I first reached out to Souvankham Thammavongsa for this interview in February, which feels like a lifetime ago. That was back when we were all still going to work and seeing movies and hugging our friends and family with impunity. Though only a few months have passed, that now seems like a bygone era. A bygone world, really.
In Thammavongsa’s new book, How to Pronounce Knife, she draws upon her childhood as the daughter of Laotian immigrants to tell fourteen stories, each an exploration of foreignness and belonging. In one story, an aging widow falls in love with a much younger man; in others, a child recalls learning that the earth is round, and a Lao woman teaches herself English by watching daytime soap operas. In sparse prose braced with disarming humor, Thammavongsa offers glimpses into the daily lives of immigrants and refugees in a nameless city, illuminating the desires, disappointments, and triumphs of those who so often go unseen.
Over the past week, while cooped up at home, I reread the slim collection and found that, like so many things, it resonates differently in isolation. Moments I had thought lighthearted on first reading now struck me as heartbreaking. Lines that had been out of focus suddenly came into sharp relief. A wistful description of fermented fish sauce nearly brought me to tears. On rereading, I also noticed—perhaps because I have been feeling claustrophobic—just how spacious the stories are. Though short enough to read in one sitting, they feel vast in their scope, offering ample room to wander.
In this surreal moment, when so many of us are confined within cramped homes and cluttered minds, this book is a welcome reminder that, given the right attention, even the smallest spaces can feel expansive.
In addition to writing fiction, Thammavongsa is an accomplished poet and essayist. She has published four acclaimed books of poetry. This is her first collection of short stories. Our interview was conducted over the phone between Toronto and New York, just days before COVID-19 sent the world into lockdown. We spoke about language, laughter, and our shared love of country music.
Many of the stories in your collection are concerned with language, both translation and mistranslation. Which languages were spoken in your house growing up?
It is a bit confusing. I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. Most people are recognized as a citizen by the country they are born in, but in a refugee camp, you are considered stateless. So although I was born in Thailand, I am not Thai. My parents are Lao and immigrated to Canada when I was very young. I grew up in Toronto, near Keele Street and Eglinton Avenue West. In our neighborhood, it was not a big deal to be a refugee. Almost everyone was.
We spoke Lao at home. I spoke English at school, but almost never used it with my parents. I think from a very early age, I was aware of the power of language. In our house, English didn’t have the same potency as Lao. I could cuss in English, for example, and it meant nothing. Whereas, in Lao, language like that could cut deeply and be vicious. English never held the same weight. Nothing anyone has ever said to me in English could hurt like that. And English took something away from my parents, too. It wasn’t their native tongue, and seeing them use it diminished them somehow—their authority, their sense of humor, their brilliance. The languages are so different.
In what ways are they different?
Well, for one thing, Lao is very connected to sound. A lot of words in the Lao language sound like what they are. The word “cat” for example sounds sort of like a meow. It’s onomatopoetic. In Lao, the sound of language is deeply connected to the meaning of language, which is a sensibility that I think has informed my poetry.
The stories in this collection are remarkably restrained. You withhold a lot from the reader. Often we don’t know where we are or even what a character’s name is. It creates both a sense of dislocation and great room for possibility. Can you talk a little bit about that choice?
The thing about simple language is that it can be very porous. It leaves so much room for the reader to do the work. Often in my stories I don’t refer to any specific place, I just use the word “here.” The reader has to determine where “here” is. Or else, they are haunted because they don’t know. All the characters in the stories are immigrants coming from somewhere else. They don’t really know the spaces they are occupying either. So I left that word intentionally vacant. In this instance, even a little word like “here” is doing so much for the text. Even in a short story like “Paris,” no one ever goes to Paris and we’re never in Paris, but because of the title we enter the story with the idea of Paris—its culture, its sophistication, its fashion. It haunts the text because it’s so far removed from everybody and everything in this chicken-processing plant.
The title of your book is a reference to the first story in the collection, in which a Lao child is learning to read and gets tripped up by the word “knife” with its tricky silent k. She asks her father for help and he pronounces it with the k sound. When she goes back to school, her classmates make fun of her, but she insists that her father’s pronunciation is correct. This small moment reveals so much about the limits and treacheries of language, and the ways it can divide and unite. You have said that this moment is based on experiences you had as a child. I’m curious how this early awareness of the power of language has informed your writing?
Yes, my parents mispronounced things all the time, and they did it with a wonderful and grand confidence. I would tell my parents that the kids at school pronounced knife with no k sound and we would laugh and laugh at how silly they were. There’s a letter right there and they don’t even do anything about it! And they call themselves educated! All of the stories play with that in some way—what is lost and what is gained in these mistakes. How can the “wrong” thing be in some ways more right, or contain more potential, than the “right” thing? I am interested in the value of a mistake. If the character knew how to pronounce that word from the beginning, there wouldn’t be a story. But because she struggles with it, she knows its power. Language is all about symbols. This little word “knife” becomes a symbol for something so much larger and more complicated. It becomes a way of honoring her family and her place in the world. When the little girl argues with her teacher about the pronunciation of the k, she isn’t just being difficult, she is fighting for the validity of her experience and the integrity of her home.
There is a lot of humor in your writing. I laughed out loud several times, particularly with “Chick-a-Chee” and “Randy Travis,” and found myself surprised in places by the lightness and generosity of your voice. Many of your characters are facing grave injustices of one kind or another, whether emotional or political or economic. These circumstances wouldn’t seem to lend themselves easily to laughter, yet you manage to inflect humor without being derisive or diminishing the gravity. That’s not an easy needle to thread.
Laughter is very important to me. The cornerstone of all these stories is laughter. To me, laughter isn’t frivolous. It is a way of surviving. Laughter when things are horribly unbearable. Laughter when things are uncomfortable. Laughter when there is nothing else to feel. Also when there is joy, too. You have to laugh because that’s how you take back your power. Deriving humor from pain, and allowing the two to coexist within a single moment, has been integral to my experience of being an immigrant.
In “Edge of the World,” a Lao man describes how, whenever he is told to do something at work, he responds, “Yes, sir!” but he says it with the tone and force of a “Fuck you!” It’s a really funny little moment. In this instance, the humor seems to be unlocking something—a kind of reclaimed power or space for resistance, perhaps.
Yes, yes, exactly. So that moment is meant to be funny but it’s also an inversion. He has taken his position of subservience and flipped it on its head. A phrase that is an expression of polite obedience becomes a private expression of defiance. The laughter is almost like a weapon or a tool.
Can you say more about that?
You know, I’m a huge fan of Richard Pryor and if you watch the way he talks about his family, about the way he grew up and about his mother and some very difficult subjects, the way he frames them in humor is really interesting and powerful. He makes the audience laugh and then he holds onto that laughter like a shield so that the experiences he’s talking about can’t destroy him. I think I’m trying to do something similar.
What a spectacular image. In “Randy Travis,” the narrator describes that her mother loves American country music “because it reminded her of the way the women in her family talked amongst themselves. It felt familiar. The pleas, the gossip, the dreams of the big city, what it was like to be from a place no one had ever heard of.” I had never thought about American country music that way before.
Ya know, I love country music. I love Randy Travis and Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton. One of the reasons it’s so good is because it relies on simple storytelling. The songs are stories about love and family and loss. They are about feeling dislocated and yearning for a sense of home, which anyone can relate to, but especially immigrants. Even though these musicians are American, they give voice to something that really resonates with the experience of being an outsider. It’s very comforting to know that even when you belong to a place, you can feel alone in it and estranged from it. It doesn’t matter where you’re from. That longing is universal.
When I first heard Dolly Parton’s song “A Coat of Many Colors” as a kid it just broke my heart. The song is about this coat that her mother made for her that she thinks is the most beautiful coat in the world, but when she wears it to school she realizes that it is made of rags and it’s actually ugly. And that is sort of like the experience of pronouncing knife with a k. At home you think one thing and then you go out into the world and your view changes suddenly and everyone tells you that your perspective is wrong. One of the questions I wanted to make room for in these stories is, Why is that wrong? What if it could be a coat of many colors?
What are your thoughts about how your work relates to or challenges prevailing narratives about the immigrant experience?
Often when we encounter refugees and immigrants in the news and in literature, they are sad and tragic figures. And, in some ways, that makes sense. The suffering is real and I don’t want to diminish it. But that is also a very narrow range of what we feel and who we are. We don’t often get to see ourselves as ferocious or furious or ungrateful or joyous or enamored. And I really wanted to give voice to some of those other, less familiar, aspects of the experience. I wanted to try to visualize those feelings into stories and place them alongside the many stories of sadness and anger to make a more complicated picture.
Cornelia Channing is a writer from Bridgehampton, New York.
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