If you are considering whether or not to read Souvankham Thammavongsa’s collection of stories, you probably already know how to do it, how to pronounce the word ‘knife’. Readers of How to Pronounce Knife will not find solutions to age-old problems or innovation; readers will find clarity and acuity, and a keen attention to everyday details. The stories occupy the space that that ‘k’ holds, an unexpected element amidst the rote.

Often when we examine the quotidian, we fall into a habit of seeing. Frequently we forget, too, that one person’s way of seeing, however familiar, rehearsed even, is not necessarily anything like another’s.

In some relationships, we find ourselves responsible for devoting so much of our time to understanding more about how other people view the world, that we forget how to see for ourselves. In the title story of this collection, for instance, a character observes “a tiny painting with a brown bend at the centre: “That brown bend was supposed to be a bridge, and the blots of red and orange brushed in around it were supposed to be trees.” Insisting on the validity of one’s own unique vision: that can be exhausting.

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.

This book is a nominee for the 2020 Giller Prize. This post follows a format I first used in 2012. Prizelists invite readers to peer more closely at current publications; they can spark conversation, draw attention to hard-working writers, and encourage readers to look beyond these lists to the many, many other works of quality that are not included on longlists. Reading the longlisted books represents less than 5% of my year’s reading. Read widely and share your favourites!

When it comes to story collections, Lynn Coady’s Hellgoing won in 2013 and Vincent Lam’s Bloodletting and Various Cures won in 2006. Others have made it to the shortlist, like David Bezmozgis’ Immigrant City in 2019, Kerry Lee Powell’s Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush in 2016, and Russell Wangersky’s Whirl Away in 2012. A jury might feel it’s time to refresh the Giller’s enthusiasm for varied forms of storytelling, particularly in the first year in which graphic narratives are included on the list, but short stories are often overlooked.

Inner workings
The stories are often propelled by what isn’t known, what isn’t said. As in “A Far Distant Thing”:“We talked about the pretty girls in class—what they wore, how they styled their hair, how they laughed. And if one of them talked to us, we would go over every word they said, pick out exactly where the stress and silence and giggles fell, as if we were breaking some kind of secret code.”

This is the kind of storytelling that leads some readers to think that anybody can write a short story: the vocabulary and syntax are simple and uncluttered. A sentence like this – “We were different people, and we understood that then”—might appear facile out of context, but it’s hard to make work look easy.

Although some of the settings are unusual, the landscape of Souvankham Thammavongsa’s fiction is primarily psychological.
Not in an overly-navel-gazing way. More in a puzzled-and-amused-by-humanity way.

Neither content nor form roots readers to these stories—it’s all about voice.
The narrators speak so directly that the stories feel more like personal confidences and declarations than creations.

Readers Wanted
You keep saying that you want to read more short stories, but they start too slowly and end too quickly.
You like stories about families, the parts that work and the parts that don’t.
An occasional jolt of darkness doesn’t scare you off.