How to Pronounce Laos

In their discussion of “The Cold War and Asian Canadian Writing,” Christine Kim and Christopher Lee draw attention to “[a] significant moment in Canadian immigration history”: the arrival in Canada of over sixty thousand refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Affecting lives in innumerable ways, this history of refugee passage has also become what Kim and Lee call an “important Cold War legacy that has impacted Asian Canadian writing” (268), notably in texts by Souvankham Thammavongsa, Kim Thúy, and Madeleine Thien focusing “on matters of memory, generation, forced migration, and statelessness” (268). Turning to Thammavongsa’s remarkable poetry collection Found (2007), and specifically to her poem “What I Can’t Read,” Kim and Lee observe that “the speaker prompts us to contemplate how Laos is represented and how such representations are intertwined with, and even bounded by, those of its neighbors, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and China” (269). In Found, such intertwining extends to include Canada as a presumed place of refuge as well as the unsettled legacies of the US bombing of Laos, inspiring me to think further about what I’ve elsewhere called transpacific precarities and how we might respond to texts that represent them, not only in North America but also in different sites in Asia, including at my home institution in Taiwan.1

The question of “how Laos is represented” has remained with me as I read Thammavongsa’s debut collection of short stories, How to Pronounce Knife (2020). These stories cut sharply across lives marked by precarious conditions, with characters working in meat-packing plants or on farms, driving a school bus or working at a nail salon. Across many of these work spaces, the position of one’s father, the shape of one’s nose, and the colour of one’s skin seem to determine who is eligible for advancement into managerial circles, and who is not. In the lead story, “How to Pronounce Knife,” for example, the young protagonist

listened as her father worried about his pay and his friends and how they were all making their living here in this new country. He said his friends, who were educated and had great jobs in Laos, now found themselves picking worms or being managed by pimple-faced teenagers. They’d had to begin all over again, as if the life they led before didn’t count. (4)

The father then tells the daughter: “‘Don’t speak Lao and don’t tell anyone you are Lao. It’s no good to tell people where you’re from.’ The child looked at the centre of her father’s chest, where, on this T-shirt, four letters stood side by side: LAOS” (4-5). The father’s stern warning to not speak Lao and not tell anyone you are Lao sets in motion a powerful rhetorical device through which such warnings paradoxically keep attempts to speak and tell alive.2 The irony made visible through the daughter’s line of vision likewise keeps LAOS in sight, even as—and perhaps especially when—the protagonist struggles in and moves through the Canadian public school system and the specific forms of knowledge it assesses and rewards.

“If refugee is often understood as an aberrant condition,” writes Vinh Nguyen, “then refugeetude is a condition of possibility, a method of knowing and affecting the world that holds on to the critical potential of refugeeness” (121).3 In his circumspect account, Nguyen is careful to underline that this “condition of possibility” is far from assured. But if we take seriously Thammavongsa’s writing as a sustained and ongoing “method of knowing and affecting the world,” we may better understand how “Laos”—understood here as a signifier that is both locally situated and globally resonant—has not (yet) been adequately represented, a point also discussed by Bryan Thao Worra in his contribution to this forum. One way this inadequacy is made clear appears in the story “Edge of World” in which the narrator observes: “When my parents read the newspaper or watched the evening news, they never heard anything about what was happening in [Laos]. It was almost as if it didn’t exist” (96). Thammavongsa’s stories intervene in such circuits of representation—but this intervention is not simply a matter of providing new information or producing forms of positivist knowledge about Laos and its complex relations to Canada and other sites around the world. Instead, for variously situated scholars committed to thinking and writing about transpacific precarities, Thammavongsa’s collection can be thought of as an important transpacific text that teaches us how to acknowledge—as the narrator movingly does in “Edge of the World”—the many things we do not, and perhaps cannot, know.


I wish to thank Vinh Nguyen for expertly organizing this forum and for generously providing feedback on an earlier draft of this paper. Support from the Ministry of Science and Technology in Taiwan (MOST 107-2410-H-002-048-MY3) helped me to contribute to this forum and is gratefully acknowledged.


1 I’ve attempted to address these issues in “Transpacific Precarities: Responding to Souvankham Thammavongsa’s Found and Rita Wong’s forage in East Asia.”

2 Homi K. Bhabha made this point in the 1990s in his discussion of Toni Morrison’s Beloved; see The Location of Culture, p. 18. See also Viet Thanh Nguyen’s later articulation of this point in relation to Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior in Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, pp. 194-95.

3 In mobilizing the term refugeetude, Nguyen builds upon the work of Khatharya Um and the Critical Refugee Studies Collective. See Um’s From the Land of Shadows: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Cambodian Diaspora, p. 213; and the Critical Refugee Studies Collective’s “Critical Vocabularies.”

Works Cited

Beauregard, Guy. “Transpacific Precarities: Responding to Souvankham Thammavongsa’s Found and Rita Wong’s forage in East Asia.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, vol. 20, no. 4, 2019, pp. 564-81.

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. Routledge, 1994.

Critical Refugee Studies Collective. “Critical Vocabularies.” The Critical Refugee Studies Collective, 2017, Accessed 29 Sept. 2020.

Kim, Christine, and Christopher Lee. “The Cold War and Asian Canadian Writing.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Asian American Literature and Culture, vol. 1, edited by Josephine Lee et al., Oxford UP, 2020, pp. 261-73.

Nguyen, Viet Thanh. Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. Harvard UP, 2016.

Nguyen, Vinh. “Refugeetude: When Does a Refugee Stop Being a Refugee?” Social Text, vol. 37, no. 2, 2019, pp. 109-31.

Thammavongsa, Souvankham. How to Pronounce Knife. McClelland & Stewart, 2020.

Um, Khatharya. From the Land of Shadows: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Cambodian Diaspora. New York UP, 2015.

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