Featuring stories that have appeared in Harper's, Granta, and The Paris Review, this revelatory debut collection from O. Henry Award winner Souvankham Thammavongsa establishes her as an essential new voice in Canadian and world literature.
A young man painting nails at the local salon. A woman plucking feathers at a chicken processing plant. A father who packs furniture to move into homes he'll never afford. A mother who works nights alongside her daughter, harvesting worms. A housewife learning English from daytime soap operas. In her startling debut book of fiction, Souvankham Thammavongsa vividly captures the day-to-day lives of immigrants and refugees, illuminating their hopes, disappointments, love affairs, acts of defiance--and, above all, their pursuit of a place to belong. In spare, intimate prose charged with emotional power and a sly wit, she paints an indelible portrait of watchful children, wounded men, and restless women caught between cultures, languages, and values. Told with compassion, wry humour, and an unflinching eye for the often absurd realities of having to start your life over again, these stories honour characters struggling to find their bearings far from home, even as they do the necessary "grunt work of the world."
A daughter becomes an unwilling accomplice in her mother's growing infatuation with country singer Randy Travis. After a boxer loses his dream of becoming a championship fighter, he finds an unexpected chance at redemption while working at his sister's nail salon. When a seventy-year-old woman begins a relationship with her much younger neighbour, her assumptions about the limits of love unravel. As he watches his wife gradually drift into an affair with her boss, a school bus driver must grapple with what he's willing to give up in order to belong. And in the Commonwealth Short Story Prize-shortlisted title story, a young girl's unconditional love for her father transcends the fickleness of language.
Unsentimental yet tender, and fiercely alive, How to Pronounce Knife announces Souvankham Thammavongsa as one of the most striking voices of her generation.
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 Paris Review, Ploughshares, Best American Non-Required Reading, The Journey Prize Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories. The title story of her forthcoming debut collection of fiction, How to Pronounce Knife, 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.
Advance Praise for How to Pronounce Knife:
"These poignant and deceptively quiet stories are powerhouses of feeling and depth; How to Pronounce Knife is an artful blend of simplicity and sophistication." —Mary Gaitskill, author of Don't Cry and Because They Wanted To
"How to Pronounce Knife is a book of rarest beauty and power. Souvankham Thammavongsa has already earned a devoted readership for her poetry. And in each of these exquisitely crafted stories, we experience the profound emotional effects of economy and distillation. We feel the reverberating energy around each judiciously placed word. This is one of the great short story collections of our time. Do not miss it." —David Chariandy, author of Brother and I've Been Meaning to Tell You
“Souvankham Thammavongsa writes with deep precision, wide-open spaces, and quiet, cool, emotionally devastating poise. There is not a moment off in these affecting stories.” —Sheila Heti, author of How Should a Person Be? and Motherhood
“I love these stories. There’s some fierce and steady activity in all of the sentences—something that makes them live, and makes them shift a little in meaning when you look at them again and they look back at you (or look beyond you).” —Helen Oyeyemi, author of Gingerbread and What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours
"How to Pronounce Knife is a riveting, subversive collection that alights within us like a shock to the system. I find it miraculous—and liberating and joyful—that language so radiantly exact can be so raw, so brazen. This is a major work and a lasting one." —Madeleine Thien, author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing
"How to Pronounce Knife is a masterfull collection, written with so much veracity, you'll swear every word is true." —Sharon Bala, author of The Boat People
"How to Pronounce Knife is a book of unusual ferocity and grace. Souvankham Thammavongsa carefully unpacks the aches and aspirations of immigrant and refugee lfe in tight, commanding prose; and these subtle yet shattering stories glow with empathy, humor, and wisdom." —Mia Alvar, author of In the Country
"Reading Souvankham Thammavongsa's How to Pronounce Knife is like finding, at last, a part of you that you had lost and had been searching for all this time. Not since the stories of Edward P. Jones have I encountered such a unified and yet wide-ranging vision—both geographically and emotionally—that captures the spirit of not only a community but of the greater world—then, now, the future. This is a book full of powerful resilience, great journeys, and above all else: fierce, heart-wrenching love." —Paul Yoon, author of Snow Hunters and Run Me to Earth
“Sharp and elegant. . . Thammavongsa’s brief stories pack a punch, punctuated by direct prose that’s full of acute observations.”—Publishers Weekly