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Brantford writing instructor Souvankham Thammavongsa shortlisted for Giller Prize

Souvankham Thammavongsa became a writer despite the fact that growing up, her parents weren't readers. On Monday, her short story collection How to Pronounce Knife made the shortlist for the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

The Giller's $100,000 prize is the biggest prize in Canadian literature

How to Pronounce Knife, a collection of short stories by Souvankham Thammavongsa, has been shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. (Sarah Bodri, McClelland & Stewart)

Souvankham Thammavongsa became a writer despite the fact that growing up, her parents weren't readers. On Monday, her short story collection How to Pronounce Knife made the shortlist for the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

"I grew up in a home without books and to find myself an author ... is an achievement I wouldn't even have predicted when I was a kid," she said during an interview with Craig Norris from The Morning Edition - K-W.

Thammavongsa is a writing instructor at Wilfrid Laurier University's Brantford campus. She has also published four poetry collections. How to Pronounce Knife is her first work of fiction.

The Giller's $100,000 prize is the biggest prize in Canadian literature.

Listen to the full interview:

Author Souvankham Thammavongsa on her collection of short stories 'How to Pronounce Knife.' This interview on Monday morning ahead of learning she made the shortlist for the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize. 7:30

"Prizes don't make books, authors do. Everything I could possibly do to make my book good I've already done a year ago," she said during the interview shortly before the shortlist was announced.

"It's an incredible honour. It would make my book visible in a way it normally would not."

Thammavongsa said she builds her stories "around a feeling" and based on things she hears and sees. Pieces of her own story are included too.

"At the centre of these stories are often Laotian refugees and immigrants who are often not at the centre of literature," she said. "If they are, they're often in the margins or just a footnote in history."

One source of inspiration was the fact that as a kid she loved worms even though others thought they were "gross and disgusting."

That bit of her character found its way into a story in the collection called Picking Worms about a daughter and her mother who invents "wonderful ways" to pick worms, but gets passed over to be the boss by a pimply-faced teenager.

The title story is also rooted in her own experience, she told Norris.

It's based on a young girl who is taught to say the word knife, including the k that's supposed to be silent, by her father at home. When the girl goes to school she's sent to the office because she refuses to change her pronunciation.

"People at school don't understand that what she's trying to do is protect her family, her father," said Thammavongsa.

"She wants to hold on to her idea that her father knows everything, that he's the hero in her life."

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