Review

Sharp stories around immigrants that cut like a blade

Canadian poet Souvankham Thammavongsa, who was born to Lao parents, features many immigrants or refugees from Laos in How To Pronounce Knife.
Canadian poet Souvankham Thammavongsa, who was born to Lao parents, features many immigrants or refugees from Laos in How To Pronounce Knife.PHOTO: SARAH BO STUDIO
Canadian poet Souvankham Thammavongsa, who was born to Lao parents, features many immigrants or refugees from Laos in How To Pronounce Knife.
Canadian poet Souvankham Thammavongsa, who was born to Lao parents, features many immigrants or refugees from Laos in How To Pronounce Knife.PHOTO: BLOOMSBURY CIRCUS

In the title story of this collection, a child insists on pronouncing the "k" in "knife". Her immigrant father thinks this is how it should be. The child is shamed in school for it. From this, she learns that some things are there, but you do not say them. She says nothing about this to her father.

Souvankham Thammavongsa hones the spare little stories of her fiction debut like a knife. They are hard-edged and precise, often glinting with humour.

Souvankham, a Canadian poet, was born to Lao parents in the Nong Khai refugee camp in Thailand and moved to Ontario when she was one year old.

Most of the characters in her 14 stories are immigrants or refugees from Laos. It would be careless, however, to bluntly reduce this to autobiography. The stories actively resist this in their placelessness, their pared-down detachment and their hanging endings, left open to unspoken futures.

They are careful about the very language they are written in. There is just as much in what they do not say as in what they do say.

Some of them turn on visceral, even repugnant scenes. In Picking Worms, one of the collection's best, a mother wakes her teenage daughter up to drive to a hog farm at one in the morning. There, they pick live earthworms by hand for hog feed.

In Mani Pedi, a failed boxer winds up working at his sister's nail salon, where clients get a kick out of being seen to by a burly man, even as he tries to mask his disgust at handling their feet.

Souvankham can sometimes resort to stock similes, as in Mani Pedi, when puffs of cigarette smoke disappear like the dreams refugees are warned not to have.

But elsewhere, she cuts to the heart. In Randy Travis, about a housewife's unrequited love for a country singer, fermented fish sauce is "like a fingerprint", because you can trace whom it belongs to by how it was made.

There are stories that open up and let you slip into their skin so smoothly they surprise you.

The narrator of Slingshot, another standout which won the prestigious O. Henry short-story award, is a 70-year-old woman who has an affair with her 32-year-old neighbour. You would think that the story turns on its anomaly, but it feels universal.

  • FICTION

  • HOW TO PRONOUNCE KNIFE

    Souvankham Thammavongsa

    Bloomsbury Circus/ Paperback/ 181 pages/ $25.95/Available at bit.ly/ HPKnife_ST

    4 Stars

There are people whose lives go unspoken, to whom the rules of speaking are hopelessly opaque. With trim economy, Souvankham slices through these silences.

If you like this, read: The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Little, Brown, 2017, $18.95, available here), a spare, haunting short-story collection by the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer about the experiences of Vietnamese refugees, from a ghost-writer visited by her brother's ghost to an elderly man with Alzheimer's who begins to call his wife by another name.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 19, 2020, with the headline 'Sharp stories around immigrants that cut like a blade'. Print Edition | Subscribe