Souvankham Thammavongsa: Laughter and the refugee experience


Acclaimed Canadian poet Souvankham Thammavongsa has now turned her deft hand to fiction with her new short story collection How to Pronounce Knife

Thammavongsa’s debut is an affecting and moving collection of stories tracing the lives of Laos working class immigrants. The collection deals evocatively with language, misunderstanding and assimilation; there is a poignancy to the hope and longings of Thammavongsa’s characters. Knowledge is privilege for these narrators, half of which are children, exaggerating the vulnerability of ignorance in the immigrant experience. 

We spoke to Thammavongsa about challenging immigrant narratives, the importance of laughter and her favourite country music artists.

How has it been publishing the story collection during a global pandemic?   

The lovely thing is that it is a book and the quality of its art does not change once it is published. The world it goes out to changes, or not, but that is not something I can do anything about. Some of the feelings the book deals with – what it is like to be alone, to be separated from family and friends, to wonder when things might get back to what is normal, to ache to touch someone you love who you won’t see for a very long time, to lose your sense and certainty of “here” – I thought I might have to explain, but I do not because everyone knows what that is like now. 

How did you draw upon your own experiences for How to Pronounce Knife?

I do not like anyone feeling sorry for me or wanting to hear a sad story from me—I do have pride and I refuse to put my sadness on display to prove my humanity or to move people. There are other ways to move and to be stunning and to lift people. It presses on the skill of a writer, and I want that. 

I grew up in a neighbourhood in Toronto where it is not a big deal to be a refugee because everyone around me is – and what that does is you do not get stuck telling this sad story over and over or being a mouthpiece, or having the horrible pressure to speak for people and be perfect. You get to be a person, in all your brilliance and mess, and you get to set your own terms.

Why do you think it is so necessary to challenge traditional narratives about immigrants? 

I think it’s necessary to be ambitious as writers, readers and as artists. Telling the same story means there is only room for one and it makes the power of that story lessen. It becomes easily replaceable and quite honestly a bit of a bore. 

Language, mistranslations and miscommunications thread through the stories – how did language impact your childhood?  

I spoke Lao at home. My parents felt I would learn English anyway, and while I have nothing from the country I come from, not even a birth certificate, I could at least have this language in my mouth. We were not allowed to speak English at home because the language took something away from my parents—their brilliance, their sense of humour, their authority. We also used French words for fancy things. My dad referred to his black polished shoes as his souliers. When I was in French class in grade two I thought we were speaking Lao because the language was so familiar to me and I felt comfortable with it. My grandfather and I spoke French together. He was uneducated, and wanted to prove his sophistication, and to him, French was the language of sophisticates. My dad worked as a rickshaw driver when we lived in a refugee camp and later on he taught me swear words he learned on the job in Vietnamese, Lao, Filipino, Thai, English – just so that I knew what to say or what was said to me, so I wouldn’t just “take it” with a smile. 

Laughter is similarly important to your stories – what role does laughter and humour play in your life?  

The skill that laughter is built out of can change a story. If you are the centre of a joke and don’t want to be, you can change it and redirect it. To get someone to laugh, to be on your side, to see things, the absurdity of things especially, is such a powerful joy to feel and to make and to earn. It is so much more powerful to have from people their laughter than their pity. When I was a kid, my parents had this wonderful way of turning everything outside of us that we could not change or that was intended to shame or belittle us, into something to be laughed at together. If I had a hole in my shoe because my parents couldn’t afford to buy a new pair of shoes for me – they would tell me summer was coming and my shoe is actually high-tech, the latest fashion that everyone would want because it had its own natural air-conditioning. I would forget that I needed or wanted a new pair of shoes and forgot that we were poor because we were laughing, and we were together. 

The stories leave a lot of space for the reader to explore their own understandings – why did you decide on this narrative choice?  

I trust and think readers are smart. They have enough in their lives to bring into a story and I have put enough there for them to read it. The readers who need me to think for them get frustrated, but it is not about me. It is their own lack, but I take the responsibility because I have called attention to that lack. There are others who are used to one kind of narrative and because I am not familiar, my difference unsettles them. One reader said my stories didn’t go anywhere, but it wasn’t understood that they are stories of arrival and stillness, not movement. It is like wanting to see action and explosions in a Marvel movie in a still and intimate photograph and then accusing it of failure when the frame of that want is what failed. 

It is so much more powerful to have from people their 

laughter than their pity

In “Randy Travis,” the mother is obsessed with country music – who are your favourite country artists?   

What makes country music particularly lovely is its earnestness, it’s value for quality, its ability to tell a whole story with a simple sentence. It doesn’t care about being cool and that is what endears me so. I love Dolly Parton, Randy Travis, Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn. 

You began your writing career as a poet – how does poetry inform your fiction?  

It teaches me to be careful, to make every moment count, to trust readers, to value language and the space around it. It teaches me that the joy is in the writing, not the things outside of it. When you write fiction people want to know a lot about your life and how you wrote it. You don’t get to have your privacy or the magic of not knowing things. When I write about the snow or the rain, no one ever asks if it’s true or if my real life informs it – it’s there and they know it. 

Which female authors and poets have informed your writing?  

Marianne Moore. She is wonderfully weird and loved sports. She hung out with Muhammad Ali. Also, Carson McCullers, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Joan Didion, Lydia Davis, Jhumpa Lahiri, Clarice Lispector, Amy Tan, Grace Paley. 

Is there any author, book or poem you always return to?  

I really love Naomi Shahib Nye’s poem Famous. It is about being famous, but not the way we often think about it. Famous, the way a buttonhole is famous to a button, “not because it did anything spectacular/but because it never forgot what it could do.”