HOW TO PRONOUNCE KNIFE
By Souvankham Thammavongsa
Today the word “refugee” is practically synonymous with those who have fled the Syrian war and its trail of destitution. But in a different time, in the aftermath of a different war — the one in Vietnam — the term evoked the more than three million people who fled Southeast Asia for a chance at a better life.
Souvankham Thammavongsa, a writer who has published four books of poetry, was born in a refugee camp, to Laotian parents, and raised in Toronto. In “How to Pronounce Knife,” her impressive debut story collection, her family’s arduous, yearslong journey west forms the unspoken back story of the immigrant Laotians who congregate in its pages. Like her own parents, Thammavongsa’s protagonists have lost their place in the world; now, in various unnamed North American cities, they are forced to invent their lives anew.
Thammavongsa’s spare, rigorous stories are preoccupied with themes of alienation and dislocation, her characters burdened by the sense of existing unseen. She sets several stories in the workplace, where noxious hierarchies rooted in race and class reinforce and intensify her characters’ feelings of invisibility. In “Picking Worms,” a woman who has a job on a hog farm collecting worms brings along her daughter and her daughter’s friend James to work alongside her, sharing with them “all the little things that had taken her months and seasons to learn and figure out on her own.” But when the farm’s owner wants someone to take over for him, he makes James the new manager. “And they accuse us of taking their jobs,” the woman says. “Well, you know what? That coulda been my job. My job! … He doesn’t even need the money.” In “Paris,” Red, a quiet loner, works on the line at a chicken processing plant where everyone stationed in the coveted front office has a “thin nose” that sticks out from his or her face and points “upward.”
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