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Souvankham Thammavongsa

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Poet Souvankham Thammavongsa shifts gears with a sharp and steely new collection of short stories

When Souvankham Thammavongsa won the Trillium Book Award for Poetry for her third collection, the 2013 volume Light, she found that the result was somewhat surprising: “People started to make an effort in pronouncing my name correctly.”

Though she laughs when she says this, her self-directed irony contains a serious undercurrent. Thammavongsa, who was born in a Lao refugee camp in Thailand and grew up in Toronto, is intimately familiar with the casual neglect westerners can demonstrate in matters as apparently simple as learning how to pronounce someone’s name. “When I first started publishing 25 years ago, I felt a kind of pressure that nobody’s going to want to publish a writer whose name they can’t pronounce,” Thammavongsa says. “Maybe if you’re Amy Tan, that’s easier to remember.”

Despite this sense of unease, Thammavongsa has remained defiantly adamant about not adopting a westernized name, unlike Chantakad, a character in her short story “You Are So Embarrassing,” who starts calling herself Celine to ensure her popularity with her classmates. In another story, “The School Bus Driver,” the protagonist, Jai (rhymes with chai), finds his name mispronounced as Jay, thereby eradicating the name’s original Lao meaning, which is “heart.” The mispronunciation (by Jai’s wife, no less) is not significant just because of its symbolic resonance in the story. “When your name changes, who you become changes as well,” Thammavongsa says.

Both “You Are So Embarrassing” and “The School Bus Driver” are included in Thammavongsa’s outstanding new collection of short fiction, How to Pronounce Knife (McClelland & Stewart), a suite of stories that focuses on refugees and immigrants, worm pickers and tax preparers and, in one memorable instance, a former boxer who finds a viable new career working in a nail salon.

The stories in the book, which are told in the same spare, matter-of-fact language that pervades Thammavongsa’s poetry, address the quotidian lives of people who inhabit what Frank O’Connor referred to as “submerged population groups”: outsiders and marginalized individuals. In Thammavongsa’s case, they are racialized blue-collar workers who do what one story calls “the grunt work of the world” and, in “Slingshot,” a septuagenarian woman who strikes up a passionate sexual relationship with a much younger man.

“I was very close to my great-grandmother and she was so incredibly funny to be around,” says Thammavongsa about the genesis of that story. “She lived in Toledo. Whenever I would visit her, we would stay up really late, giggling about boys. She had such wisdom. I felt like that was so powerful: to get old, to have that wisdom, to know life the way she did. What if I put a woman like that at the centre of a story?”

The answer to Thammavongsa’s rhetorical question is salutary: “Slingshot” appeared in both Harper’s and the 2019 edition of The O. Henry Prize Stories before finding its way into How to Pronounce Knife. It is typical of the new collection in that it is fast and sexy and – not incidentally – very funny. “When I write poetry, I feel like I’m not allowed to be funny,” Thammavongsa says. “I feel like I can’t carry that.”

If the turn to prose is a conscious attempt to release the humour that she has kept pent up in her poetry, she is aided in this endeavour by her decision to locate her characters within Lao immigrant communities. “I’m around a lot of Lao Canadians,” she says. “They’re so bawdy and hilarious and I never read about people like us. I want people to know about us.”

The move to fiction is not simply an attempt to put a spotlight on this neglected community by bringing her writing to a wider audience. It is also an attempt to challenge and surprise herself as a writer. “No one was waiting for the fiction, so there were no expectations,” Thammavongsa says of the stories in the collection, which were composed over the course of a decade or so. “I wanted writing to feel new to me again, and I wanted to surprise people.”

What is arguably most surprising is how effortlessly Thammavongsa makes the transition between forms, especially when one realizes she has no formal training in either genre, never having taken an MFA course. “Maybe I’m just cheap,” she says. “I don’t want to pay money for someone to tell me how to do what I want to do. I want to figure it out on my own. If I suck, then I’ll live with that.”

Instead of formal training, Thammavongsa learned by reading: she names as some favourites Alice Munro, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, and Tennessee Williams. “The best writing teacher is to just read writers you love and figure out, how did they do that?” she says.

If the evidence of How to Pronounce Knife is anything to go by, Thammavongsa has well and truly internalized the lessons of her mentors. And just in case that weren’t enough of a high-wire act, her next book is a novel that was apparently composed in a white heat.

“I wrote it in six weeks. Because I felt like, what if I don’t have time? So let’s just get this done,” she says, expressing the confidence that has already won accolades and awards in two successive literary genres. “I know it’s ugly, but whatever. I’ve written five books right now: I know what to do with ugly.”

Illustration by Rachel Idzerda