Souvankham Thammavongsa's stories explore the diversity of the immigrant experience
'We're also fun and ferocious and hilarious.'
Souvankham Thammavongsa is an Ontario writer and poet. Her stories have won an O. Henry Award and appeared in Harper's, Granta, The Paris Review and NOON. She has published four books of poetry, including 2019's Cluster.
How to Pronounce Knife, her first work of fiction, 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, How to Pronounce Knife explores the tragedy and humour of the daily lives of immigrants. CBC Books named Thammavongsa a 2020 writer to watch.
How to Pronounce Knife won the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
From poetry to fiction
"I've been writing poetry for 25 years. I wanted writing to feel new to me. Nobody was waiting for the fiction — I wanted to surprise people. I decided to try fiction and see how everything that I learned with poetry would translate into fiction.
I didn't want to change my voice. I didn't want to change the way in which I deal with the world.
"I didn't want to change my voice. I didn't want to change the way in which I deal with the world. And I didn't want to think of poetry and fiction as things that were separate from each other.
"I think of them as just a different container or my voice. I wanted to think about it the way that I think about sports: there's basketball and there's baseball. They have different rules and different audiences and different goals. But at the centre of each of those or is a spectacular athlete and that athlete that didn't change the quality of their art — but the rules of the game are different."
Different entry points
"The process for writing each story in this collection varied. I thought about one story for about 12 years and I didn't write it. It lived in my head. One afternoon, I wrote it and it was done. I went back to another story that I chipped away at for 10 years. Each story is different. The approach is different.
The things that I deal with in each story are different. So the way in which I sit down to write them is also different.
"The things that I deal with in each story are different. The way in which I sit down to write them is also different. Sometimes I wrote a story staying up three days straight to finish it, to not lose the momentum I had going in to it."
"If I don't remember the sentences that are forming in my head then I don't think it's important enough to put down most of the time. I do write on paper just because I like the feel of a pen or pencil across a page. It feels like drawing or it feels connected to the body."
"I knew that whenever we encounter stories of immigrants and refugees, they are always sad and tragic. And rightly so; they are. But I feel like that image is very narrow about who we really are. We're also fun and ferocious and hilarious. And also we can be ungrateful and there should be room for that. I wanted the story to address that.
"I did think a lot about family, love, work and laughter as things that the stories would deal with. They're all very different but I also wanted them to orbit around each other, to remind each other.
I wanted to write about an immigrant child in a different way that we often encounter them in literature.
"I wanted to write about an immigrant child in a different way that we often encounter them in literature. In the opening story, there's a child who gets made fun of for her lunch. It's very typical.
"But what we don't see is defiance, which in my experience that's who I really am. If somebody picked on me, or somebody tried to shame me, I defied or changed that.
"I wanted a story that gives space to how I would react in real life."
Choose your darlings
"I loved writing Slingshot because it is so risky. Whenever we encounter old women in literature they are often unattractive, dying or a burden. They are not celebrated for their wisdom and their courage and their strength — and they never get to be the love interest at the centre of a story. In my experience, my great-grandmother was incredibly funny and wise and I loved being around her. It made me look forward to getting old. I wanted that so much!
Whenever we encounter old women in literature they are often unattractive, dying or a burden. They are not celebrated for their wisdom and their courage and their strength.
"I don't understand why we don't celebrate that or see characters like that in literature. I wanted to write that. I know that with the first sentence of that story — about a 70-year-old woman and a 32-year-old man — it makes people giggle a little. I wanted to write a love story where love isn't everything and it's not enough. You have to have the courage to recognize that's what it is and that you move toward it and you hold it."
Something to feel
"I know we're supposed to be humble as writers, but I learned that I can write fiction!
"I feel like you're only as good in your next book. I know a lot of musicians say that about their album, and a lot of sports teams say that about their championship. It's wonderful to achieve and to complete a book — to know that you set out to do what you want to do.
I hope that when readers read this, they can't put the book down. And when they close the book, they say, 'Wow, what was that?'
"I hope that when readers read this, they can't put the book down. When they close the book, they say, 'Wow, what was that?' Then I want them to go back and read it over and over again — and get new things from it. I want them to love literature, to love the art of the sentence. And to feel like someone gets them or has described a feeling that they know that they felt before.
"What I want is for 20 years from now, people to still be reading this book. They'll come back to the book and still love it the way that they first encountered it. That, to me, is what feels like success."
Souvankham Thammavongsa's comments have been edited for length and clarity.
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