Portrait of Small Artist as Brave Woman


noun: a ratio of size in a map, model, drawing, or plan.
Similar: ratio, proportion.

verb: represent in proportional dimensions; reduce or increase in size according to a common scale.

It was Pedlar Press’ fifth anniversary—2001—a party held in The Green Room in Toronto, at its old location, accessed through the back alley behind Bloor Street at Brunswick. A cavernous space. Dirty, cheap, fun.

I was seated at a long table, selling books and a fundraiser poster Stan Bevington had made, grateful for the speeches and the spectacle of Derek McCormack singing “The Book of Love” by The Magnetic Fields. Then: standing before me: Souvankham Thammavongsa, introduced by Jonathan Bennett, who was praising her poetry to the skies.

Impossible to tell how old she was. Sixteen? Twenty? (She was twenty-three.) Very small. Shy, or perhaps taciturn. Send me your work, I told her. And she did. Then she waited while I went through a year-long personal crisis that made communication with almost everyone unbearable.

Souvankham’s Small Arguments was near perfect in manuscript form, and was launched in early December 2003, a party at Cameron House in Toronto (dirty, cheap, fun), with local luminaries in the audience. Dionne Brand was there, constant champion throughout the years, and, most recently, editor for Souvankham’s Cluster (McClelland & Stewart, 2019). Souvankham took the stage as I lowered the mic. She said nothing, opened her palm, which held a small crank-handle music box, raised it to the mic, and played: Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

And that, you might say, is the story of her life. Little Star, ablaze. Her brilliance is legendary among Canadian poets.

In August 2020, CBC Books placed Souvankham on a list of twenty-four Canadian writers “on the rise.” Sorry, no, that particular star rose a long time ago. Hidden in plain sight, which is the reality for poets and “small” press publishers alike, settler and BIPOC. We are under the radar of mainstream media, even while we build up and reinforce the very ground that is Canadian literary culture, the designated scale being disproportionate to our contribution. This has been said a million times over the decades and must still be said: “all the rich imaginings of activists and thinkers who urge us to live otherwise . . . disappeared, modified into reform and inclusion, equity, diversity and palliation” (Brand).

It has been said that Souvankham Thammavongsa writes about the overlooked, the small. In a 2004 review of Small Arguments, Anne Michaels called her a true subversive who knows that to whisper is how to be heard. Kate Cayley writes, “She’s the kind of writer who conceals how technically brilliant she is. Her economy is astonishing—you feel yourself to be in the presence of someone who will not waste a second of your time, who will tell you exactly what you need to know, and who will only tell you the truth.” Her writing is quiet, penetrating, economical. In loud, crass, indiscriminate mainstream culture, where the modified quick byte, the gross dollar, is all, a writer like Souvankham could have been swept out to sea early on, except for the scale of resistance that lives in the woman herself and in those who have witnessed and supported the luminosity of her life work.

Major themes addressed by Souvankham have been adaptability, chance, survival. From the poem “Perfect” in Light (Pedlar Press, 2013):

. . . The math problems are easy.
They are always about some guy who has to get
to the other side. There’s always an answer, a sure thing.
You just have to work your way there. . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I will keep my print small, filling up every blank space
I can find like a Captain fixing leaks in a sinking ship. (20-21)

From that moment at The Green Room in 2001, cut to the 2020 release of Souvankham’s first book of fiction, How to Pronounce Knife (McClelland & Stewart; Little, Brown and Company, US; Bloomsbury, UK), and her subsequent winning of the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Do not imagine that this award has taken her by surprise: what she has been up against all these years has been painfully obvious to her, her choices—financial, social—clear. She has been a model of devotion, expressing herself as only she can, using silence, exile, and cunning as her tools, working her way to here, one brilliant word at a time.

Works Cited

Brand, Dionne. “On Narrative, Reckoning and the Calculus of Living and Dying.” Toronto Star, 4 July 2020, thestar.com/entertainment/books/2020/07/04/dionne-brand-on-narrative-reckoning-and-the-calculus-of-living-and-dying.html. Accessed 14 Nov. 2020.

Cayley, Kate. “What is Kate Cayley Reading?” The New Quarterly, 2020, tnq.ca/what-is-kate-cayley-reading/. Accessed 13 Nov. 2020.

“The CBC Books Writers to Watch list: 24 Canadian Writers on the Rise in 2020.” CBC Books, 30 July 2020, cbc.ca/books/the-cbc-books-writers-to-watch-list-24-canadian-writers-on-the-rise-in-2020-1.5666130. Accessed 14 Nov. 2020.

Thammavongsa, Souvankham. Light. Pedlar, 2013.

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