The Next Chapter

Souvankham Thammavongsa shares her feelings about winning the Scotiabank Giller Prize

The Toronto writer talks to Shelagh Rogers about her short story collection How to Pronounce Knife, which won Canada's largest literary prize in 2020.
How to Pronounce Knife is a novel by Souvankham Thammavongsa. (Sarah Bodri, McClelland & Stewart)

This interview originally aired on Jan. 16, 2021.

Souvankham Thammavongsa is a Toronto-based writer and poet who was born in the Lao refugee camp in Nong Khai, Thailand. 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 Knifeher 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 in the daily lives of immigrants. 

How to Pronounce Knife won the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the 2021 Trillium Book Award.

Thammavongsa spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing How to Pronounce Knife.

Winning the Giller Prize

"My imagination can trick me into believing things. There's what you want, what you hope for and what you wish for. They often don't arrive at the same time. When I heard my name called on screen, I couldn't quite believe it. 

"I looked over, I looked at the camera person and I looked at my two friends on the couch.

When I heard my name called on screen, I couldn't quite believe it.

"It was only then that I felt like I could celebrate, that what I heard was probably true."

The moment Souvankham Thammavongsa learned she won the Giller Prize

11 months ago
2:58
Souvankham Thammavongsa, Giller Prize winner for her short story collection How to Pronounce Knife, talks about growing up and learning English in ESL classes — where there was no prize for mispronouncing the word 'knife.' 2:58

Thinking of Laos

"I only knew of Laos through the language that we spoke at home. My parents didn't speak English at home because they spoke it with the vocabulary of a two-year-old. When you speak a language at that level, it takes away your power, your brilliance and your authority. So we always spoke Lao at home.

"It's true that I don't have anything from Laos, not even a birth certificate. I've never set foot there. But what I have is this language in my mouth. 

Laos, in history, is often a footnote any time we talk about the Vietnam War.

"If I wanted to know anything about Laos, my parents wouldn't want to talk about it. But they, in order to know anything about Laos, would often hear it from those who were newly arrived in the country. 

"The Americans had dropped bombs in Laos. Richard Nixon said that there were no ground troops. This is technically true; they just did it in the air. Laos, in history, is often a footnote any time we talk about the Vietnam War. 

"Those bombs are still there today. The people who are discovering it are children playing in fields or farmers trying to farm the land and make food for other people."

Feelings of displacement

"I often refer to the country in the stories as 'here.' I don't do the work of giving a reader their bearings. So when they come into the story, they are as lost and displaced as the characters in the story. 

"I don't have to explain to a reader what that feels like, because the minute that they enter the story, I've already done that to them by just using the single word 'here.' 

"I was annoyed with reading about characters very similar to myself. We always sound the same. We're often sad and tragic, which is true. But we're also so much more than that. We're also incredibly hilarious and ferocious and courageous and brilliant and smart and sexy. 

I was annoyed with reading about characters very similar to myself. We always sound the same.

"I wanted those voices to be in the world. I couldn't wait for someone else to do that for me. So I sat down and wrote it myself."

Souvankham Thammavongsa's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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