The Lives of Immigrants, Chronicled Empathically: A Review of “How to Pronounce Knife”

"How to Pronounce Knife" cover

In this stunning debut, award-winning Canadian writer Souvankham Thammavongsa lays bare the plights of people living in the margins in 14 singularly impressive stories. Most of the stories in this collection center on the lives of Lao immigrants, taking a leaf out of the life of a writer who was born in a Lao refugee camp in Thailand before emigrating with her parents to Canada. 

These stories zero in on the trivial details of daily living that demarcate immigrants from the rest of the population. In the eponymous story, a little girl asks her father, who is the only one at home who knows how to read English, on how to pronounce the word knife. It sounded like “kahneyff” to him so that is what he teaches her. When she goes to school and pronounces it wrong in front of the class, a blue-eyed, yellow-haired girl in the class corrects her that the k is silent and rolls her eyes “as if there was nothing easier in the world to know.” 

A recurring pattern in these stories is the fixation of the protagonists on distinguished features or characteristics that separate immigrants from others. The narrative dissects how these seemingly little things continue to bother, chipping away at the character’s borrowed identity. While the first story focuses on enunciation, the second focuses on a dainty nose. In “Paris”, Red is a woman who plucks chicken at a plant in her town. According to her, if her nose was different, so would be her life. Her supervisor’s wife has “a thin nose that stuck out from her face and pointed upward,” which Red pines for. What made Red yearn for her supervisor’s  nose was that everyone who worked in the front office had that kind of a nose. One of her colleagues even got a nose job, considered climbing to the top rung of the social ladder, and consequently got a job in the front office. Many of the stories are subtle indictments of classism and privilege.

Thammavongsa relies on a compact style featuring pared-down sentences underlined with fraught pauses. Another overarching theme in this book is the immigrant’s desperation to assimilate and detach from anything that “others” them. In one story about an impoverished Lao family, the father sometimes unwittingly speaks to his daughter in Lao but upon realizing, immediately tells her “Don’t speak Lao and don’t tell anyone you are Lao. It’s no good to tell people where you’re from.” In “Chick-A-Chee” a father, before leaving his children to go to work, instructs them to never go to the neighbors or call 911 if they were in trouble as it was akin to “calling the cops on him — he would be the one who’d get in trouble for leaving us alone and unsupervised.” He would instead point to a small red axe he kept hidden behind the radiator. The acute paranoia and mistrust of being in a place you cannot call home emerges from these stories. The ethnic sounding names are another red flag to avoid being singled out. In “You’re So Embarrassing”, a girl named Chantakhad becomes Celine in her school; in another story, Jai becomes Jay. 

Other stories focus on protagonists encountering anomalous situations of a different kind. “Slingshot,” which won an O. Henry Award, is about a seventy year old woman who has an unusual liaison with a thirty year old man. The woman keenly observes how she is treated gingerly by people at parties and social gatherings. Sometimes she forgets how old she actually is until she sees it revealed in the expressions of sympathy she gets from other people:  “Old is a thing that happens on the outside. A thing other people see about us.” When her granddaughter sees her getting close to the young man, she rudely points out to the protagonist  that he is never going to love her; had she forgotten all her wrinkles or how old she was?

“Randy Travis” is one of the most affecting stories in this book. It’s about an immigrant family where the mother, after moving to a new country, develops an unusual fixation with the country singer Randy Travis, whose music she heard by chance  on the radio she got as part of the welcome package from the refugee settlement program. This story highlights bizarre connections that can make one think of home. The mother started listening to American country music because it reminded her of how the women in her family talked among themselves, sharing stories of broken dreams and ambitions.   

The stories are mostly written from the perspective of vulnerable, impressionable children who are fiercely protective of their parents and their linguistic shortcomings in a strange homeland. Disparity and deprivation haunt the narratives and the stories usually end on a sombre note. The prose is oddly affecting yet coolly detached. In that way it reminded me of Peruvian-American author Daniel Alarcon’s The King Is Always Above the People, a brilliant short story collection that humanizes the struggles of Latin American families. What both these collections have in common is that the stories are meticulously succinct yet infused with emotional heft. Also, both writers rely on streamlined narratives that culminate in unresolved, sobering endings. 

One of my personal favourites was “Edge of the World”, where a mother has learnt broken English after watching soaps. Since she was not fluent in the language, in a heartbreaking role reversal, the daughter would be the one making up stories when she runs out of the storybooks to make her fall asleep. Perpetually disoriented and displaced, the mother eventually abandons her family. The father does not grieve because, as the daughter explains, “he had done all of this life’s grieving when he became a refugee. To lose your love, to be abandoned by your wife was a thing of luxury even — it meant you were alive.”

This impeccable debut thrives on writing that reflects the constant vulnerability, angst and emotional labour of being an immigrant. Souvankham Thammavongsa’s fiction debut is definitely one of the best I have read recently;she is definitely a blazing new talent to watch out for.


How to Pronounce Knife
by Souvankham Thammavongsa
Little, Brown and Company; 192 p.

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