Contemporary Literature · Short Stories

How to Pronounce Knife

I loved the title of this collection from the moment I first read it. I remember, even as a native English speaker, not ever getting a clear explanation for words like knife (or pterodactyl!) and those ridiculously unnecessary silent letters. And then after studying multiple languages throughout college (including Arabic, Russian, Chinese and, of course, Spanish), it really came home to roost in how complicated these weird lingual tics are for second-language speakers, so matter how hard one tries. Anyways, the title alone made me want to read it, even though I’m not always a short story person. So, I kept it on the back burner til I was ready for that type of reading experience. Plus, I have never (to my knowledge) read anything by a Laotian author, and I always love expanding my reading horizon in this way.

How to Pronounce Knife: Stories by Souvankham Thammavongsa

On the whole, this collection seems to pull from memories or experiences or stories that Thammavongsa herself may have had or heard, as a Laotian born in a refugee camp in Thailand and then raised for the most part in Toronto. I’ll give my overall thoughts at the end (so feel free to skip there if you want), but in between I have done my customary jot-down-quick-reactions/thoughts-on-each-story-for-posterity style review. So that’ll come first:     

How to Pronounce Knife – An extra short story with an extra big punch to open us up. This titular tells of a child whose father’s lack of knowledge about the silent “k” in knife makes her question, at an incredibly young age, how much more there is to the world that he doesn’t know, how much she’ll have to learn on her own. Ooof – feels.

Paris –  Not sure what the title has to do with this one, but it’s a understated rumination on how the effort to be beautiful, based on arbitrary standards of whatever society/eyes hold power, is often more a burden than a boon. However, there’s a lovely message, too, about the burdens of loneliness that come from not having it, even as one accepts that reality. “To know someone’s dislikes was to be close to them.”

Slingshot – A ships passing in the night sort of romance, a fling as one person’s life is closing and another’s is only partway through. The way two people who only overlap for moments can have lasting impacts on each other’s lives. And a gorgeous commentary on how really living has no age limit. “ You can do that with a joke, hide how you feel and mean what you say at the same time, and no one will ask you which it is.” / “Old is a thing that happens on the outside. A thing other people see about us.”

Randy Travis­ – There was a subtle power to this story, the family at its center brought to life in their own quiet way. Mournful and yearning, tender and sweet, a portrait of people doing their best to live, grabbing onto whatever hope they can, in a place that is both home and not. “People die sometimes, and there doesn’t have to be a reason why. That’s just the way life is.”

Mani Pedi – A very interesting juxtaposition in this story: boxing, which makes the outside ugly but can leave the inside in a better place, and working at a nail salon, where the outside is beautified but the inside can remain ugly. There’s musing about the way that is the same for people sometimes, and the way different people react to the promise, or lack thereof, of hopes and dreams. Touching brother and sister relationship here too. “That I can dream at all means something to me.” / “Hope […] meant it wasn’t there for you, whatever it was you were looking for.”

Chick-A-Chee! – The sweetest little story about two young siblings getting dressed up and going trick-or-treating. Nothing extraordinary here, but so tender in the way it gives the reader a chance to see such “normal” traditions from new eyes, eyes that have never experienced it before.

The Universe Would Be So Cruel – This one hits the reader with some bittersweet emotions on the reality of love, the way it can be cruel and the way it does whatever it can to protect. Also, I loved all the little details about Lao lettering and superstitions related to wedding invitations. “…sometimes what felt like love only felt like love and wasn’t real.”

Edge of the World –  A sad one about the way being a refugee, the things one experiences in the “life before” can affect a person. And the way it can create a gulf between one and the people in the “new” life, in this case, a mother and their child/family. “To lose your love, to be abandoned by your wife was a thing of luxury even – it meant you were alive.”

The School Bus Driver­ – Oh wow, this one is the type of quietly sad that really hurts to read. And another example, this time a couple, being pulled apart by the experiences in a country foreign to them both and the actions they each take (or don’t take).

You Are So Embarrassing – This is like, the opposite of Edge of the World, the gulf between two people after immigration, but from the mother’s perspective this time. But with the added tension of normal teenage pulling away, it’s a gulf that where just one of those two obstacles could have been overcome with time, perhaps both cannot. Heartstring-jerking story. “When you’re a mother, you create a life and then you watch it go on its own way. It’s what you hope for, and want, but when it happens, it happens without you.”

Ewwrrrk – Ahhhh the no-filter wisdom of grandparents and great-grandparents. Hilarious in its special way. And then a closing paragraph takes pops the sweet bubble the rest of the story created, when the “you’ll see” snark of a grandmother’s insight/prediction is shattered in an extra unfulfilling way.

The Gas Station – Whoa. This one was weird. Kinda grotesque, but also kinda awesomely feminist, and a bit of a unique take on finding what you need where you can get it. I don’t know. It had a bit of a different feel from a lot of the other stories, so maybe that’s why I’m feeling like I didn’t like it as much. But also, it shocks you out of the comfort of the collection, so that makes it stand out even more. “What was the difference between someone who lied about love and someone who didn’t love you? Nothing.”     

A Far Distant Thing – This story perfectly captures that childhood feeling of having that one perfectly best friend, and the way that life generally leads to you growing apart, but you know you can always look back on what was with the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia. Just, a spectacular rumination on that nearly universal experience. 

Picking Worms – What a closing story! Loved the thematic juxtaposition of real, legit worms and the euphemistic human kind. Insight into a job/industry that I had no idea existed (or why…all I can think of is fishhook bait?). And the emotional impact of such a clear example of the patriarchy/white supremacy/western superiority complex in action to the always-diminished immigrant/refugee/brown-skinned person.  

In reading blurbs and other reviews of this collection, I have to agree with the majority opinion. While these stories appear understated on the surface, there is a deep well of emotional power behind them. They bring the insides of life, the things we don’t tell or show others, alive in a precise way that reverberates deep in one’s soul, like the way a deep bass note from a speaker vibrates your body. Told from perspectives that run the gamut on age from under ten to over seventy, and in emotional depth from the sweet to the heartbreaking to the every-day normal, from the universal human experiences to the refugee/immigrant experience, the voices in this collection bring the narrative power that comes through the sharing of truths. Sophisticated yet accessible, with a quietly devastating open rawness, Thammavongsa’s storytelling is powerful.

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