Books

Read an excerpt from Scotiabank Giller Prize winner How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa won the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
How to Pronounce Knife is a novel by Souvankham Thammavongsa. (Sarah Bodri, McClelland & Stewart)

How to Pronounce Knife won the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize. The $100,000 prize is the biggest prize in Canadian literature. 

How to Pronounce Knife is a collection of idiosyncratic and diverse stories, from a young man painting nails in a salon, to a housewife learning English from soap-operas. Through capturing the daily lives of immigrants, Thammavongsa shares their hopes, disappointments, trauma and acts of defiance.

Read an excerpt from How to Pronounce Knife below.

This excerpt contains strong language.


Picking Worms

I remember that morning because I woke up to such dark. It was my mother who woke me. She came into my room and said I could help earn a little extra money now. She'd gotten me a job with her out at the hog farm.

She was dressed in dark-blue jogging clothes. She threw a matching pair at me and told me to get dressed. Then, when I was standing on the front steps, waiting for her to lock up, she handed me two soup cans with the labels peeled off. They were filled with uncooked rice. I never thought to ask what this all was for, I just went along with it, still groggy from sleep.

My  mother  drove  us — it was just me and her — out to the hog farm. Driving was something she liked to do. She got her licence not long ago. She had failed the test four times, but she kept going back until she passed.

But a job is a job, and even one like that, you could still have your dignity.

She had bought the car from our neighbour. Their daughter was going off to college, someplace far, so the girl couldn't take her car with her. It was bright orange and shaped like a jelly bean. It had tinted windows my mother didn't need. We drove out in the quiet, no radio on, the car's headlights leading us into the dark. I had the window down because I wanted the cold air to wake me.

I didn't know what kind of job my mother had signed us up for, dressed like this at one in the morning. I had heard from a friend that there are always jobs at the hog farm, for those who can handle it. You can clean the shit from the floor, or clean the hogs when they're still alive, just before they put them out on the line. Or you can rub the male ones to get them excited to mate. I didn't want that to be my job and hoped my mother hadn't signed me up for anything like that. But a job is a job, and even one like that, you could still have your dignity.

My first day on the job wasn't a good one. I did everything wrong. What I was asked to do didn't turn out to be so easy.

Our books columnist Jael Richardson is back with a new recommendation for something to read while in self-isolation. Her pick is Souvankham Thammavongsa’s collection of short stories, How to Pronounce Knife. 7:33

Me and my mother were the only women. There were about 15 men, and they were all Lao like us. We were what people called us — nice. I had seen these men before at the card parties my mother went to. She cooked meals with their wives in the kitchen. When we all sat down to eat on those nights, everyone would talk about their work, their bosses, how hard it was back home, how they all came to the country we live in now — but no one cried or talked sad. They all laughed. The sadder the story, the louder the laughter. Always a competition. You'd try to one-up the person who'd come before you with an even more tragic story and a louder laugh. But no one was laughing here. Every face was serious.

Out in the field, my mother put on something like a headlamp — small, with a red light — that freed up her hands. She took out the soup cans with the rice in them and handed one to me. I followed her and tried to do what she did. To begin, she scanned the field and picked a spot far from the other workers. They talked, she said, and the sound of their talk kept their worm count low.

Souvankham Thammavongsa is a Toronto based author and poet. She was nominated for the 2020 Scotiabank Giller prize for "How to pronounce knife." We speak with her about what it is like to release a book during a pandemic. 13:37

Then she squatted and placed the soup can on the ground near her ankle. When she moved forward, she'd also move the can so it was always within reach, shadowing her. We were supposed to wear gloves, but my mother didn't. She said you got a better grip this way. After each pick I watched her dip her hands into the soup can and rub the tips of her fingers in the uncooked rice. That was how she kept her fingers dry. She told me her hands were always cold, but she had to keep them the same temperature as the worms otherwise they could feel the heat of her hands and slip away before she got close to them.

As she crept along, she pulled worms out of the cool earth with her bare hands and dropped them into the Styrofoam cups that were attached to her lower legs with a scrunchie. Everyone had their own way of attaching the cups to themselves. Some tied them to their legs with cloth or rubber bands; others had sewn pockets onto the bottoms of their pants. Inside the cups were a few strands of fresh grass so the first pick of worms had a bit of cushion and wouldn't land so hard. It also gave the worms something familiar to feel, so they wouldn't panic and squirm around, injuring themselves. In half an hour, my mother had gone back and forth across the field four times and had already dumped eight Styrofoam cups into a large Styrofoam box, next to which was a man in charge, keeping count of her harvest.

At first, I forgot my can of uncooked rice as I moved along the line and let the slime build up on my hands, making it difficult for me to hold on to anything. I wasted time looking for the can in the field and forgot where exactly I had last picked. I didn't stay bent down and close to the earth. Every time I picked, I stood up, and by the time I got my fingers back to the ground again, all the worms were gone. They heard me coming. So I tried to stay crouched down like my mother. Even then, when I found a batch and pulled at them, they did not come out of the ground smooth and whole, but in pieces. I had pulled too hard and their bodies were broken.

I wanted to scream, to yell out about how gross it all was, and to throw them back to the ground, but I didn't want to shame my mother in front of everyone.

The easiest way to get your numbers to be good was to find a mound of worms, all roped together and mating. When you got one of those, speed was everything, as the worms below that pile start to crawl back into the earth. But my mother got those too. She pulled at them slowly and steadily, giving the worms enough time to let go of what ground they were crawling back to and come out whole into her hand. She filled her Styrofoam cups easily, with all their bodies intact.

I didn't like how the worms felt in my hands, so cold and slimy, and raw. There was no mistaking they were alive. They never stopped slinking and slithering around, stretching their bodies out into such a length that I wasn't even sure these were worms I had just picked. I could feel their bodies pulse and throb and tickle in my hands, and they would jab at me with a head or tail — I couldn't tell which, both ends looked the same to me. I wanted to scream, to yell out about how gross it all was, and to throw them back to the ground, but I didn't want to shame my mother in front of everyone. So I held on. This was a job wanted by many, and I was lucky my mom got me in.


This excerpt is taken from How to Pronounce Knife, copyright © 2020 by Souvankham Thammavongsa. Reproduced with permission from McClelland & Stewart and the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

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