Souvankham Thammavongsa’s How to Pronounce Knife shifts between interiority and exteriority: she invites readers to look out at the world through her characters’ eyes while we also watch them move through the worlds in which they find themselves, from school to work to lovers’ bedrooms. So much about these characters’ relationships, between children and parents, between siblings, friends, and lovers, comes down to money, work, and buying entry into dominant white culture and what appears to be a more innocent and content life. As much as we watch her characters watching each other, and we sometimes see what they see, the economy of refugee gazes that structures these stories is always on a par with the other bodily senses, and How to Pronounce Knife is, amongst other things, a significant entry into narratives of the labouring im/migrant body in Canadian literature. There is a tenderness to Thammavongsa’s descriptions of the smelly, sore, sexualized, labouring, at once excessive and lacking racialized migrant body that could be in productive dialogue with Adele Wiseman’s highly embodied immigrant Jewish Winnipeg characters in Crackpot (1974), Dionne Brand’s precarious Caribbean migrant women navigating Toronto in Sans Souci and Other Stories (1988), or the diverse labouring migrant characters in Mariam Pirbhai’s Outside People and Other Stories (2017). Yet, there is a specificity to how Thammavongsa writes about Southeast Asian refugee and migrant labour in the twenty-first century, and some of this has to do with the way she writes about work and the body.
In “Mani Pedi,” Raymond, an ex-boxer taken in by his sister to work in her nail salon, knows things about the women his sister employs that he thinks she doesn’t know: “How they tried to get pregnant, but no babies ever caught on because of the chemicals from the salon. How their coughs started and didn’t ever stop” (70). But it isn’t just toxic chemicals that threaten the health and livelihoods of Thammavongsa’s characters: Raymond has to take weeks off work because he develops warts on his hands from touching people’s feet without gloves. But, the narrator tells us, the warts bother him less than an invisible contamination:
It was the smell of feet. It got into the pores of his nostrils and took root there, like a follicle of hair. It was becoming a part of him, the smell—like spoiled milk. He could never forget what he did for a living because it was always there. He was beginning to taste the smell of feet at the back of his throat. (66)
The smell of male clients’ neglected feet is a stench slowly dulling his senses and diminishing his body—he stops eating because he no longer enjoys food. But he can still smell, and when a female client on whom he has a crush is dropped off at the salon by a wealthy-looking man, “the smell of this man’s cologne came in with her” (69). Raymond’s heart is broken and his impossible dreams dashed; his sister sees his face fall, “the way it would fall in the ring when he knew he was losing” (69). But Raymond could never win this round, and the story ends with a heartbreaking image of him and his sister sitting in her car, windows open, listening to the sounds of a family barbeque and children giggling, the soundtrack of middle-class innocence “like a far distant thing, a thing that happened only to other people” (71).
Things that happen to other people is also a theme in “Paris,” in which Thammavongsa explores how the labouring refugee body is contained by the gendered, racialized, sexualized, and classed networks of power that structure workplaces. The Laotian women working in a chicken processing plant think that nose jobs, hairdos, and glamorous clothing might get them promoted to the front office by their sexual predator of a boss. But altering their bodies and trying to appear like the white wives of the company men can never unmark them as racialized others, and it can never insert them into nepotistic reproductions of managerial power. The narrator, Red, who distances herself from the other Laotian women’s feminine performances, is a bystander when her boss is discovered by his beautiful wife, Nicole, having sex with a Laotian female worker in his car. In distress, Nicole runs over to the narrator, seeking comfort in a hug: “She grabbed Red and held her like they were the closest of friends, and buried her pointy nose in Red’s neck. She could feel the poke” (23). The white woman’s pointy nose that other Laotian women mimic through plastic surgery breaks the invisible boundary Red maintains around her body, and the story ends with both women crying, “but for different reasons” (23). The male boss’ sexual exploitation of his female Laotian factory workers tethers these two women to each other, uncomfortably and without collapsing their differences.
And this is Thammavongsa’s point: the things that happen to “other people” are also, in various correlations, inversions, and contortions, the things that happen to her characters because of the centrality of work and labour in their lives. The Southeast Asian refugee body in Canada cannot escape the racialized webs of class, gender, and sexuality that so frequently situate them on the ground, both figuratively and literally. In “Picking Worms,” the narrator’s Laotian mother’s skill at picking live earthworms from farmers’ fields for bait gives her pleasure—“Man, I love shit of the earth” (172) she says after every shift—but it will never get her the promotion she deserves. Instead, the narrator’s fourteen-year-old white boyfriend, who joins them on a lark, is promoted to manager and changes the way they pick. Her mother’s organic, intuitive method of going barefoot and ungloved is prohibited; her health and productivity suffer because the boy manager’s rules separate her physically from the earthworms she finds through touch and feel (177). And so she lives the contradictions of her refugee, racialized, gendered labouring body that is at once too physical for her physical job and too expert to be promoted to management. Throughout this collection, the characters’ complex relationships are what elevate these stories beyond sociological or political exposé to rich explorations of the labouring body as also a loving, longing, knowing, and defiant body at once marked out for certain kinds of physical work and marked by it. The somatic focus of these stories offers a specificity of Southeast Asian refugee and migrant experience grounded in the labouring body that is always, both visibly and invisibly, seeking to transcend basic survival.
Thammavongsa, Souvankham. How to Pronounce Knife. McClelland & Stewart, 2020.
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