What a stunning and potent collection! How to Pronounce Knife uses precise details to illustrate how the multitude of invisible barriers that await immigrants affect their lives, and their children’s lives, in ways great and small. Thammavongsa’s writing is rich and often dangerously sharp. Recommended By Keith M., Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
Spare, unsentimental, and distilled to riveting essentials, these "emotionally devastating" stories honor the surreal, funny, and often wrenching realities of trying to build a life far from home (Sheila Heti).
In the title story of Souvankham Thammavongsa's debut collection, a young girl brings a book home from school and asks her father to help her pronounce a tricky word, a simple exchange with unforgettable consequences. Thammavongsa is a master at homing in on moments like this — moments of exposure, dislocation, and messy feeling that push us right up against the limits of language.
The stories that make up How to Pronounce Knife focus on characters struggling to find their bearings in unfamiliar territory, or shuttling between idioms, cultures, and values. A failed boxer discovers what it truly means to be a champion when he starts painting nails at his sister's salon. A young woman tries to discern the invisible but immutable social hierarchies at a chicken processing plant. A mother coaches her daughter in the challenging art of worm harvesting.
In a taut, visceral prose style that establishes her as one of the most striking and assured voices of her generation, Thammavongsa interrogates what it means to make a living, to work, and to create meaning.
"Thammavongsa's prose is spare, the images she evokes so crystalline, they require no embellishment. Here is life, rendered with precision and insight. Instantly recognizable. She offers sharp sensory details, piercing imagery, endings that will punch you in the gut and leave you yearning for more." Sharon Bala, author The Boat People, winner of the Harper Lee Prize
"How to Pronounce Knife is a book of unusual ferocity and grace. Souvankham Thammavongsa carefully unpacks the aches and aspirations of immigrant and refugee life in tight, commanding prose; and these subtle yet shattering stories glow with empathy, humor, and wisdom." Mia Alvar, author of In the Country
"Souvankham Thammavongsa writes with deep precision, wide-open spaces, and quiet, cool, emotionally devastating poise. There is not a moment off in these affecting stories." Sheila Heti, author of How Should a Person Be and Motherhood
"I love these stories. There's some fierce and steady activity in all of the sentences - something that makes them live, and makes them shift a little in meaning when you look at them again and they look back at you (or look beyond you)."
Helen Oyeyemi, author of What is Not Yours is Not Yours and Gingerbread
About the Author
Souvankham Thammavongsa was born in the Lao refugee camp in Nong Khai, Thailand and was raised and educated in Toronto. She is the award-winning author of four books of poetry and her fiction has appeared in Harper's, Granta, the Paris Review, Ploughshares, Best American Non-Required Reading 2018, and the O. Henry Prize Stories 2019.