Book Review: How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

How to Pronounce Knife – Souvankham Thammavongsa (McClelland & Stewart, 2020)

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”.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa”

  1. I know lots of people love Sabrina & Corina, a short story collection by Kali Fajardo-Anstine, but the stories were all the same situation or the same type of person, or the same situation and people! I don’t get why some authors worry away at a theme or character. It always suggests to me the author is writing about him or herself, and it’s like they need to process something….. Unfortunately, Sabrina & Corina wasn’t good, either.

    1. I think I had that one on my TBR but took it off after reading some negative reviews.

      I think Thammavongsa has a unique perspective and is definitely writing at least partially about her own experiences. She was born in a Laotian refugee camp before immigrating to Canada and Lao and refugees are a common theme throughout the stories so I think you’re right that she’s working through a lot of that in her fiction. That’s why I think a novel from her would actually be more interesting because she could focus on one story and work it out over a longer space. If I’d read any of these stories on their own, I probably would have been more impressed. Sitting down and reading them in a week and a half just highlighted their similarities.

  2. Great review. I’ve been on the fence about reading this one and honestly am still not sure about picking it up. It sounds like Thammavongsa has a unique perspective and writes it well, but the repetition in theme seems like something that I would have a hard time staying focused through, even if the stories are beautiful. Maybe I’ll pick this up at some point and try a story or two to see how it goes- it sounds like it would be worth reading at least that much if not the whole collection. Otherwise, it does sound like a novel from her could be even stronger and I might do better to keep an eager eye out for such an offering in the future.

    1. Thanks! I’d say try a story or two and maybe space the book out more than I did if you do read it. I’m hoping we get a novel from her too.

  3. You are so right that these stories are repetitive. And for all the praise that is heaped upon this book, very few people acknowledge this! I’m excited to read a novel by her too, hopefully that giller prize money will help it come sooner 😉

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