WINNER OF THE 2020 SCOTIABANK GILLER PRIZE
WINNER OF THE 2021 TRILLIUM BOOK AWARD
FINALIST FOR THE 2021 NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD, the PEN AMERICA OPEN BOOK AWARD, and the DANUTA GLEED AWARD
#1 NATIONAL BESTSELLER
Named one of Time's Must-Read Books of 2020, and featuring stories that have appeared in Harper's, Granta, The Atlantic, and The Paris Review, this revelatory book of fiction from O. Henry Award winner Souvankham Thammavongsa establishes her as an essential new voice in Canadian and world literature. Told with compassion and wry humour, these stories honour characters struggling to find their bearings far from home, even as they do the necessary "grunt work of the world."
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 housewife learning English from daytime soap operas. In her stunning Giller Prize-winning debut book of fiction, Souvankham Thammavongsa focuses on characters struggling to make a living, illuminating their hopes, disappointments, love affairs, acts of defiance, and above all their pursuit of a place to make their own. 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. As one of Thammavongsa's characters says, "All we wanted was to live." And in these stories, they do—brightly, ferociously, unforgettably.
A daughter becomes an unwilling accomplice in her mother's growing infatuation with country singer Randy Travis. A former boxer finds a chance at redemption while working at his sister's nail salon. A school bus driver must grapple with how much he's willing to give up in order to belong. And in the title story, a young girl's unconditional love for her father transcends language.
Tender, uncompromising, and fiercely alive, How to Pronounce Knife establishes Souvankham Thammavongsa as one of the most important voices of her generation.
About the author
Souvankham Thammavongsa was born in Nong Khai, Thailand, in 1978 and was raised and educated in Toronto. She won the 2004 ReLit prize for her first poetry book, Small Arguments. She is also the author of a second poetry book, Found, which was made into a short film and screened at film festivals worldwide, including Toronto International Film Festival and Dok Leipzig. Some of her poems were written while she was a resident at Yaddo. Poems have appeared in many of Canada’s literary journals and magazines, including Canadian Literature, Contemporary Verse 2, dANDelion, Event, The Fiddlehead and The Windsor Review. The poem “The Sun in Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away” appeared in the anthology Troubling Borders: Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora published by the University of Washington Press in the United States. The poem “Perfect” was nominated for a National Magazine award. Thammavongsa was named one of “Best Under 35” writers in Canada in a special issue of The Windsor Review. She lives in Stouffville, Ontario.
- Winner, Trillium Book Award
- Winner, Scotiabank Giller Prize
Excerpt: How to Pronounce Knife: Stories (by (author) Souvankham Thammavongsa)
How to Pronounce Knife
The note had been typed out, folded over two times, and pinned to the child’s chest. It could not be missed. And as she did with all the other notes that went home with the child, her mother removed the pin and threw it away. If the contents were important, a phone call would be made to the home. And there had been no such call.
The family lived in a small apartment with two rooms. On the wall of the main room was a tiny painting with a brown bend at the centre. That brown bend was supposed to be a bridge, and the blots of red and orange brushed in around it were supposed to be trees. The child's father had painted this, but he didn't paint anymore. When he came home from work, the first thing he always did was kick off his shoes. Then he'd hand over a newspaper to the child, who unfolded sheets on the floor, forming a square, and around that square they sat down to have dinner.
For dinner, it was cabbage and chitterlings. The butcher either threw the stuff away or had it out on display for cheap, so the child’s mother bought bags and bags from him and put them in the fridge. There were so many ways to cook these: in a broth with ginger and noodles, grilled over charcoal fire, stewed with fresh dill, or the way the child liked them best—baked in the oven with lemongrass and salt. When she took these dishes to school, other children would tease her about the smell. She shot back, “You wouldn’t know a good thing even if five hundred pounds of it came and sat on your face!”
When they all sat down for dinner, the child thought of the notes her mother threw away, and about bringing one to her father. There had been so many last week, maybe it was important. She listened as her father worried about his pay and his friends and how they were all making their living here in this new country. He said his friends, who were educated and had great jobs in Laos, now found themselves picking worms or being managed by pimple-faced teenagers. They’d had to begin all over again, as if the life they led before didn’t count.
The child got up, found the note in the garbage, and brought it to her father.
He waved the note away. "Later." He said this in Lao. Then, as if remembering something important, he added, "Don't speak Lao and don't tell anyone you are Lao. It's no good to tell people where you're from." The child looked at the centre of her father's chest, where, on his T-shirt, four letters stood side by side: LAOS.
A few days after that, there was some commotion in the classroom. All the girls showed up wearing different variations of pink, and the boys had on dark suits and little knotted ties. Miss Choi, the grade one teacher, was wearing a purple dress dotted with a print of tiny white flowers and shoes with little heels. The child looked down at her green jogging suit. The green was dark, like the green of broccoli, and the fabric at the knees was a few shades lighter and kept their shape even when she was standing straight up. In this scene of pink and sparkles and matching purses and black bow ties and pressed collars, she saw she was not like the others.
Miss Choi, always scanning the room for something out of place, noticed the green that the child was wearing and her eyes widened. She came running over and said, "Joy. Did you get your parents to read the note we sent home with you?"
"No," she lied, looking at the floor where her blue shoes fitted themselves inside the space of a small square tile. She didn't want to lie, but there was no point in embarrasing her parents. The day went as planned. And in the class photo, the child was seated a little off to the side, with the grade and year sign placed in front of her. The sign was always right in the middle of these photos, but the photographer had to do something to hide the dirt on the child's shoes. Above that sign, she smiled.
When her mother came to get her after school, she asked why all the children were dressed up this way, but the child didn't tell her. She lied, saying in Lao, "I don't know. Look at them, all fancy. It's just an ordinary day."
One of Time's Must-Read Books of 2020 and named a Book of the Year by the Globe and Mail, CBC Books, Now Magazine, Quill & Quire, and 49h Shelf
"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." —Scotiabank Giller Prize Jury Citation
"Spectacular . . . a poignant, eyes-wide-open exploration." —Library Journal (STARRED review)
"A stunningly beautiful collection of short stories." —Toronto Star
"Beautifully crafted. . . . These stories have a quiet brilliance in their raw portrayal of the struggle to find meaning in difficult times and to belong in a foreign place. Thammavongsa writes with an elegance that is both brutal and tender, giving her stories and their characters a powerful voice." —Booklist (STARRED review)
"Every once in a while, you come across a book with writing so breathtaking that you take note of the author so you can read everything they ever write in the future. How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa is one of those books." —Elle Canada
"Thammavongsa's radiant debut collection of short stories is full of precarity, strength, uncertainty, messiness and life." —Ms. Magazine
"In Thammavongsa’s astonishing debut collection of short stories, we meet men and women struggling to find a foothold in Canada. All her characters are so well drawn, I swear they’re alive. From the woman learning English from soap operas to the young man painting nails, these stories are at once warm, funny, and ferocious. Souvankham Thammavongsa is without doubt a luminous new voice in Canadian and world literature." —Louise Penny, author of the Chief Inspector Gamache series
"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