Excerpt from How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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How to Pronounce Knife

by Souvankham Thammavongsa

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa X
How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2020, 192 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2021, 192 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Dean Muscat
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Paris

THE SKY WAS BLACK like the middle of an eye. Red revved the engine, impatient, having to wait for the truck to warm up. She never failed to make her morning shift on time. The truck was an old thing. A thing she had seen on someone's front lawn, a For Sale sign taped to the windshield, handwritten in black marker. The make was nothing special. They call it a pickup truck, but she never picked anything up in it, just herself. It might have been the colour that drew Red to the truck. And the thought of that big red truck in the parking lot at the plant. It would be the best-looking thing there, and it would belong to her. She wanted that.

Red worked at the plant like most of the others in town. It was her job to pluck the feathers, make sure the chickens were smooth when they left her. By the time the chickens got to her, they were already dead, their eyes closed tight like they were sleeping. It was almost like what happened in the next room didn't happen at all. Sometimes she could swear she heard the chickens—that sudden desperate flap of wing, as if flight could really take place there.

Before Red backed out onto the road, she looked at herself in the rear-view mirror. It didn't show her whole face, just the eyes. She lifted herself up from the driver's seat, turned her head to the right, studied the outline of her profile, and tried to imagine her face with a different nose. How maybe if her nose was different, things would be different at the plant too. Especially with Tommy. Tommy was her boss, her supervisor, married with two young boys. He was nice to her. Gave her more shifts than anyone else and complimented her work.

"You did good, Red. Keep it up. We've got plans for you."

What those plans were, she never knew. Just that they had them for her. Sometimes Tommy would buy her a cola from the machine or sit at her table during her lunch breaks. It wasn't how he behaved with the other girls who worked for him. There was no interest in her body. He didn't notice what was there, didn't lean in close or whisper anything. They talked. Mostly about his boys and how he was planning a trip to Paris with his wife for Valentine's Day.

Tommy's wife, Nicole, had a nose Red wished she could have. It was a thin nose that stuck out from her face and pointed upward. Everyone who worked in the front office had that kind of nose.

Nicole always came to the plant's annual Christmas party wearing something fashionable, in fabric no one else's clothes were made out of. The material fit tightly around her curves, smoothed out and pressed, not a wrinkle in sight. At these parties, Nicole always stood the whole time in a group with the other wives whose husbands ran or owned the company. This was the one occasion in the year their wives were seen, brought out for show. Sometimes one of them would come over to say hello to a couple of people who worked on the line. They would introduce themselves, shake a few hands, and then go back to stand in a corner with the other wives, as if they'd done some great charity work by breaking away from their huddle. Nicole never came over.

Every year at the party they served fried chicken. It never bothered Red that the pieces she ate could have been from one of those dead chickens that came to her to get plucked. Cut up into pieces like that, there wasn't a face to think of. And every year, she looked forward to this party, wore her best clothes to it: a pair of jeans, a blue-and-white checkered shirt, and thick black boots from Canadian Tire. Her clothes weren't fancy like what some of the other girls wore, and they didn't show much, but there wasn't much Red wanted to show.

A few years ago, one of the girls who worked on the line got a nose job. Her glasses didn't have to be held up with an elastic band at the back of the head anymore. The girl got her hair done after that, every week. She already had a small, thin body. "Cute" was what Tommy called it. Soon, she started getting more shifts and, eventually, a job in the front office. The front office! In this town, a girl either worked at the chicken plant or the Boobie Bungalow. At least at the Boobie Bungalow you could make some quick cash and get the hell out of town, never look back, or you could get someone who could love you just long enough to take you away. Any man you met there was single or on his way to being single. At the plant, most of the men were married, and if they weren't they would be eventually, to someone who didn't work there.

Excerpted from How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa. Copyright © 2020 by Souvankham Thammavongsa. Excerpted by permission of Little Brown & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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