How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

“It was the kind of giggling they themselves did as kids. Now, that kind of giggle seemed foolish for them to do. It was like a far distant thing, a thing that happened only to other people. All they could do now was be close to it, and remain out of sight.”

While How to Pronounce Knife does fall prey to the short story collection syndrome (kind of a mixed bag, we have some good stories and some forgettable one, many of which are just too short and lack character/story development) it is nevertheless a promising debut. Souvankham Thammavongsa’s spare and unadorned prose brought to mind Jhumpa Lahiri so did her focus on the everyday minutiae that characterise her characters’ lives. Thammavongsa centres her stories on immigrants and refugees from Laos and their experiences in an English-speaking country (presumably Canada?), highlighting the myriad of ways in which they are exploited and othered, the difficulties they face in trying to assimilate to a new culture, and how language barriers further exacerbate their sense of alienation (and how often native English-speakers equate their lack of fluency in English with stupidity). Thammavongsa reveals how diversely different generations adapt to their new and often confounding environments, how insidious discrimination is, and how holding onto one’s heritage is perceived as a ‘failure’ to integrate or a source of shame (in a few stories children are embarrassed by their parents’ ‘foreignness’).
In this collection there are 14 brief stories, most of them lasting just over 10 pages, many of which take place in the characters’ workplaces (a nail salon, a chicken plant, a farm) and star two or three characters at most. Thammavongsa’s unsentimental tone greatly complements her crisp very matter-of-fact storytelling, which details the routine of her characters or recounts a particular episode of their lives. The stories that affected me the most were ‘Mani Pedi’ (in which a boxer begins working at his sister’s nail salon), ‘Chick-A-Chee!’ (which is set on Halloween), and ‘You Are So Embarrassing’ (a short yet piercing mother/daughter tale). Many of the other stories didn’t really leave a long-lasting impression on me, their scenarios too samey, their ‘run-time’ too short. Their endings too feel somewhat anticlimactic, and I can’t say that I found them particularly eye-opening or moving. Having fewer but longer stories would have probably increased my appreciation of this collection.
While yeah, out of 14 stories sonly 3 really stood out to me, I did like Thammavongsa’s clear style and I would happily read more by her.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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