Book Review: How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa was the first book I read in 2021. It’s a short story collection that explores the lives of various different people, ranging from older women to teenaged girls. Many of the characters are from Laos who have immigrated to Canada. Thammavongsa is Lao herself, and showcases many of the different customs, and viewpoints, from this culture. Prior to reading this short story collection, I’ve only been familiar with Laos as a country, and never encountered Lao characters in literature before. I learned a little bit of Lao culture, but it made me what to know more, to the point where I immediately started researching about Laos. I hope to read more from Thammavongsa, and other Lao writers in the future.

One of my favourite things about reading this short story collection was how much variety Thammavongsa brings to each character. Although many of the characters do share a commonality of being from Laos, not one of them is the same. In one story, we have an older woman having an affair with her younger neighbour, while another story has a mother and daughter collecting worms at a farm. Thammavongsa takes the time in each short story to demonstrate how unique each character is, and their motivations. Each character seems completely thought out, as if she wrote down their biography before writing each story. I love this attention to detail because it shows a genuine care about how the characters interact within their stories. It makes the characters feel really thought out with their strengths and weakness accounted for.

Additionally, I love the exploration of ugliness and imperfection throughout this collection. In many of the short stories, Thammavongsa doesn’t highlight good features of people, but rather their flaws. In “Picking Worms,” a girl who picks worms with her mother invites a schoolmate to help them. Eventually, he is promoted before her mother is, which enrages her to have revenge. In the end, she rejects his offer to a dance by letting him wait at her doorstep all night. She is defiant, and unafraid to hurt someone. In “Paris,” we see Red, a Lao worker at a chicken plant, mention that everyone is getting nose jobs to be more attractive to their boss. However, Red doesn’t want to get a nose job, nor does she consider herself a beauty. (Or, a beauty that doesn’t know it). Thammavongsa makes it clear that beauty does not equate to uniqueness or being interesting. A character must have flaws and complexity before beauty. Often, beauty is one of the first things mentioned of a character, as if it’s important to the overall plot of a story. I love how Thammavongsa subverts the importance of beauty in her characters, and stories, in How to Pronounce Knife.

There wasn’t much that I didn’t like about this short story collection, other than I wished some of the stories were more fleshed out. Obviously, in the nature of a short story, it’s hard to be as detailed as possible. However, there were instances where Thammavonsga goes through a moment so briefly that it takes away from the entire story. I think this could have been fixed with an additional sentence, or page, in some of her stories. Nothing too much, but enough to complete the picture.

I enjoyed How to Pronounce Knife a lot, and can see why it won the Giller Prize. I want to read more of Thammavongsa’s work, and hope to see more fiction from her in the future. My overall rating for the book is a 4.75/5. It’s almost a knockout of a short story collection, but I feel like it just needed a bit more for me to give it a 5/5 rating on The Story Graph.

Have you read How to Pronounce Knife? What are your thoughts on it?