How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa
Updated: May 15
'I opened my mouth wide, saw the hot, wet, pink flesh, and the dark centre where my voice came out of, and I laughed, loud and wild'
The manifold bruises of dislocation and assimilation are depicted with stark power in these stories set in the Lao immigrant community of a nameless North American town. Scarred by the conflict they’ve fled, doctors and lawyers are forced to work factory lines to feed their families. ‘They’d had to begin all over again, as if the life they led before didn’t count.’ In ‘Picking Worms,' a Lao woman finds her daughter’s fourteen-year-old date a job, only for the local teenager to be promoted above her. In ‘Paris’, chicken pluckers undergo budget cosmetic surgery in the hopes that a Caucasian-style nose will be a ticket off the line into a front office job.
Refugees suffer daily indignities of miscommunication, exclusion and objectification, but take private revenge where they can. One man says ‘yes sir!’ with the force and meaning of ‘fuck you!’ whenever anyone bosses him around at work. Another, who owns a modest printing business, gets a kick out of actually saying ‘fuck you’ to customers: ‘It had been something that was said to him and it was fun to turn the tables and say it to someone else, to see them lose their cool and make a quick, fumbling exit.’
Families buckle and fracture beneath the burdens of drudgery and disillusionment. In ‘The School Bus Driver,’ a man witnesses his wife openly conducting an affair with her boss. When he protests, she tells him to ‘be cool’ and adapt – that’s just how things work here. Linguistic and cultural barriers foster isolation, both within and outside of marriage. In ‘Edge of the World,’ a woman takes a gift of egg rolls to the smiling cashiers at the Goodwill – the closest thing she has to friends.
In ‘Mani Pedi’, a burnt-out boxer becomes the surprise star of his sister’s nail salon. Beguiled by the contrast between his physical bulk and delicate work, clients turn a blind eye to his ineptitude – but when he indulges romantic notions about one of them, his sister douses him with a cold bucket of realism:
“Raymond. Didn’t I tell you.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"
For her, hope only ever leads to disappointment; better protect yourself than risk pain or exposure. In the title story, a schoolgirl shields her parents from exposure when she misses fancy dress day because they can’t decipher the notes sent home. She continues to protect them when her father teaches her the incorrect pronunciation of ‘knife’, and she understands that this marks the beginning of a knowledge gap that will only widen as she grows up.
Food and its attendant rituals provide an essential link to these characters’ homeland and identity. But preparing Lao cuisine requires effort in America: ‘getting the ingredients meant long bus rides to the market in Chinatown. It took time to ferment fish sauce, to pickle, to chop up a whole chicken into its parts, and to soak the rice to soften it.’
In the melancholy ‘Randy Travis,’ one mother, struggling to adapt to her new environment, develops an obsession with a country singer, stops cooking the traditional dishes her husband loves – papaya salad, padaek, pickled cabbage, blood sausage and sticky rice – and serves up frozen meals, like a true local. When her husband takes the family to see Randy Travis in concert, she prepares a Lao feast in gratitude – and the child is struck by its vivid colours and flavours:
‘After the bland yellows and browns of those tv dinners, it felt like a homecoming. Arranged together, the colours were so bold and bright, the flavours popped and sharpened. Every meal tasted like a special occasion. It was a reminder of where she came from and her love’
Cooking is a language we use to communicate love, apology, thanks – and Lao food has an especially personal quality: ‘fermented fish sauce is like a fingerprint—you could trace who it belonged to by how it was made. My father added crabs to his sauce, which was thick and dark, fermenting for years. That wasn’t how my mother made her sauce.’
Every generation passes their recipes and techniques down to the next. At a gathering in ‘Edge of the World,’ a mother tells her daughter how to cook each Lao dish: ‘She pointed out that some of the key ingredients were missing and said that none of the dishes could live up to her memory of the real thing. She said the food in Laos just tasted better.’
But Lao cuisine, with its distinctive aromas, can mark children as outsiders. In the title story, a daughter takes leftovers to school – chitterlings, unfailingly cheap, cooked in various styles: ‘in a broth with ginger and noodles, grilled over charcoal fire, stewed with fresh dill, or the way the child liked them best—baked in the oven with lemongrass and salt. When she took these dishes to school, other children would tease her about the smell. She shot back, “You wouldn’t know a good thing even if five hundred pounds of it came and sat on your face!”’
Meanwhile in 'Chick-A-Chee!' two children of immigrants cleverly beat the locals at their own cultural game by exploiting the Halloween tradition without understanding it – or knowing how to pronounce 'trick or treat'. 'They had only little gum balls or one or two tiny chocolate bars. We had bags and bags of chips, whole chocolate bars, and packs of gum.'
In many ways, these two stories encapsulate the spirit of the collection. In the face of hostility or humiliation, Souvankham Thammavongsa's sharply delineated characters are defiant, humorous. A lauded Canadian poet who has published four collections, Thammavongsa's brushstrokes are deft, spare and lucid, her imagery piercing (windscreen wipers sound ‘like sobs’). Notwithstanding the few endings that fall a little flat, How to Pronounce Knife is an intense, intimate and subtly subversive portrait of family love and intergenerational tensions; isolation and alienation; language, community and tradition; and the resilience that sustains humanity in challenging circumstances.
Inspired by the book, I cooked two Lao dishes: papaya salad, made with fish sauce, beans and cherry tomatoes; and a fragrant chicken noodle soup with ginger and herbs, which is traditional breakfast fare.
A Lao Feast: Dishes Featured in How to Pronounce Knife
Papaya salad (made with Padaek, Lao fish sauce, thicker than its Thai counterpart)
Fried fish with grated ginger
Minced chicken with fresh herbs and spices
Sweets wrapped in banana leaves
How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa was published by Bloomsbury Circus in April 2020.