Some of Souvankham Thammavongsa’s characters are very adept at inhabiting other people’s perspectives, so much so that it becomes second-nature. Others are preoccupied with their own struggles and insecurities:
“He was the one who slit the necks in the other room before they got to Red. He saw the chickens when they were still alive. She shuddered at the thought of doing anything with Somboun. What kind of gentleness could a man who did that for a living be capable of?”
In “Paris”, readers have a glimpse of employment in an abattoir, a place like a silent ‘k’, the kind of place most people do not want to acknowledge, the kind of characters most people do not want to acknowledge, because greed and privilege depend on an underclass.
Several of the characters in How to Pronounce Knife are preoccupied by code-breaking and code-switching. But even though there is an undercurrent of complexity to these stories, the language is spare and direct. And even though many of the stories contain a tragic or difficult plot element, they run the gamut of emotion. Sometimes a story which appears to be preoccupied by sorrow, is rooted in aspiration. In “Randy Travis”, for instance: “I knew my mother was no stranger to hoping; it’s how we all ended up here in this country in the first place.”
One of my favourite stories, and one which I haven’t seen discussed often, is “Ewwrrrkk”. Here, that ‘k’ appears, with an audible and irrepressible smack. A hard ‘k’, not silent. This story, like the others, fundamentally resides in relationships, but the dynamics combined with the sensory elements cinched the loop around my heart and squeezed. It ends like this: “Eek. Eek. Eek. It was hard to tell now what was happening inside the car and out. The blur, the wet, the rain, the sobbing.” Which is a good ending for a story and should leave you wondering what came before. (But there are instances, like this one, in which I don’t feel the last sentence of the story is necessary. Readers have already internalized the blur, the wet, the rain, and the sobbing.)
When poets create in a longer form, sometimes their prose is characterized by lyricism. In Souvankham Thammavongsa’s case, the quality that most notably translates from her poetry writing to her fiction writing is precision. (I’ve read two of her collections: both remarkable.) Sleek and exacting, her use of language will welcome readers who are not short fiction devotees as well as aficionados.