Giller Prize 2020 Special: The Chat with Souvankham Thammavongsa

STHAMMAVONGSA author photo by Sarah Bodri

We continue our Giller Prize coverage of The Chat in conversation with Souvankham Thammavongsa. She’s on this year’s shortlist for her debut short story collection, How to Pronounce Knife.

Jury citation:

"The Scotiabank Giller Prize introduced me to Souvankham Thammavongsa’s work. I could not be more grateful. How to Pronounce Knife is a stunning collection of stories that portray the immigrant experience in achingly beautiful prose. The emotional expanse chronicled in this collection is truly remarkable. These stories are vessels of hope, of hurt, of rejection, of loss and of finding one’s footing in a new and strange land. Thammavongsa’s fiction cuts to the core of the immigrant reality like a knife—however you pronounce it.”

Souvankham Thammavongsa is the author of four poetry books: Light, winner of the Trillium Book Award for Poetry; Found; Small Arguments, winner of the ReLit Award; and, most recently, Cluster. Her fiction has appeared in Harper’s, Granta, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Best American Non-Required Reading, The Journey Prize Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories. How to Pronounce Knife is her debut book of fiction, and the title story was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Born in the Lao refugee camp in Nong Khai, Thailand, she was raised and educated in Toronto, where she is at work on her first novel.

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What was the first thing you did when you found out you were a finalist for this year’s Giller Prize?
 
I thought of what dress to wear.

How to Pronounce Knife is one of two short story collections on this year’s shortlist. What does the short story provide the reader that a novel cannot?

A short story can give you everything a novel can, but it does not waste your time. A short story is also brutal. It asks a writer to do a lot on very little. It forces you to let go even when you don’t want to. Every move you make is horribly unforgiving, and if you do not know what you are doing this becomes obvious very fast. A novel is more generous.

One of the most striking things about these stories is the humour. It’s often sly, sometimes bawdy, at times surprising or unexpected. Why is humour important to you as a writer, and in this collection in particular?
 
Humour connects us. A laugh in any language is a laugh. It makes us feel safe, if we share it. We know who we can trust. Humour can also divide us. When we don’t share what’s funny, we have to make difficult decisions.

How to Pronounce Knife complicates the act and sound of laughter. The stories ask who is laughing and why and where does it come from. It describes a joke as a place where you can hide how you feel and mean what you say, and no one will ask you which it is. The physical force and form of laughter, what it looks like coming out of a mouth, what it sounds like multiplying and echoing, making two little girls sound like more.

When you don’t know a language, you must learn to read the laughter.

Souvankham Thammavongsa

In this difficult year, in Canada and worldwide, what does literature offer?

Literature reminds us we are not alone, and it allows us to be alone. It gives us time and it also takes up time. A good book is a good book. A pandemic can’t take that from a writer and it can’t take it from a reader. The world around us can change, but the book remains still and alive and timeless.

What’s the last Canadian book that changed you in some way?

I love Alice Munro’s short stories and went to read her first short story collection, Dance of the Happy Shades. You are allowed to be brilliant, I thought.

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Excerpt from How to Pronounce Knife

“Edge of the World”

When I was about four, my mother and I spent our days sitting side by side on the couch, watching soap operas and eating chocolates and laughing. My mother’s laugh was loud and wild. She never covered her mouth, which would open so wide that I could see the half-chewed chocolate mashed up against the inside of her cheek. She would laugh this way only when we were alone. With my father or in the company of others, she would giggle and put a hand over her mouth. I wanted everyone to see what I saw when we were alone.

My mother learned to speak English watching these soaps, and soon she started practicing what she had picked up. When my father didn’t feel like eating, she would ask who he had been eating his meals with that he had no appetite. When a sock went missing from the dryer, she would ask where it had gone, and when he had no answer, she would accuse him of having an affair.

My father didn’t take my mother seriously. He tried to keep their talk light, saying he wished that he wasn’t so busy working and that life really was as full of opportunities for affairs as she imagined it to be. But then he would turn serious, saying, “You don’t know, do you? What it’s like for me at work. They all talk so fast in English. Barking at me all the time about keeping up. Sometimes I don’t even feel like a human being.”

My parents didn’t spend much time alone, and when they did, there were no Lao bars or cafés or restaurants for them to go to. Occasionally, we were invited to get-togethers at the homes of other Lao refugees. Some had been here a long time, like us, and some had just arrived. These parties were where everyone went to dance and listen to music, play cards and eat, reminisce and talk about old times. They would laugh all night—sad, faint bursts of air—and shake their heads in disbelief at what they had made of themselves in this new country.

My parents went to these parties to hear the news from back home or to ask what had happened to those they had left behind. Who was still there? Was their house still standing? And if they’d made it out of Laos, which refugee camp had they ended up in? How long were they there? Where did they land?

When my parents read the newspaper or watched the evening news, they never heard anything about what was happening in their country. It was almost as if it didn’t exist.

Excerpted from How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa. Copyright © 2020 Souvankham Thammavongsa. Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

October 21, 2020
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