April, 2022 - How to Pronounce Knife - Souvankham Thammavongsa

Book Group 1



How to Pronounce Knife: Stories by Souvankham Thammavongsa is an award-winning book of short stories, written by the daughter of Lao refugees to Canada. This story collection centers on characters and their children struggling to make their way in unfamiliar territory, shuttling between different languages, cultures, and values.  The more you read these stories the more you realise the subtlety and depth of thought that went into them.


There are 14 brief stories bringing together the worm pickers, nail technicians, bus drivers and factory workers at the edges of society, new immigrants creating space for themselves while struggling to retain their strength and dignity. Several stories are told by the generation following, 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.


Coming from a background of poetry-writing, the author’s prose is spare and yet powerful. Love and laugher are pervasive themes; we particularly enjoyed the eponymous: “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-treat technique, “Mani Pedi” in which a boxer begins working at his sister’s nail salon, and “Picking Worms” about loyalty.

The writing is very simple (an intentional stylistic choice) yet profound, providing  thoughtful glimpses into people's everyday lives.  As Souvankham explains, this simplicity ‘makes the reader do the work’. On the whole our group truly enjoyed the book and the discussion the stories generated.


Joanne Mahendran