wed 17/04/2024

Souvankham Thammavongsa: How to Pronounce Knife review - neat finishes with loose ends | reviews, news & interviews

Souvankham Thammavongsa: How to Pronounce Knife review - neat finishes with loose ends

Souvankham Thammavongsa: How to Pronounce Knife review - neat finishes with loose ends

Left-field tales putting migrants' lives front and centre

Canadian poet Souvankham Thammavongsa© Sarah Bodri

There’s a sort of enduring mystery about short stories. They rarely have the reassuring arithmetic of poetry or – with apologies to Murakami – novelistic sweep of longer fiction. They don’t respond kindly, either, to theories and formulas – no matter how many writers, critics and, yes, reviewers choose to dabble in that imperfect science – as to exactly what makes them work. More often than not, short stories are content to leave you hanging in open air, with more questions than answers.

Many of the fourteen stories in How to Pronounce Knife, the debut collection from Souvankham Thammavongsa, are a case in point. Thammavongsa is expert at creating that uncertain sense of an ending, producing neat finishes with loose ends. They are designed to stop you in your tracks. And they do so – sentence by deceptively simple sentence – with all the stealth of tigers stalking in tall grass.

How to Pronounce Knife

A predator-prey dynamic is partly the subject of the collection, which subtly highlights people’s unequal footing in the arenas of race, class, gender, age and nationality. In “Paris”, the female employees at a meat-processing plant spend their earnings on risky plastic surgery in order to catch the eye of the manager and get promoted from the factory floor to secretary. In “How to Pronounce Knife”, a young girl’s emulation of her father’s mispronunciation of that word lands her in the headmaster’s office and on the brink of expulsion.

As in the title story, the first in the collection, many are centred on the lives on immigrants of various generations, particularly from Lao. Thammavongsa, who was born in a Lao refugee camp in Thailand before emigrating with her parents to Canada, registers their everyday bafflements – “All the money in this country was green” – and daily disappointments. However, even when approaching the weightier injustices, her tone remains light; amused rather than accusatory. As such, she’s able to pick up on some of the surrealism of having to get along in a strange land. There is something funny (in both senses) about these stories.

In “Randy Travis”, a husband, after much resistance, transforms himself into the country singer his wife has become obsessed with, only to disappoint her with the quality of his singing. In a standout story, “Mani Pedi”, a prize boxer, down on his luck, becomes the most sought-after manicurist in his sister’s nail salon. Another memorable and affecting story, “Slingshot”, about an ageing widow who begins an ill-advised affair with the Gatsby-ish thirty-something next door, won the O. Henry Award, named after the short story writer famed for his surprise endings. With their quirky premises, Thammavongsa’s stories seem to pick up where his left off.

Intriguingly, “Slingshot” – whose final word is “stop” – is one of the few stories here not to end inconclusively or in inaction. Most of the others feel like Mozart without the cadence: you can feel Thammavongsa gathering all her resources, getting her ducks in a row, only, at the last moment, to let them all go to the wind, “like a far distant thing” you simply have to watch come and go. The rare times she does follow through, the gesture has a tendency to fall flat. In “Chick-a-Chee” (the weakest of the bunch), the story is barely raised above anecdote and the ending is little better than a punchline. When Thammavongsa is firing on all cylinders, she is able to make these beats and hits fall halfway through a story, at the end of the paragraph, within a paragraph.

She develops this sort of rich counterpoint in “The Edge of the World”, around the book’s halfway point, and in “Picking Worms”, the last and arguably best in the collection. It tells of how a (white) fourteen-year-old gets promoted to manager of a hog farm over a (Lao) middle-aged single mother who has been picking earthworms from the fields for years – a particularly galling turn of events, as she was the one who introduced him to the farm and tricks of the trade in the first place. The story succeeds not only for its surprising subject matter but for the way the material encourages Thammavongsa to push to the edge of her storytelling style.

Its final line could also almost stand as an epigraph for Thammavongsa’s unassuming craft: “I did not want him to see my open eye.” Like her characters, migrants living and working in the margins, Thammavongsa possesses an x-ray vision for teetering power structures and those who sit precariously at the top of them; the sort of gaze people on the lower rungs of the ladder have to shade to avoid raising the suspicions of their so-called superiors. Here, the powers that be are seen for who they are. But the writing goes beyond this. It actively, though quietly, works against the invisibility or erasure of those who must endure the fact of living in one of talked-about countries in the world (Canada) while hearing almost nothing about theirs, “as if it didn’t exist”.

Thammavongsa’s vision reverses the received wisdom, the conclusion one of her characters comes to, that there “were those were seen, and those who were not.” Between these pages, that theory doesn’t hold. This collection shows that those who are not often read about, who sometimes cannot read themselves, deserve to be read about. And, even more so, that Thammavongsa's writing about them deserves to be read.


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