Eeek. Eeek. Eeek.

Souvankham Thammavongsa, How to Pronounce Knife

Bloomsbury, 192pp, £8.99, ISBN 9781526610454

reviewed by Beatrice Tridimas

Souvankham Thammavongsa’s debut short story collection, How to Pronounce Knife, is every bit as poetic, heart-wrenching and poignant as its title suggests. Utterly original and rich in emotion, these stories follow the lives of Laotian immigrants who, severed from their past, seek happiness, love and a sense of belonging.

The title story, ‘How to Pronounce Knife,’ is the perfect introduction to this series of poignant explorations of hope, resilience and coming to terms with somewhere new. Through simple, subtle details Thammavongsa expertly constructs the complex experiences of learning to understand the world through new customs, words and experiences. As a young Joy struggles to pronounce the word ‘knife,’ her teacher taps the page of the book as if the ‘k’ will simply fall off the page and ‘the correct sound would spill out.’ The hopeless efforts of Joy’s teacher capture the very specific nuance of learning a whole new set of rules, a whole new way of understanding. Stark in both its absence and presence, the silent ‘k’ in knife comes to symbolise the gaps in knowledge that the characters in Thammavongsa’s stories desperately seek to fill.

It is through the curious and wondrous eyes of children that we see adult characters, too, come to terms with a new and weird world. Thammavongsa captures childhood perfectly in all its wisdom, curiosity and ignorance, whilst establishing the very distinct and very complex process of learning that adults undergo in moving to a new place. We see them revert to infancy, their children becoming their teachers or nurturers. It becomes Joy’s responsibility to teach her father ‘that some letters, even though they are there, we do not say.’ In ‘Randy Travis’ — the tale of a woman so enthralled in fantasising about a country singer she loses all grasp of reality — a mother sits, ‘in small fits of giggles’ like a teenager, as her seven-year-old daughter transcribes her a love letter to the singer.

Told through the lens of her adult self, ‘Edge of the World’s’ four-year-old protagonist is imbued with the wisdom of her now older self, further exacerbating the infantilisation of her mother. She reads her mother bedtime stories and soothes her to sleep. She tells her everything will be alright, ‘though [she] didn’t know if they would be or what it meant to say those words. [She] just knew it helped to say them.’ These words, both full of meaning and yet absent of it, are the silent ‘k’ of this story.

‘Edge of the World’ highlights the vital sacrifice parents make by displacing themselves from what they know, in order for their children to never have that knowledge. As mother and daughter argue whether the earth is flat, they acknowledge the very different experiences each has lived. ‘Just because I never went to school doesn’t mean I don’t know things,’ the mother says, referring to the war, abuse and fear she fled to come to this new place.

It is a sense of this sacrifice which dictates the dynamics of hope in many of the stories. In the final tale, ‘Picking Worms,’ yet another child narrator says of her mother, ‘I wanted her to have her dreams.’ But the dreams she is talking of are dreams for her own future. Thammavongsa manipulates the psychological complexity of hope effortlessly, considering its every dimension, making the reader enthralled by its power and simultaneously disappointed by its limits. Hope is both good and bad, the destructive force that ruins a mother lost in fantasy (‘Randy Travis’) and the beguiling glamour of ‘cheap nails’ which offer a lost and lonely man a sense of purpose (‘Mani Pedi’). The ex-boxer, who finds solace in his sister’s nail shop, will not stop dreaming despite his sister’s constant deploring that he ‘[f]ucking give it up.’ ‘That I can dream at all means something to me,’ he says, a powerful sentiment which resonates throughout each of the 14 stories.

Not every story has a happy ending. ‘The Universe Would Be So Cruel’ challenges our blind faith in hope, whilst some stories, such as ‘The School Bus Driver’, could be read in two ways. A much starker perception of the world underlies Thammavongsa’s delightfully sewn together tales of hope, sometimes escaping in moments of brusque profanity, like in ‘Paris’:

The bottom of Nicole’s white fur coat was dirty with mud. If Red had not seen the whole thing, she might have thought the mud was shit. Might have asked how the shit got all over her like that.

But for these rare moments of raw, graphic language, Thammavongsa’s writing is subtle, nostalgic and littered with moments of pure poetry. The protagonist of ‘The School Bus Driver’ is memorable for the simple poetry of his identity: ‘Jai. It rhymes with chai. It means heart. Heart.’ Whilst, ‘You Are So Embarrassing’ — a more nuanced, intricate depiction of parental love I am yet to come by — is practically painted onto the page:

Everything outside was blurry and wet, and there was nothing to be done about it. The windshield wipers sounded like sobs. Eeek. Eeek. Eeek.

She packs in bright, flashy images of America — the country singers, microwave dinners, shiny red toys or shiny red cars (one of the subtler tropes Thammavongsa litters throughout the collection) — alongside more muted moments of longing for the bright and vibrant homes these characters have left behind: food so unique you can trace it ‘like a fingerprint’ back to its maker (‘Randy Travis’).

How to Pronounce Knife is an utterly radiating, moving ode to love and what it means to belong. Subtle in their similarities and various in their differences, each story fits together like pieces of the puzzle that father and daughter assemble at the end of ‘How to Pronounce Knife’. With sharp wit and striking spirit, Thammavongsa has exquisitely crafted an eye-opening collection full of hope, humour and wisdom.

Beatrice Tridimas is a content writer for the ethical lifestyle publication, KeiSei Magazine.