The fourteen stories in Souvankham Thammavongsa’s first collection of short fiction are narrated in terse, economical prose largely shorn of lyrical embellishment. It is prose that thrusts hard and deep, its emotional impact landing with little to cushion the blow.
The majority of Thammavongsa’s stories revolve around the immigrant experience: the aspirations, disappointments, the blunt-force strategies for survival that people are compelled to adopt in the struggle to adjust to unfamiliar, confusing, sometimes hostile environments. The title story, which opens the collection, describes the struggle of a school-age Laotian child to learn English. Because his wisdom is unquestioned (he is “the only one in their home who knew how to read”), she consults her father about the puzzling word “knife.” But the advice he provides is flawed, and she is humiliated in class. After this experience she sees him with new eyes, recognizing his limitations and realizing that a lonely, gruelling struggle awaits her.
In “Paris,” Red, an immigrant, works shiftwork at a chicken plant and is careful to never be late. Believing herself ugly, she’s convinced that if she could only get a nose job her boss Tommy would treat her differently, and her chances for advancement would improve. But when she witnesses the shabby manner in which Tommy treats his stunningly beautiful wife, she realizes that altering her looks to conform to a glamorous ideal will accomplish nothing: “The only love Red knew was that simple, uncomplicated, lonely love one feels for oneself in the quiet moments of the day.”
And in “Edge of the World,” the daughter of Laotian immigrants looks back with an aching heart to the time when her mother abandoned her. Now in her forties, she is able to see that her mother had been unable to adapt to life in a new country. Lonely and hopeless, the young woman had one day packed a suitcase and walked away, leaving her bewildered husband and helpless daughter behind. The narrator allows herself to imagine the depths of the despair that must have taken hold in order to drive her mother to such an extreme. But she is not resentful. Yes, the loss has marked her, left a gaping wound, an emotional void that she’s been unable to fill, but it also toughened her for the life she has had to live.
Thammavongsa’s stories zero in on moments like this, when a character attains a stark or painful realization: that despite the hopes and dreams that refugees carry with them to a new country—despite their best efforts, years of sacrifice and valiant, honest striving—life in the real world is brutal and unfair and comes with no guarantee that the sacrifice will be rewarded. Thammavongsa’s poignant, powerful stories speak openly of this blunt, unadulterated truth.
- WINNER OF THE 2020 SCOTIABANK GILLER PRIZE
- WINNER OF THE 2021 TRILLIUM BOOK AWARD
- FINALIST FOR THE 2021 NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD, the PEN AMERICA OPEN BOOK AWARD, and the DANUTA GLEED AWARD
- #1 NATIONAL BESTSELLER
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
SOUVANKHAM THAMMAVONGSA’s fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Granta, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Best American Non-Required Reading, The Journey Prize Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories. Her debut book of fiction, How to Pronounce Knife, won the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize, and was named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN America Open Book Award, the Danuta Gleed Award, and the Trillium Book Award, and one of Time‘s Must-Read Books of 2020. The title story was a finalist for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Thammavongsa is also the author of four poetry books: Light, winner of the Trillium Book Award for Poetry; Found; Small Arguments, winner of the ReLit Award; and, most recently, Cluster. Born in the Lao refugee camp in Nong Khai, Thailand, she was raised and educated in Toronto, where she is at work on her first novel.
- Publisher : Random House of Canada (March 17 2020)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 192 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0771094604
- ISBN-13 : 978-0771094606
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