Souvankham Thammavongsa’s name dances on my tongue with a singsong melody that reminds me of many of the sounds, cadences, and rhythms of Southeast Asia. When I gave a copy of Thammavongsa’s book How to Pronounce Knife to my cousin, whose surname was once Phannavong, she immediately recognized the name: “Oh that’s definitely a Lao name,” she said. I told my cousin to start by reading the story “You Are So Embarrassing.” I believed she would recognize something heartbreakingly true in this story: a resonance with the memories of how our mothers and sisters and aunts had worked on the farm grounds and the factory lines, year after year, as refugees in Canada; I hoped she would feel the twinges of excited familiarity, as I did while reading Thammavongsa’s stories, at all the references to the joys and sorrows of rural small-town Canadian life as experienced from the vantage point of Southeast Asian refugees.
My cousin remarked that How to Pronounce Knife was the first book I had ever given to her by an author with a Lao name. Like Phannavong, Thammavongsa had that cadence of the many Lao names that rang throughout our childhoods: Sayavongs, Chanthavong, Phromprasack, Rasavong, Vongxay, Khampaseuth. These were the names that filled the wedding halls with seven hundred guests or more at a time; that created the ingenious worm-picking networks enabling Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Laotian refugees to survive in those early years of resettlement in Canada; that packed a single suburban home with dozens of extended family members for a ritual gathering such as a birthday party or a Lao Buddhist funeral. These names exerted a mental and affective pull for my cousin and me, a nostalgia for an intimate way of being and relating to family, to community, and to the earth and the land that I associated with my childhood days.
In a recent interview about “Writing Refugees,” Thammavongsa discussed the multiple acts of refusal she has had to navigate as a Canadian author: her refusal to be relegated to the role of a Lao native informant; her refusal to anglicize her name to make it easier for white audiences to pronounce, despite pressure from literary publishers. Thammavongsa stressed the importance of asserting those difficult-to-pronounce names that serve as indelible markers of our histories. These names are markers not because they represent something noble, heroic, or authentic about our racial or cultural selves, but because of how they move across fields of relations, creating intimate publics and lifeworlds that might otherwise be foreclosed. What Souvankham Thammavongsa’s name signifies to me is a Canadian author’s refusal to foreclose this possibility of community and encounter: with Lao history, with Southeast Asian people, with Asian diasporic communities, and with all people of colour whose names and beings have been traditionally read as “difficult” or unintelligible.
Thammavongsa’s acts of disobedience place her within a long genealogy of women of colour writers who have similarly refused to be named or renamed. In Thammavongsa’s work, I hear resonances with Anida Yoeu Ali’s poem “What’s in a Name?,” in which the poet asserts that “My name knows my mother labored screaming for hours only to mourn a year later as she buried her sorrow” (2); with Larissa Lai’s mythical protagonist in When Fox is a Thousand, who reflects that “A name must carry you into the past and the future. It needs roots to tap the water deep below the surface of the earth” (243). These writers assert the importance of being carried and transported by our names, that these roots need to be nourished and watered in order for the deep networks to remain sustainable.
Author Viet Thanh Nguyen has written about his experience of being “encouraged by generations of American tradition to believe that it was normal, desirable and practical to adopt an American first name, and even to change one’s surname to an American one.” Like Nguyen who “tried on various names” growing up in America, and like the character Chantakad in Thammavongsa’s story who changes her name to Celine, I have worn many different names throughout my life, sometimes changing it out of embarrassment and exhaustion, sometimes out of fun and playfulness. In the end, I have always returned to the name that my parents gave me, the gift that tethers me to their past in Cambodia.
The story of our names, how we play with them and deploy them, says something about the changing landscape of Canadian literature. It gestures to the shifting nature of who Canadian literature is being written by and for. On the cover of a book, Souvankham Thammavongsa’s name demands a different kind of stop, pause, and attention. It says: this name is part of the work, part of the world and futures this book wants to make.
Ali, Anida Yoeu Esguerra. “What’s in a Name?” On The Cusp of Phoenix Rising, rethinking-nordic-colonialism.org/files/pdf/ACT3/MANUSCRIPTS/Yoeu.Esguerra. pdf. Accessed 23 Nov. 2020.
Lai, Larissa. When Fox is A Thousand. 1995. Arsenal Pulp, 2004.
Nguyen, Viet Thanh. “America, Say My Name.” The New York Times, 9 Mar. 2019, nytimes.com/2019/03/09/opinion/sunday/immigrants-refugees-names-nguyen.html. Accessed 12 Nov. 2020.
“Writing Refugees: A Conversation with Souvankham Thammavongsa.” Critical Refugee Studies Network Canada, 16 July 2020, criticalrefugeestudiescanada.org/past-events-1. Accessed 13 Nov. 2020.
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