How to Pronounce Knife is the most recent winner of the Giller Prize, probably Canada’s most prestigious literary award. It is a collection of short stories, a common thread running through of The Outsider. More specifically, these are stories that detail elements of the immigrant experience. Many of the characters are connected to Laos, either refugees or the children of refugees. Some of them are adults, some are children. The children watch their parents with caution, knowing that they are different than the other adults around them. Some of these children are forced to make a choice between the adults in their lives, as the child in the title story does. When she asks her father how to pronounce “knife”, he does not know that the K is silent. Despite being corrected by her teacher, the child insists on her father’s pronunciation, unconsciously refusing to accept the growing distance between her and her parents.
Many of the characters work physical jobs, tasks the average middle class person might not think twice about but of course they exist. Nail salons, chicken processing plants, worm pickers. Thammavongsa brings the physicality of these jobs to life. She never shies away from the honest, gritty details but she portrays them with respect and an understanding of their necessity for the way our society works. The jobs of these characters both result from their outsider status and contribute to it. In “Paris”, the main character Red knows that she is different from the women who work in the office while her job is to pluck the feathers from the bodies of the dead chickens. She watches other women who work in the plant get nose jobs, an effort to change their place in both the factory and in life. In “Picking Worms”, the narrator’s mother is the best worm picker but a fourteen-year-old boy is promoted over her and it’s easy to see it’s because he is white.
The stories are each strong and engaging but do have a sense of repetitiveness. I didn’t find that the voices varied widely between the stories and many of the characters were in similar situations, even though the details might be different. Still, I enjoyed Thammavongsa’s writing and the stories that she creates and tells here. I certainly will be happy to read more from her and I think a full-length novel might even be stronger than a story collection.
How to Pronounce Knife is my first read for The Asian-Canadian Literature Challenge 2021. Thammavongsa is Laotian-Canadian and this book checks off the prompt for “a short story or essay collection”.