Among the new releases in short fiction this year was the debut collection by Lao Canadian writer Souvankham Thammavongsa, How to Pronounce Knife (2020), fortuitously released in April, which in the US is National Poetry Month and in Laos, the month of the traditional New Year celebration when we reflect on what has gone before and prepare for the times ahead.
The timing of her collection coincides with the forty-fifth anniversary of the Lao diaspora that began for many of us following the end of the wars in Southeast Asia. Today, almost half a million Lao reside in the US with roots as refugees. Thousands more are scattered in nations such as Canada, France, England, Australia, Japan, Thailand, Germany, Cuba, and even corners of French Guiana. Historians will quibble about whether the war began after the 1954 defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu that ended the colonization of French Indochina, and whether the conflict is distinct from the Vietnam War, or if the whole of the fighting should be called the “Secret War” or the “Second Indochina War,” or the “American War,” but what most readers will need to understand is that in the end, to avoid death, torture, and imprisonment, especially for assisting the US, a great exodus across the Mekong was necessary for thousands of families, and where they were resettled and how well they thrived in the decades after was anything but certain.
I became familiar with Souvankham’s work first as a poet, with her wonderful 2003 collection Small Arguments, but it was in her 2007 collection of verse, Found, that I particularly appreciated the direction her writing would take. In Found, she explored ways to respond to the discarded notebook her father had kept in a refugee camp in Thailand, a life he had never fully spoken of to her while growing up. As fellow refugee poets, there is much I respect about her approach to navigating our journey, even though we met only once in person, in Minnesota during a 2015 gathering of Lao writers. In 2014, her third collection of poetry, Light, received the Trillium Book Award, which recognizes the excellence of Ontario writers and their works. This was a significant achievement. And so, it is with great interest that we see her turn her talents towards prose, where we clearly see Souvankham Thammavongsa’s roots as a poet in almost every line.
How to Pronounce Knife is a groundbreaking collection for many reasons. It has invited comparisons to the work of Nabokov, and the surprising, warm humour and depth can remind many of the classic Asian American collection Pangs of Love by the late David Wong Louie. Among Lao writers specifically she has almost no peers in the Americas, with the only other major collection of Lao short prose in English being the late Outhine Bounyavong’s Mother’s Beloved published by the University of Washington Press twenty-one years ago. Since the end of the war, in the Western Hemisphere there have been fewer than forty-five books by the Lao diasporic community in our own words. The vast majority of our literary output has been poetry, children’s stories, cookbooks, a memoir or two, and film and theatrical works.
Laos has long been ignored in literature, rarely figuring into various narratives, and often only in men’s adventure stories and mysteries. One of the earliest mentions was in spy novelist John Le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) and the Doctor Siri series by Australian expat writer Colin Cotterill. Most Lao novels and short stories by writers in Laos have gone untranslated. How to Pronounce Knife provides a rare model of modern stories involving Lao people that don’t involve someone getting murdered, dealing with crime, or fleeing immediate danger.
The magic of Thammavongsa’s prose operates across several levels that are of relief to many of her peers and contemporaries. You don’t have to be fully familiar with Laos to appreciate it, and she does not spend vast swaths of text as a literary tour guide, some “Explainer of All Things.” If you want to know more about Lao culture, you’ll have to do the work yourself, even though she does not shy away from a Lao-centred experience. These are not melancholy stories falling into the usual tropes of Old Country- New Country, East-Meets-West-Fish-Out-of-Water stories that are typically in fashion for refugee stories presented to mainstream readers, and it should be clear that her perspective will be regarded as a classic, but she will not be the last word on our diverse experiences.
Whether it’s the Halloween misadventures in her tale “Chick-A-Chee!” or reflections on what the music of Randy Travis meant to a Lao mother, or discovering the fallibility of a father in the titular “How to Pronounce Knife,” we are given a chance to see a community journey from an intimate and refreshing perspective. We see a full range of emotions and questions, humour and deep reflections, that affirm our shared humanity and the importance of the best of our cultural traditions.
I am particularly enthused for her work because we are seeing some of the very first modern fictional characters of Lao literature in the Americas, complete with flaws and dreams and complex motivations. Will they go on to be as memorable and enduring as Don Quixote, Javert, or Wittman Ah Sing, or join Lao mythic heroines and heroes like Sinxay or Xieng Mieng? Only time can tell, but Thammavongsa has set a precedent well worth watching, and she has opened a door for many of her fellow Lao in diaspora to share their tales fully and freely. This is no small accomplishment, and it is a magnificent beginning for her journey as a prose writer, even as the poet in me hopes it is not too long before we also see more of her verse.
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