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Summary and book reviews of How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

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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  • Published:
    Apr 2020, 192 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Dean Muscat
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About this Book

Book Summary

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.

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 ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. The opening story is about a child who doesn't know how to pronounce a word. Are there words you've had trouble with or that you find unusual?
  2. In the story "Paris," no one ever goes to Paris and it does not take place in Paris. Why do you think the author decided to title this story "Paris"?
  3. Many of the stories have main characters who are not named and others who are but then their names end up changing. What is the value of a name? How do you feel about a character that is not named?
  4. In "Mani Pedi," Raymond's sister tells him to "keep your dreams small." Have you ever told yourself this or have you ever felt someone was saying that to you? What were those dreams that you felt you had to "keep small"?
  5. Work is an important theme in ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Throughout the 14 stories collected in How to Pronounce Knife, nearly all of which follow Lao immigrants and refugees building new lives in unnamed towns across Canada, not once do we encounter a character homesick with nostalgia. By limiting cultural particularities, Thammavongsa steers the reader closer to a general experience of alienation bound up with the immigrant experience. These stories never rely on twists or a-ha moments. They are deeply affecting, humorous and heartbreaking in equal measure...continued

Full Review Members Only (680 words).

(Reviewed by Dean Muscat).

Media Reviews

New York Times
"[I]mpressive...Thammavongsa’s spare, rigorous stories are preoccupied with themes of alienation and dislocation, her characters burdened by the sense of existing unseen...[her] gift for the gently absurd means the stories never feel dour or predictable, even when their outcomes are by some measure bleak.

Washington Post
Over the course of the collection’s 14 stories, Thammavongsa’s tales of Lao immigrants in the Western world continually subvert many such prejudices. Her careful dissection of everyday moments of racism, classism and sexism exposes how power and privilege drive success, how work shapes the immigrant identity, and how erasure and invisibility lead to isolation.

Minneapolis Star Tribune
Thammavongsa isn't just gifted at exploring the dynamics of families adjusting to new lives, she's also an immensely talented writer. Her gift for poetry translates perfectly into fiction; her prose is spare but vivid, with no wasted words, and she has an unusual gift for descriptions that stick with the reader. How to Pronounce Knife is a wonderful fiction debut that proves to be a perfect showcase for Thammavongsa's skill with language and her abundant compassion. It's also a reminder of our shared humanity at a time when we need it most.

Shelf Awareness
With spare, precise prose, Thammavongsa evokes a world of strong emotion made livable by painful, unstable social constraints. The syntactical simplicity of the writing throws the internal complexity of these characters and their situations into stark relief, displaying how restraint can pack an unexpectedly sentimental punch. Quietly poetic, How to Pronounce Knife also produces a shivering recognition in its readers.

Ms. Magazine
Thammavongsa's radiant debut collection of short stories is full of precarity, strength, uncertainty, messiness and life.

Elle
Every once in a while you come across a book with writing so breathtaking that you take note of the author so you can read everything they ever write in the future. How to Pronounce Knife is one of those books.

Publishers Weekly
Thammavongsa's brief stories pack a punch, punctuated by direct prose that's full of acute observations...This is a potent collection.

Kirkus Reviews
These stories, written in a spare, distant register, twist the heart; Thammavongsa captures in a few well-chosen words how it feels for immigrant children to protect their parents. But occasionally the stories lean on stereotype to make their point...Moving, strange, and occasionally piercing.

Booklist (starred review)
These stories have a quiet brilliance in their raw portrayal of the struggle to find meaning in difficult times and to belong in a foreign place. Thammavongsa writes with an elegance that is both brutal and tender, giving her stories and their characters a powerful voice.

Library Journal (starred review)
In under 200 pages, Canadian poet Thammavongsa showcases 14 spectacular stories in her fiction debut...a poignant, eyes-wide-open exploration...pristine short fiction - think Paul Yoon, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Phil Klay.

Author Blurb Paul Yoon, author of Snow Hunters
Not since the stories of Edward P. Jones have I encountered such a unified and yet wide-ranging vision-both geographically and emotionally-that captures the spirit of not only a community but of the greater world-then, now, the future. This is a book full of powerful resilience, great journeys, and above all else: fierce, heart-wrenching love.

Author Blurb Helen Oyeyemi, author of What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours and Gingerbread
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).

Author Blurb Mary Gaitskill, author of Veronica and Somebody With a Little Hammer
These poignant and deceptively quiet stories are powerhouses of feeling and depth; How to Pronounce Knife is an artful blend of simplicity and sophistication.

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Beyond the Book

The Origins of Trick-or-Treating

Girl in a Halloween costume in Ontario, 1928 In the story "Chick-A-Chee!" from How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa, an immigrant father takes his children trick-or-treating on Halloween in the hope that they will integrate better into the local culture.

Around the world today, treat-or-treating is very much seen as an all-American activity. However, its origins can be traced back to the ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain (pronounced SOW'inn), which is still celebrated by modern pagans. During this end-of-summer festival, the ancient Celts believed that the barrier between the world of the gods and humankind was lifted and that deities played tricks on humans.

In the 8th century CE, Christians began to celebrate All Saints' Day, a day to honor saints and ...

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