How to Pronounce Knife. McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
In the story “Edge of the World,” a Lao mother and daughter laugh together after the mother has been admonished by another Lao woman for speaking their native tongue in Canada because “You better start speaking English with her. How’s she going to fit in once she gets to school?!” (98). The daughter, our narrator, joins with her mother in making fun of the woman because of “how worried sick she seemed about not fitting in with everybody, as if that was a thing to want” (98). In this instance and many others found in her debut collection of short stories, How to Pronounce Knife, Souvankham Thammavongsa masterfully undermines the common script of immigrant narratives, especially Asian immigrant narratives, which often emphasizes the desire for belonging. She does so while using spare yet emotionally resonant language and wry humour to produce sketches of complex and compelling characters living heartbreakingly unremarkable lives with remarkable passion. Thammavongsa’s fourteen short stories are held together by themes rather than by shared characters; each story in some way palpates the contours of love, longing, and language. And, as the above quotation suggests, Thammavongsa’s stories have a keen, if understated, political eye. In her defiance of immigrant literature cliché, Thammavongsa asserts the agency of her characters even in extremely limiting circumstances and raises knife-sharp questions about the expectations placed on refugees to assimilate and be grateful.
Most, if not all, of Thammavongsa’s protagonists are refugees or the children of refugees from Laos. The Southeast Asian country’s long civil war, the product of a classic twentieth-century mix of colonialism and Cold War politics, led to vast numbers of people leaving as refugees through the latter half of the century. The idea that migrants move to give themselves and their children a better life is so commonplace as to go without saying, but in the context of refugees, what constitutes a better life is fairly specific: a life where one is less likely to be killed or starve. The idea that a better life also ought to include cultural and linguistic integration into the site of settlement is, from the perspective of mainstream Canadian society, also a given. Yet, in Thammavongsa’s stories, following the desire to belong is often disastrous and the fruits of integration are often bitter. In “Randy Travis,” the mother’s obsession with the country singer prevents her from seeing her husband’s persistent and real love because it does not look and sound like the dramatic passion of a country and Western song. In “Paris,” the narrator, Red, longs to be sexually exploited by her boss in order to move up the ladder at the chicken plant and contemplates getting a nose job in order to be “beautiful” (19) enough for him to want her. Somboun, her male co-worker, insists that she is already beautiful and this upsets and repels her because she wants there to be something external and concrete that she can do to change her life. She sees his pride as “all for nothing” (19) because he is like her and, by reflecting her back to herself, emphasizes her marginalization. The nose job, a physical acquiescence to white beauty standards, remains undone at the end of the story. These stories centre women and girls, but they demonstrate a deep love of and compassion for Lao men, whose depictions in this collection defy common images of Asian men as desexualized and submissive and Asian fathers as unloving and distant. Many writers represent the ways that immigrant men are discriminated against and dehumanized at work; Thammavongsa chooses to show how some men respond to this by loving their families even harder and by making a joke out of their work persona so that they are able to hold on to their sense of self.
Indeed, in her depiction of family relationships, Thammavongsa manages to convey again and again one of the most universal but also most overlooked aspects of an immigrant childhood: the feeling of empathy for and protectiveness of parents. It may seem strange to some readers that these characters love, miss, and long for parents who at best cannot give them much and at worst abandon them, but Thammavongsa is masterful in showing the ways that these parents live their love for their children in small and sometimes strange ways that produce a sense of loyalty, so powerful precisely because its source appears so meagre. A father who must leave his small children alone at home for hours at a time and teaches them never to call the police also drives them to a rich neighbourhood to give them the best possible Halloween. A mother gets her daughter a job, pulling worms with her at fourteen, as an act of economic necessity but also to allow them to spend more time together. Thammavongsa at no point romanticizes poverty, but she does valorize the way that her economically deprived characters make something out of nothing by allowing readers to see striving immigrant parents through the eyes of their children. The children in these stories see their parents clearly and instinctively work to protect them, whether by shielding them from embarrassment, defending their ways of speaking and thinking, or taking their side over aligning oneself with those with more power. This reciprocal sacrifice between parent and child can be a heavy burden, and Thammavongsa asserts both its pain and its pleasure.
Just like listening to a good song about heartbreak, reading How to Pronounce Knife is an experience that produces both pleasure and exquisite pain. For scholars of immigrant and second-generation literature, it offers refreshing explorations of familiar themes. In the tradition of short-story collections like James Baldwin’s Going to Meet the Man and Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women, Souvankham Thammavongsa uses specificity to produce characters and scenes that boldly cross lines of difference.
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