a piece of paper and put it into the shoe closet (A Far Distant Thing)

I hope that’s whetted your appetite.

Bloomsbury: London 2020 978526610430 179 pages Hardback

15 thoughts on “How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa: ‘They’d had to begin all over again, as if the life they led before didn’t count’”

  1. Oh these stories sound excellent. Those themes of loneliness and dislocation alongside that of immigration and refugees are themes I find fascinating. I particularly like the sound of the title story about the child reading aloud, something we all can remember having to do at school. I also like the sound of You are So Embarrassing.

  2. The title is a real attention-grabber, for sure, and I’m glad to hear the stories themselves live up to that sense of expectation. It’s such an interesting topic for fiction, the exploration of different facets of immigration and the experiences it gives rise to. This sounds like a very thought-provoking collection.

  3. The title would intrigue me too as would the concept of stories from an immigrant experience. I’d just have to get over my hurdle that they are short stories.

  4. Pingback: Alligator and Other Stories by Dima Alzayat: Immigration reprised | A life in books

    1. I think it would suit you, Claire. The immigration experience theme which runs through all the stories makes this a strong, cohesive collection. I was so pleased to see it had won the Scotiabank Giller Prize today.

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