‘How to Pronounce Knife’ by Souvankham Thammavongsa: Life on the Margins

Bella Davis

In her debut  story collection, How to Pronounce Knife (192 pages; Little Brown), Souvankham Thammavongsa focuses on power and privilege, connection and isolation. Born in a refugee camp in Thailand to Lao parents and raised in Canada, Thammavongsa centers the day-to-day lives of immigrants in fourteen stories, written in a precise and emotionally devastating style.  

In the titular story, a young girl brings a book home from school to practice reading and asks her father for help pronouncing a word she’s never encountered. The next day in class she’s tasked with reading aloud and is sent to the principal’s office for her insistence that the word is pronounced with a “k” sound, as her father taught her. At home, she reflects on the incident:

Always get the last word.

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As she watches her father eat his dinner, she thinks of what else he doesn’t know. What else she would have to find out for herself. She wants to tell her father that some letters, even though they are there, we do not say them, but she decides now is not the time to say such a thing.

This exploration of how people navigate life on the margins is what weaves each story in the collection together, particularly as Thammavongsa explicitly considers power dynamics. 

A handful of stories set in the workplace quietly highlight the insidious, crushing nature of hierarchies based on race, class, and gender. “Paris,” for instance, tells the story of Red, a woman who works on the line at a chicken processing plant. There’s a clear divide at the plant between those who work in the back and those who work in the front. The front-office workers are all marked by one distinguishing feature: thin noses that “point upwards.” Red dreams of one day getting a nose job and being noticed and promoted by her boss, Tommy—who often has affairs with female employees from the front office—but deep down she feels she’s ugly and unlovable. Thammavongsa writes:  

The only love Red knew was that simple, uncomplicated, lonely love one feels for oneself in the quiet moments of the day. It was there, steady and solid in the laughter and talk of the television and with her in the grocery aisles on the weekends. It was there every night, in the dark, spectacular and sprawling in the quiet. And it all belonged to her.

The story ends with Red witnessing a parking lot confrontation between Tommy and his wife Nicole, who’s just caught him with an employee in his car. She yells at him and grabs him by the arm, begging him not to cheat on her again, but he shoves her away and leaves with his employee. Taking note of Red watching, Nicole runs to her and embraces her in what amounts to a strikingly somber interaction: 

They stood there together in each other’s arms. It was the first time someone had ever been that close to Red, had touched her. Both women cried, but for different reasons.

In unembellished prose, Thammavongsa expertly crafts small moments such as this throughout How to Pronounce Knife. The stories are quiet but shattering—powerful because you can feel how much truth there is in them.  

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