I began writing this reflection on Souvankham Thammavongsa’s How to Pronounce Knife by hand in an empty notebook. As I watched my sentences unfurl in black ink, I thought of the closing lines to one of my favourite poems, Thammavongsa’s “Agnes Martin, Untitled #10,” and couldn’t help but imagine that she might approve. The first poem in Thammavongsa’s 2013 award-winning collection, Light, “Agnes Martin, Untitled #10” closes with the lines, “the plot and path of a small single letter / The face of a country you can make yours: / the lines, the grids, the marks are here” (10). Whenever I teach this poem, my students and I collectively marvel at its playful reconstruction of openings and closings, bounds and rules. We talk about enjambment, the transition from a colon to the lack of punctuation throughout the poem, the creation and disruption of structural patterns. We often end by discussing the materiality of the book itself. The paper that Thammavongsa chose for Light’s publication has a subtly ridged texture that evokes the grid-like layout of both Martin’s original painting and the poem’s layout on the page.
Thammavongsa has said that she often composes initial drafts of her poetry by hand using graph paper. She approaches the craft of writing with exactitude. This precision, the contrast between small, sparse lines and the blank expanse of a page, works alongside the shape of her poetic lines. Precise placement highlights the various scales and registers that inform her work, which are fuelled by a tension between “something” and “nothing.” Thammavongsa once described her interest in this tension: “[I’m] interested in what a person can do when given the fewest possible resources . . . what a mind can do with what people call ‘little’” (“The Trillium Conversations”).
In Thammavongsa’s poetry, attention to small details is pivotal because these details reveal what might be lost amid accounts of transnational and transpacific migration that stress urgency through enormity (the number of people, for example, affected by a global refugee crisis, or the lasting historical repercussions of transpacific violence and its aftereffects). It has been a pleasure to read Thammavongsa’s fiction through the lens of her poetry. Like her poetry, Thammavongsa’s fiction is compact, exact, economic, and sparse. It is also wry, moving, heartbreaking, and memorable. Her prose carefully layers sound and image. In the eponymous opening story of How to Pronounce Knife, for example, Thammavongsa’s first paragraph plays with alliterative “n” sounds across five sentences (“note,” “not,” “notes,” “no”). It’s a subtle preface to a painful scene: the narrator’s mispronunciation of the word “knife” in school and her realization and negotiation of what her Lao parents do and do not know. The opening repetition of “n” in various forms of writing (the notes) and negation (not and no) sonically and visually recalls forms of erasure (the silent “k” in “knife” and “know”).
In Light, Thammavongsa includes a series of shape poems, laid out visually in similar ways but with subtle differences, like the outline of a puzzle piece that almost but does not quite fit. The repeated image also holds together stories in How to Pronounce Knife. “How to Pronounce Knife” ends with the father and child working on a puzzle. They begin with the borders and fill in the rest. The image of a puzzle returns roughly a hundred pages later in the story “Edge of the World.” In this story, the child works on the puzzle as a mother watches, and a map of the world emerges. When the puzzle is finished, the mother and child argue. “‘Just because I never went to school,’” the mother says, “‘doesn’t mean I don’t know things’” (102). This moment is a revelation for the child, who understands what her
mother knew then. She knew about war, what it felt like to be shot at in the dark, what death looked like up close in your arms, what a bomb could destroy. Those were things I didn’t know about, and it was all right not to know them, living where we did now, in a country where nothing like that happened. There was a lot I did not know. (102)
Recalling the content, imagery, and sonic and visual dynamics of those opening sentences in “How to Pronounce Knife,” here Thammavongsa again highlights erasures, absences, gaps, and distance, redefining the meaning of “nothing” and what her characters—and we as readers—do and do not know. Her poetry and fiction examine hierarchies that subsume the small amid the large, from the experience of those rendered inconsequential by a nation-state, to the status of Asian Canadian writing alongside canonical Canadian works of literature, to the “minor” status of poetry in relation to prose as the primary genre for the study of race in North America, to our lingering assumptions and tendencies in the study of transpacific relations.1
1 On the emphasis on prose in studies of Asian American literature, see Koshy; and Konzett.
Konzett, Delia. “The Belated Tradition of Asian-American Modernism.” A Companion to the Modern American Novel: 1900-1950, edited by John T. Matthews, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, pp. 496-517.
Koshy, Susan. “The Rise of the Asian American Novel.” The Cambridge History of the American Novel, edited by Leonard Cassuto et al., Cambridge UP, 2011, pp. 1046-63.
Thammavongsa, Souvankham. How to Pronounce Knife. McClelland & Stewart, 2020.
—. Light. Pedlar, 2013.
“The Trillium Conversations: Adam Dickinson and Souvankham Thammavongsa.” National Post, 17 June 2014, nationalpost.com/entertainment/books/the-trillium-conversations-adam-dickinson-and-souvankham-thammavongsa. Accessed 13 Nov. 2020.
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