By Diana Cheng
AAP Film & Arts Writer
Souvankham Thammavongsa’s short story collection “How to Pronounce Knife” is the winner of the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Established in 1994, the notable Canadian literary award’s past winners include Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, and Michael Ondaatje, just to name a few.
Born in the Lao refugee camp in Thailand, Thammavongsa came to Canada as a young child with her sponsored family. She grew up in Toronto where she still lives.
“How to Pronounce Knife” is a compilation of fourteen short stories previously published in literary journals and magazines such as Granta, The Paris Review, and Harper’s. Several selections in the book are O. Henry and The Journey Prize winners.
Thammavongsa’s memory of living in a refugee camp might be vague as she left while still a toddler, her growing up in Canada in an immigrant family would have supplied much lucidity. The details of immigrant lives and clarity of insights mark her stories with poignancy as she creates on the page.
In the title story a young immigrant child learns to read. Perplexed by the word ‘knife’, she asks her father how to pronounce it. “Kah-nnn-eye-ffff. It’s kahneyff,” he tells her. Her pronunciation of the word in class the next day when the teacher calls on her to read does not so much bring embarrassment but a conflict of loyalty, one that other characters in the stories of the book have to struggle with: the tug-of-war between loyalty to one’s own family and culture vis-à-vis the larger society.
Thammavongsa’s stories bring us to lives we would seldom meet. “Mani Pedi” is about a failed boxer conceding to work in his sister’s nail salon, learning how to do manicure and pedicure. His scarred and damaged face may be a sharp contrast to the polished nails and creamed facials, it doesn’t stop him from dreaming, an internal flame which his sister tries to put out angrily.
Others extinguish their own dreams. Like the man whose wife has walked out on him in “Edge of the World.” While his daughter grieves for a mother lost, he does not. “He had done all of this life’s grieving when he became a refugee.”
“Picking Worms” tells the story of a mother and her fourteen-year-old daughter working as worm pickers in the dark of night. In this new land, there’s only the two of them as the girl’s father drowns while pushing them to escape across a river. You could be picking worms but still have your dignity intact, and memories. “Whenever I had any time to myself, I often got to thinking of my father. You aren’t supposed to remember things from when you’re two, but I did. All we wanted was to live.”
In other stories there’s the voice of the female in a male-dominated society, regardless whether one is an immigrant or not. In the story “Paris”, the boss’s wife watches her husband go out with a female worker. She and another female worker embrace and cry, albeit for different reasons. In “Slingshot”, Thammavongsa describes the internal world of a seventy-year-old woman whose yearning and desire is no different from a younger one.
Not that all the stories are about gloomy loses and hurts. Wit and humour bring delightful surprises in Thammavongsa’s writing. “Randy Travis” reads like an episode of a comedy sit-com. A wife is infatuated with the singer Randy Travis and asks her daughter to write fan letters to him. The daughter wants to snuff out her mother’s craze and writes to the opposite effects. But her husband tries to please her, a husband who doesn’t belt out the word love as readily as a country-western singer but shows he’s no less loving than a white man.
Thammavongsa’s style is subtlety embedded in spare prose, occasionally sprinkled with a dash of witty humor. A word of wisdom is conveyed in these lines from “Slingshot”: “You can do that with a joke, hide how you feel and mean what you say at the same time, and no one will ask you which it is.” Apropos insight and a poignant skill of survival for her characters.
I thank Penguin Random House Canada for the review copy.