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How to Pronounce Knife: Stories

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Alternate cover edition of ISBN 9780316422130.

In the title story of Souvankham Thammavongsa's debut collection, a young girl brings a book home from school and asks her father to help her pronounce a tricky word, a simple exchange with unforgettable consequences. Thammavongsa is a master at homing in on moments like this -- moments of exposure, dislocation, and messy feeling that push us right up against the limits of language.

The stories that make up How to Pronounce Knife focus on characters struggling to find their bearings in unfamiliar territory, or shuttling between idioms, cultures, and values. A failed boxer discovers what it truly means to be a champion when he starts painting nails at his sister's salon. A young woman tries to discern the invisible but immutable social hierarchies at a chicken processing plant. A mother coaches her daughter in the challenging art of worm harvesting.

In a taut, visceral prose style that establishes her as one of the most striking and assured voices of her generation, Thammavongsa interrogates what it means to make a living, to work, and to create meaning.

How to pronounce knife --
Paris --
Slingshot --
Randy Travis --
Mani pedi --
Chick-a-chee! --
The universe would be so cruel --
Edge of the world --
The school bus driver --
You are so embarassing --
Ewwrrkk --
The gas station --
A far distant thing --
Picking worms

192 pages, Hardcover

First published April 7, 2020

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About the author

Souvankham Thammavongsa

14 books372 followers
Souvankham Thammavongsa is the author of four poetry books, and the short story collection HOW TO PRONOUNCE KNIFE, longlisted for the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize and a New York Times Editors' Choice, out now with McClelland & Stewart (Canada), Little, Brown (U.S.), and Bloomsbury (U.K.). Her stories have won an O. Henry Award and appeared in Harper's Magazine, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Granta, NOON, Journey Prize Stories 2016, Best American Nonrequired Reading 2018, and O. Henry Prize Stories 2019. She was born in the Lao refugee camp in Nong Khai, Thailand, and was raised and educated in Toronto where she now lives.

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5 stars
3,841 (23%)
4 stars
7,321 (45%)
3 stars
4,226 (25%)
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1 star
144 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,302 reviews
Profile Image for Adina .
891 reviews3,542 followers
February 6, 2023
I read this book during my trip to Thailand because the author was born there. However, she is of Lao origin and although she was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, she was raised and lives in Toronto, Canada. There is not much about the country I was visiting but I discovered a whole new universe.

How to Pronounce Knife is a short story collection about the experience of being a Lao immigrant in Canada (mostly). I found the collection to be sad and desolate although there are some glimmers of hope from time to time. More often than not, the characters cannot adapt to their new life, they miss home, families are broken, and identities are forgotten. Some stories touched me but others not so much. They balanced out in the end so 3* from me.

A standout was the story about a creator of wedding Invitations in Lao who can predict the future of a marriages ( The Universe Would Be So Cruel ). Picking worms, about a girl who joins her mother to her worm picking job on her weekends off is another good one. Randy Travis, Mani Pedi, You Are So Embarrassing are also notable.
Profile Image for Michael.
655 reviews964 followers
February 23, 2020
A quiet and understated debut collection, How to Pronounce Knife thoughtfully explores the inner lives of Laos immigrants and their children. The stories focus mostly on women and are wide ranging in theme. In one of the best a working-class woman reflects on a brief but intense childhood friendship she had with a girl whose family, unlike her own, was upwardly mobile; in another strong piece a mother’s struggle to learn English and assimilate distances her from her daughter. Thammavongsa writes clear, swift stories that express a lot in a short space, and her work’s well worth checking out and tracking as her style develops.
Profile Image for David.
671 reviews337 followers
November 2, 2020
It's a short story collection that brings together the worm pickers, nail technicians, bus drivers and farm workers at the edges of society. New immigrants creating space for themselves while struggling to retain their strength and dignity. And the following generation who are watching the world with sharp eyes, more conscious of the unsaid rules, attuned to how "other" they really are and their growing awareness of the gap that separates them.

I spent a lot of my time growing up paying attention. Coming from immigrants and surrounded by people who didn't look like me, I was obsessive about observing the world, paying attention to the social cues, the unsaid rules, the hurdles I had to face by being other. The characters here are doing the same thing, and yet still find themselves always a step behind. Without the benefit of a family network born and raised here for generations, or an easy familiarity with the language and WASPy customs they constantly stumble. Without the easy grace of seeing yourself reflected everywhere you look, they struggle to define themselves. And it's coming up hard against oblivious white mediocrity that wins the red yo-yo, gets the front office job, the manager position. Never done with malicious intent, just a willful blindness to the privilege they possess, certain in the fairness of this new world meritocracy.

These stories just hit me where I live.
Profile Image for emma.
1,869 reviews54.6k followers
May 2, 2022
I got too wrapped up in this collection to review each story and now I have genuinely no idea how to review this.

So I guess the crux of my feelings about it comes down to these two things:
- I found this so gripping and unputdownable I couldn't review it while reading, and
- now, a month later, I am unable to review it because I remember very little about it.

The style worked for me, and I would return to this author, but I don't know if I can enthusiastically recommend this book in light of that.

It's worth noting that I find books I like so memorable I've been able to do a reviewing-books-I-read-a-long-time-ago project for several years on end. So.

Bottom line: Good, but I can't remember why!
Profile Image for Shelby *trains flying monkeys*.
1,606 reviews5,990 followers
February 25, 2020
2.5 stars

I did not hate this book. Some of the stories promised so much goodness. There was one about Randy Travis that was probably my favorite. The problem was I just expected more. I'm always pretty hit or miss with short stories but this one was extremely readable I'm just still hungry for more.

Booksource: Netgalley in exchange for review
Profile Image for The Artisan Geek.
445 reviews7,262 followers
March 25, 2020

A great collection in which Thammavongsa showcases so many aspects of the immigrant experience: the good, the bad, the pain, the beautiful. Would definitely recommend.

Found it during one of my book scavenging trips through London! :D

One of my friends read this and recommended it to me! I love a good short story collection!

You can find me on
Youtube | Instagram | Twitter | Tumblr | Website
Profile Image for Zoeytron.
1,036 reviews692 followers
November 26, 2019
Copy furnished by Net Galley for the price of a review.

I couldn't find my bliss with this collection of short stories.  They may have been a trifle nuanced for me.  Neither quirky nor twisted, no jaw dropping endings.  I was expecting something more O. Henry-ish.  The writing is fine, and the one entitled "Randy Travis" made me feel rather sad.  Do not let this lukewarm review dissuade you from reading this, it's based on nothing more than personal preference.  It's no one's fault but my own that I like short stories to box me in the ears.
Profile Image for Jen.
135 reviews224 followers
July 10, 2021
Hmmmmm… I went into this one with very high hopes, but unfortunately found it to be uneven, with a few stories that were standouts, but the majority falling flat. Most of the stories simply didn’t move me the way I think was intended. This feels like an odd complaint to make about a collection of short stories, but many did indeed feel too short. There simply wasn’t enough there to build much of a connection or have a lasting impact. I’ve read short stories, either standalone or within collections, that years later still have a profound effect on me when I recall them. I can’t see that happening with anything I’ve read in Knife unfortunately. I’m honestly not sure how many I’ll recall at all after a week or two. 

The writing style was also very simple, and while I understand this was likely an intentional stylistic choice, it wasn’t for me. Because of the brevity and simple prose, it reads like non-fiction. Almost a “Humans of New York”, but focused specifically on Lao immigrants. I would in fact enjoy something like that, but in a fiction collection I’m looking for something else. That is of course personal preference, and other readers will likely appreciate what I did not. 

The standouts for me: Randy Travis, Paris, You are so Embarrassing, and Picking Worms. Chick-a-Chee I found to be adorable when reading, but while sitting down to write a review, I realized it had the feeling of a cute anecdote you’d tell from your childhood at a party, versus something that had any kind of heft. Perhaps my expectations just did not line up with the author’s intentions for this collection. I’d still be interested in other works from Thammovongsa, and I do want to acknowledge that I did find one of this collection’s huge strengths to be how well the themes of the immigrant experience and family dynamics were handled.
Profile Image for Alex.andthebooks.
325 reviews1,961 followers
August 14, 2023

Naprawdę dobry zbiór opowiadań. Łączy w sobie wiele różnych perspektyw i historii, lecz mnogość głosów nie przeszkadza w odbiorze — finalnie wyłania się bardzo klarowny obraz bolączek, cierpień i radości osób wyobcowanych, wyruszających w podróż w poszukiwaniu pracy i lepszego życia… ale nie tylko.
Profile Image for Danielle.
832 reviews451 followers
November 11, 2022
Note: I received a free copy of this book. In exchange here is my honest review.

A grouping of short stories, immigrates experiences big and small. 👍 Some were great, others were kinda boring or just nothing stood out. So it’s a three for me. 🤷🏼‍♀️

Thank you @goodreads @souvankhamthammavongsa and @hachettebooks #goodreadsgiveaway
Profile Image for Hannah.
595 reviews1,055 followers
June 27, 2020
I enjoyed these stories a lot with their thoughtful explorations on families, focussing on the lives of Laos immigrants and their children. I particularly enjoyed that the parents depicted really do try to do the best for their children (especially contrasted to the horrible parents in this years crop of Women's Prize longlisted books) even if they sometimes miss the mark or sometimes cannot be the parent they would love to be if they had more time/ money/ knowledge.

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Blair.
1,794 reviews4,434 followers
February 21, 2020
I read a lot; I've been writing reviews for nearly ten years now. And inevitably, in any given year, there'll be a handful of books I find myself with little to say about. There's absolutely nothing I actively disliked about How to Pronounce Knife, but I can also barely remember anything about it, despite finishing it just a few days ago. This is a quiet collection of short stories which gives glimpses into people's everyday lives, and I guess that's a form that doesn't really speak to me, or didn't in this instance. The story I liked most was 'Paris'. Skimming back over it, I see there are some beautiful sentences, though I have retained an impression of atmosphere rather than a clear idea of what happened in it.

I received an advance review copy of How to Pronounce Knife from the publisher through NetGalley.

Profile Image for Michael Finocchiaro.
Author 3 books5,634 followers
May 3, 2021
This is a beautiful but depressing collection of short stories about the lives of Laotian woman refugees and immigrants to the Americas. It is not violent, but it shows the particularly depressing narrow limits of the lives of poor Asians in various communities. The text is limpid and the characters are charming and endearing. It reminded me somewhat of Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies (Pulitzer 2000). In any case, a good collection of stories, but not as good as either The Office of Historical Corrections or The Secret Lives of Church Ladies in terms of this year's best short story collections.
Profile Image for fatma.
923 reviews657 followers
March 9, 2020
2.5 stars

Never am I more aware of how subjective my reviews really are than when I try to review a book like How to Pronounce Knife. Clearly the fact that my reviews represent my opinions and not some universal objective fact is not a groundbreaking discovery to make, but it's something that becomes especially salient to me when it comes to a book that I didn't enjoy for no other reason than: it just wasn't to my taste.

There is nothing egregiously wrong about How to Pronounce Knife, but there is also nothing about it that is particularly memorable or impressive. It's a perfectly fine collection of short stories with perfectly fine writing. Thematically, it focuses on how Asian immigrant identity, primarily Southeast Asian, interacts with and operates in family life, romantic relationships, and, more broadly, culture. It's a collection that reads very quickly, largely owing to its stripped-back, concise writing style and the brevity of its stories' length.

Though I can see other people enjoying its sparse and to-the-point writing, I unfortunately can't say that this a collection that will personally stick with me in any way.

Thanks so much to Penguin Random House Canada for providing me with an e-ARC of this via NetGalley!
Profile Image for Emily Coffee and Commentary.
471 reviews155 followers
August 29, 2023
A stunning collection of stories that richly detail the immigrant and refugee experience. Sometimes funny, sometimes heart breaking, and everything in between, we see a wide cast of characters navigating new surroundings, and struggling to keep afloat in a culture that is ever moving and often unforgiving. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Maxwell.
1,173 reviews8,386 followers
September 4, 2022
An excellent debut collection of short stories! Many of them featuring Laos immigrant characters building a new life, making a home in a new country. I loved the tone of so many of these stories: a mixture of nostalgia and hope but also the bleak reality of life and how we grasp on to certain things or have dreams, regardless of if they come true, in order to help us get through each day. My personal favorite was “Slingshot” but I also loved “Randy Travis” and “Mani Pedi.”
Profile Image for Rachel.
584 reviews69 followers
November 21, 2019
What an impressive debut! The writing is razor sharp, the stories ranging from poignant to delightful. I especially loved “Randy Travis” and “You Are So Embarrassing,” but there wasn’t a story I didn’t enjoy. A book to watch for in 2020 for sure.
Profile Image for may ➹.
494 reviews2,070 followers
July 9, 2021
How to Pronounce Knife is a collection of stories about the immigrant experience, particularly those of Lao immigrants, working class immigrants, and women (sometimes all three), and I think I really could have loved these works a lot more had they been longer. They offer a small glimpse into several lives, and while I understand the value of showing fleeting snapshots of specific moments, I feel like I would have been hit so much harder / connected a lot better if they had had the space to go into more depth. Nonetheless, I still enjoyed this collection, and my average rating sits at 3.07.

How to Pronounce Knife - ★★★
Paris - ★★★★
> This one really hit me hard: It’s about a woman who wants to get nose surgery like all the other women around her to be “beautiful.” As someone who struggled a lot with Eurocentric beauty standards and similar feelings of internalized racism, I liked how this showed her journey toward realizing that her love for herself was enough and not dependent on what “beauty” she had or didn’t have.
Slingshot - ★★
> I know it’s the point of the story that the narrator is old, but the 70yo/32yo pairing was really not my thing.
Randy Travis - ★★★★
> Oh, this was just beautiful, and gutting. It is about an immigrant mother struggling to find something to live for after experiencing so much trauma, and so many moments felt like a punch to the gut.
Mani Pedi - ★★★½
Chick-A-Chee! - ★★★
The Universe Would Be So Cruel - ★★★
> I think I would have loved this story so much more if it were longer (a sentiment that represents my overall opinion on this collection so far).
Edge of the World - ★★½
The School Bus Driver - ★★★
> Again, had this been longer I might have really enjoyed it—I think it portrays a very real and scary experience of Asian women in the grasp of white men and there were many meaningful moments—but it was just too short for me.
You Are So Embarrassing - ★★★½
> Something that is very close to my heart is mother-daughter relationships, specifically Asian immigrant ones, so this story really spoke to me (and would have hit harder if it were longer!)
Ewwrrrkk - no rating
> This took like 3 minutes to read, so I don’t feel like I can even give it a rating.
The Gas Station - ★★
A Far Distant Thing - ★★★½
Picking Worms - ★★★
Profile Image for jenny✨.
578 reviews839 followers
January 6, 2021
I was very excited for this collection because I'd previously read Thammavongsa's poetry, Light, for a first-year English course—and I absolutely adored its poignant ferocity, its delicate beauty.

Unfortunately, these short stories didn't do it for me. :(

I LOVED the ownvoices Lao rep (more stories by Canadian authors of colour, please!) but found the stories overall to be too on-the-nose and lacking subtlety.

These are not inherently negative qualities, but they didn't add to my personal enjoyment of this collection.

The heavyhandedness of themes—family, loss, displacement and immigration, assimilation, shame—felt, weirdly, to me, like the stories were being written for the comprehension of non-POC audiences. As a person of colour and diaspora who has undergone similar experiences, I don't need this sort of pain and trauma spelled out with explicit banality (“Don’t speak Lao and don’t tell anyone you are Lao. It’s no good to tell people where you’re from.” The child looked at the centre of her father’s chest, where, on this T-shirt, four letters stood side by side: LAOS.).

I don't need it spelled out, because I know this sort of hurt.

That being said, there were undoubtedly moments of that recognizably tender yet ferocious poignancy that I associated with Thammavongsa's poetry. In particular, I loved the standout complexity of “Picking Worms” and “Randy Travis,” and the uplifting playfulness of “Chick-a-Chee!”


Bottom line: How to Pronounce Knife captures one facet of the complicated immigrant, refugee, newcomer, diasporic experience, and particularly for Lao folk. This is incredibly important and necessary and deserving of celebration.

And still, in 2021 and beyond, I believe there is space for even more (ownvoices) stories that tell of complex experiences that non-immigrant, non-POC audiences do not necessarily understand.
Profile Image for luce (that loser crying on the n° 2 bus).
1,438 reviews4,048 followers
June 1, 2022
blogthestorygraphletterboxd tumblrko-fi

“It was the kind of giggling they themselves did as kids. Now, that kind of giggle seemed foolish for them to do. It was like a far distant thing, a thing that happened only to other people. All they could do now was be close to it, and remain out of sight.”

While How to Pronounce Knife does fall prey to the short story collection syndrome (kind of a mixed bag, we have some good stories and some forgettable one, many of which are just too short and lack character/story development) it is nevertheless a promising debut. Souvankham Thammavongsa’s spare and unadorned prose brought to mind Jhumpa Lahiri so did her focus on the everyday minutiae that characterise her characters’ lives. Thammavongsa centres her stories on immigrants and refugees from Laos and their experiences in an English-speaking country (presumably Canada?), highlighting the myriad of ways in which they are exploited and othered, the difficulties they face in trying to assimilate to a new culture, and how language barriers further exacerbate their sense of alienation (and how often native English-speakers equate their lack of fluency in English with stupidity). Thammavongsa reveals how diversely different generations adapt to their new and often confounding environments, how insidious discrimination is, and how holding onto one's heritage is perceived as a ‘failure’ to integrate or a source of shame (in a few stories children are embarrassed by their parents’ ‘foreignness’).
In this collection there are 14 brief stories, most of them lasting just over 10 pages, many of which take place in the characters’ workplaces (a nail salon, a chicken plant, a farm) and star two or three characters at most. Thammavongsa’s unsentimental tone greatly complements her crisp very matter-of-fact storytelling, which details the routine of her characters or recounts a particular episode of their lives. The stories that affected me the most were ‘Mani Pedi’ (in which a boxer begins working at his sister’s nail salon), ‘Chick-A-Chee!’ (which is set on Halloween), and ‘You Are So Embarrassing’ (a short yet piercing mother/daughter tale). Many of the other stories didn’t really leave a long-lasting impression on me, their scenarios too samey, their ‘run-time’ too short. Their endings too feel somewhat anticlimactic, and I can’t say that I found them particularly eye-opening or moving. Having fewer but longer stories would have probably increased my appreciation of this collection.
While yeah, out of 14 stories sonly 3 really stood out to me, I did like Thammavongsa’s clear style and I would happily read more by her.
Profile Image for Faith.
1,900 reviews534 followers
April 30, 2020
This is a collection of short stories about Laotian Americans. They are written in a very straight forward, unembellished manner. Some are quite short and none of them has any real resolution. They are just glimpses of a situation. I liked all of the stories, but I particularly liked: “How to Pronounce Knife” in which a young girl accepts that her father isn’t perfect; “Randy Travis” in which a mother becomes obsessed with the singer; “Chick-A-Chee” about a novel trick or treating technique and “Picking Worms” about loyalty. Since I am not that big a fan of short stories, I hope the author writes a novel next. I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.
Profile Image for Krutika Puranik.
658 reviews213 followers
July 29, 2020
• r e v i e w •
How to Pronounce Knife turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Written by Souvankham Thammavongsa, this book of short stories carries a certain quality of profundity in them. Considering this was the first time I had the chance to read about Lao people, I was intruiged by the characters. Although the stories were barely few pages in length, making it easier for us to witness the cultural aspect of the characters. There's something deeply moving about these stories, making their heartbreaks seem like your own. Souvankham herself was born in a Laos refugee camp and it's clear how this has enabled her to add a touch of intimacy to her stories. I think books written out of experience have more chances of touching the readers and perhaps this was why I loved How to Pronounce Knife.

Each story focuses on Laotian immigrants living in the States, trying to navigate through life or at times just to be accepted. There are fourteen stories in total, the very first one carrying the title of the book, which also happened to be one of my favourite. The stories are placed in an order that appears thoughtful, one merging into the other almost seamlessly. Be it the girl who is taught by her father to pronounce knife as kahneyff and is humiliated in class, or the seventy year old woman's romantic relationship with her thirty year old neighbour, mother and daughter duo harvesting worms before dawn or a housewife who's in love with Randy Travis; each of these stories are narrated simply as if just stating the obvious. While most of the stories were melancholic in nature, few of them carried an underlying sense of humour. The socio-cultural context of the immigrants was not lost on me. It's abundantly clear how many immigrants are forced into slavery in the form of a job, being paid next to nothing for the hours they put in. Adding to their burden is the helplessness in not being able to assist their children in every day homework or just to be present.

Few of my favourites were - 'How to pronounce knife', 'Randy Travis', 'Picking worms' and 'A far distant thing'. I couldn't help but feel how all of the stories were too short, a distinct sign of this book's success. Most of the stories were narrated by children, their confusion in witnessing a new culture fairly evident. The struggles of living with two identities, traditions and cultural differences often leaving them and their families bewildered and restless. Souvankham has a knack for addressing problems with a sense of humour, at times evoking compassion and most often putting forth the stories just as they are. There's no sugar coating or sweet talking. I definitely recommend this to the ones who enjoy a thought-provoking read. How to Pronounce Knife is about the many families who are in search of a home by comprising and sacrificing their needs, finding satisfaction in doing all the poorly paid jobs. This book is at times witty but also has the ability to break hearts.
Rating : 4.8/5.
Profile Image for Esil.
1,118 reviews1,363 followers
December 31, 2020
Short stories are hit or miss for me. This Giller prize winning collection was generally a hit. Many of Thammavongsa's stories are thematically connected: young people growing up in families with complicated under currents, feeling alienated in the greater world. There is some humour and whimsy, but mostly a melancholy sense of alienation. The writing is simple, but with depth of feeling. This collection is short and well worth reading. Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for an opportunity to read an advance copy.
Profile Image for Krista.
1,399 reviews592 followers
December 28, 2020
The child started reading and everything went along just fine until she got to that word. It was only five letters, but there might as well have been twenty there. She said it the way her father had told her, but she knew it was wrong because Miss Choi would not turn the page. Instead, she pointed to the word and tapped at the page as if by doing so the correct sound would spill out. But the child didn’t know how to pronounce it. Tap. Tap. Tap. Finally, a yellow-haired girl in the class called out, “It’s knife! The k is silent,” and rolled her eyes as if there was nothing easier in the world to know. ~ How to Pronounce Knife

Right from the start and this title story (in which a little girl from Laos attempts to protect her immigrant parents from the things that they don’t know about their new country that make her life a little harder, “She didn’t want to lie, but there was no point in embarrassing her parents”), I was prepared for Souvankham Thammavongsa — an award winning poet and short story writer who “was born in the Lao refugee camp in Nong Khai, Thailand, and was raised and educated in Toronto where she now lives” — to teach me something of what it is to be an immigrant or refugee from Laos, now living in North America. And I was excited for that because I don’t remember ever reading or hearing about the Laotian experience before. Most of these stories do have a nugget of that experience in them, and many have universally relatable domestic scenes, but while the writing was clear and the reading was easy, nothing about this collection really felt strong or important enough to explain why How to Pronounce Knife won Canada’s richest literary award, the Giller Prize, this year. There were a handful of four star stories at either end of this collection, a couple I would give two stars, and the vast majority were nice, three star reads; three stars overall (and I will be looking for the novel that Thammavongsa is apparently now working on; I’d love a longer visit with any of these characters.)

She hated that he called her by a nickname. It made things feel intimate between them in a way she didn’t want. The way he said, “Dang,” it was like a light in him had been turned on and now she had to be responsible for what he could see about himself. ~ Paris

An interesting meditation on beauty and otherness, and especially the value (and cost) of the Western ideal of beauty as seen by an outsider (“In that moment, Red felt grateful for what she was to others — ugly. It’s one thing to be ugly and not know it. It’s another to know.”)

That’s the thing about being old. We don’t know we have wrinkles until we see them. Old is a thing that happens on the outside. A thing other people see about us. ~ Slingshot

Aging is just another form of alienation.

She held this little radio up to her ear like a seashell and listened. The host always spoke briefly between songs and there was the occasional laugh. A laugh, in any language, was a laugh. His laugh was gentle and private and welcoming. You got the sense that he, too, was alone somewhere.~ Randy Travis

The things we use to fill the lonely voids can sometimes take us over; perhaps those that feel a cultural void from dislocation are more at risk of losing themselves.

You’ve got to not have dreams. That woman ain’t ever gonna love a man who does nails. That’s not real life. You and me here, we live in the real world. You’re given a place and you just do your best in it. ~ Mani Pedi

The adult children of Laotian refugees, a retired boxer takes a job in his sister's beauty salon and refuses to surrender to his new place in the world.

Dad parked the car and told us we were to walk from house to house dressed like this, then yell, “Chick-A-Chee!” at the person who answered the door and hold out our open pillowcases for them to fill with all kinds of candies. I did not believe him. I was certain that he had really lost his job and what we were doing was part of his plan to send us away, something our parents often threatened when we were misbehaving or we wanted something they didn’t have the money for. I wanted to cry, but I saw how my brother was looking at me — like he needed me to be brave for the both of us. ~ Chick-A-Chee!

A really sweet slice-of-life story about a refugee family trying to fit in with new customs (and the Dad who, for once, gets it absolutely perfect.)

Look, I know these things. You just can’t have a Lao wedding without Lao letters on the invitation. And you have to have your real given name on there. Yeah, it’s a long name — but that’s your name. Why would you want to be Sue when your name is really Savongnavathakad? ~ The Universe Would Be So Cruel

A man who “knows things” about how the universe really works must accept extra responsibility when things don’t work out close to home. Another interesting slice of life with a Dad doing his best in unfamiliar territory.

I thought of what my mother knew then. She knew about war, what it felt like to be shot at in the dark, what death looked like close up in your arms, what a bomb could destroy. Those were things I didn’t know about, and it was all right not to know them, living where we did now, in a country where nothing like that happened. There was a lot I did not know. We were different people, and we understood that then. ~ Edge of the World

A heavier story: you can run from your past but you can’t run from your self.

He wanted to remind his wife that his name was Jai. It means heart in Lao! he wanted to yell. But then she would just remind him how men in this country do not raise their voices at women. Or tell him to practise his English. “No one here knows jai means heart,” she would say. So what if that’s what it means? It doesn’t mean anything in English. And English is the only language that matters here. ~ The School Bus Driver

A story of a refugee husband who becomes lost as his wife finds herself and her happiness.

When you’re a mother, you create a life and then you watch it go on its own way. It’s what you hope for, and want, but when it happens, it happens without you. ~ You Are So Embarrassing

The gulf between a refugee mother and daughter increases exponentially as the one tries to get by and the other tries to fit in.

“The first time a guy says ‘I love you,’ your legs will pry themselves open like this.” She held up two fingers and spread them slowly to form a peace sign, and as she did this, she made the sound of a door opening on rusty hinges: “Ewwrrrkk.” Then she shut her eyes tight, threw her head back, and laughed at her own crudeness. The sound of her laughter came mostly from her throat, like a dry cough. ~ Ewwrrrkk

An eight-year-old girl gets life advice from her great-grandmother (which might have seemed mischievously useful to the old woman but no longer applies in the real world) and this one was by turns kinda funny and just sad.

What was the difference between someone who lied about love and someone who didn’t love you? Nothing. ~ The Gas Station

Not necessarily an immigrant story, this is about the short and dark fairytale-ish relationship between an ogre-like man and the (socially) invisible woman who would be monstrous.

Dad always talked about life as if it spilled out all at once and we couldn’t have time to think or do anything about what was going to happen to us. He talked like he had to tell me everything now because we’d never see each other again. I’d roll my eyes at him, but that only made him go on. It always circled back to how different Katie and I were, and how I wouldn’t get the same things she got in her life. ~ A Far Distant Thing

Maybe the refugee Dad is right this time and the same childhood circumstances don’t guarantee the same adult outcomes for two friends of different races.

Me and my mother were the only women. There were about fifteen men, and they were all Lao like us. We were what people called us — nice. I had seen these men before at the card parties my mother went to. She cooked meals with their wives in the kitchen. When we all sat down to eat on those nights, everyone would talk about their work, their bosses, how hard it was back home, how they all came to the country we live in now — but no one cried or talked sad. They all laughed. The sadder the story, the louder the laughter. Always a competition. You’d try to one-up the person who’d come before you with an even more tragic story and a louder laugh. But no one was laughing here. Every face was serious. ~ Picking Worms

Many of these stories are about the hard, manual labour that the Laotian community is forced to engage in — doctors and lawyers showing up to twelve hour factory shifts in blue overalls as though their former lives counted for nothing — and while “picking worms” is referenced in the first story, this one shows what that job entails: the back-breaking work, the callous managers, the Laotians comporting themselves with industriousness and dignity.

The last story is also the only one with a brief scene showing a family’s escape from Laos, and it was so completely engaging that I recognised it as what feels missing from the collection — this is the first fiction I remember reading from a Laotian writer and I’m left not knowing much more about that culture, in the old country or in the new. Each story does stand on its own as an interesting little nugget, but the collection doesn’t add up to a motherlode. I wanted more from this.
Profile Image for  tatiana ❀.
297 reviews65 followers
October 3, 2020
2.5 stars
reading about immigrants from Laos was very interesting and enlightening, but you need more than that to make a good book. the short stories were, for the most part, mundane anecdotes with little substance. the writing was very simple, but i didn't mind all that much because it felt like an extension of the immigration motif. the characters were realistic for the short amount of pages they were given, and i got a sense of each of their personalities. i think that if these ideas had been put all into one cohesive, vivid novel it would've been much more successful. alternatively, more stories could've been more similar to 'Randy Travis', which is probably the best story in the collection, as it is more unique (the story about a mother from Laos becoming utterly obsessed with country music is a lot more interesting than kids going trick or treating) and can be interpreted metaphorically.
August 2, 2020
Every story in this collection is deeply affecting. The story of the printer of wedding invitations – The Universe Would Be So Cruel – moved me to literal tears. The fear and sadness is offset by moments of absurdity and insight (“A laugh, in any language, was a laugh” says one protagonist on page 43, such a simple and beautiful piece of wisdom we would all do well to remember).

I gobbled these stories down, but in retrospect I wish I hadn’t: How To Pronounce Knife would benefit from slow and careful consideration (so I’ll definitely read it again, and soon).

My extended review of How To Pronounce Knife can be found on Keeping Up With The Penguins.
Profile Image for Maria.
537 reviews343 followers
March 17, 2021
This was such a great short story collection! I really liked how we don’t really get a sense of location in this book. Sure, it won the Giller (Canadian prize), but WHERE does this book take place? North America? Where? - this sense of being misplaced reflects on the characters who are all trying to navigate a new life. The immigrant life - language barriers, loss of respect, low-paying/hard jobs.

I can see why this won the Giller. I’m glad it won! I’m not sure there was that one story I was looking for that made me think “oh my god, this is the one that makes this book a 5 star read!” I enjoyed reading this, it made me feel sad, uncomfortable, and joyous at times; such an interesting cast of characters!
Profile Image for Helen Power.
Author 10 books537 followers
July 31, 2021
This is a poignant little collection of short stories. I enjoyed almost all of them--I think there was only one that fell flat for me. These stories all dealt with issues of belonging and being a POC in america/Canada. Some stories were heartbreaking, others were humorous, and I absolutely adored the author’s writing style. I’ll be checking out more of her work in the future!
Profile Image for Kathleen.
915 reviews
January 16, 2021
HOW TO PRONOUNCE KNIFE, a book of 14 short stories written by Souvankham Thammavongsa is the 2020 winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Thanks to technology, I was able to watch Souvankham Thammavongsa's reaction to this. January 14, 2021 I attended The Giller Book Club: How to Pronounce Knife on ZOOM. Watching 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize winner, Madeleine Thien interview Souvankham Thammavongsa was interesting and enlightening. When Souvankham Thammavongsa read Edge of the World, I pictured her as the little girl in that story.

The short stories are thoughtful, concise and tell about immigrant children, women and men trying to make it and fit in this new society. Language, food, climate, customs, experiences, morals and clothing - culture is so different from Laos. Many who arrive in Canada have left or lost family members and loved ones, wealth and professional jobs (like doctors and lawyers).
With empathy, humour and wisdom these short stories touch on love, sex, loneliness, poverty, family, education, and work.
I enjoyed reading these short stories and agree with the following quotes.

"How To Pronounce Knife is a riveting, subversive collection that alights within us like a shock to the system. I find it miraculous – and liberating and joyful - that language so radiantly exact can be so raw, so brazen."
Quote by Madeline Thien, author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing

"A masterful collection, written with so much veracity, you'll swear every word is true. These stories will punch you in the gut and leave you yearning for more."
Quote by Sharon Balance, author of The Boat People

4.5 stars
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