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How to Pronounce Knife
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A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN Open Book Award, and winner of the 2020 Giller Prize, this revelatory story collection honors characters struggling to find their bearings far from home, even as they do the necessary “grunt work of the world.”
A failed boxer painting nails at the local salon. A woman plucking feathers at a chicken processing plant. A housewife learning English from daytime soap operas. A mother teaching her daughter the art of worm harvesting. In her stunning debut story collection, O. Henry Award winner Souvankham Thammavongsa focuses on characters struggling to make a living, illuminating their hopes, disappointments, love affairs, acts of defiance, and above all their pursuit of a place to belong. In spare, intimate prose charged with emotional power and a sly wit, she paints an indelible portrait of watchful children, wounded men, and restless women caught between cultures, languages, and values. As one of Thammavongsa’s characters says, “All we wanted was to live.” And in these stories, they do—brightly, ferociously, unforgettably.Unsentimental yet tender, taut and visceral, How to Pronounce Knife announces Souvankham Thammavongsa as one of the most striking voices of her generation.
“As the daughter of refugees, I’m able to finally see myself in stories.” —Angela So, Electric Literature
THE SKY WAS BLACK like the middle of an eye. Red revved the engine, impatient, having to wait for the truck to warm up. She never failed to make her morning shift on time. The truck was an old thing. A thing she had seen on someone’s front lawn, a For Sale sign taped to the windshield, handwritten in black marker. The make was nothing special. They call it a pickup truck, but she never picked anything up in it, just herself. It might have been the colour that drew Red to the truck. And the thought of that big red truck in the parking lot at the plant. It would be the best-looking thing there, and it would belong to her. She wanted that.
Red worked at the plant like most of the others in town. It was her job to pluck the feathers, make sure the chickens were smooth when they left her. By the time the chickens got to her, they were already dead, their eyes closed tight like they were sleeping. It was almost like what happened in the next room didn’t happen at all. Sometimes she could swear she heard the chickens—that sudden desperate flap of wing, as if flight could really take place there.
Before Red backed out onto the road, she looked at herself in the rear-view mirror. It didn’t show her whole face, just the eyes. She lifted herself up from the driver’s seat, turned her head to the right, studied the outline of her profile, and tried to imagine her face with a different nose. How maybe if her nose was different, things would be different at the plant too. Especially with Tommy. Tommy was her boss, her supervisor, married with two young boys. He was nice to her. Gave her more shifts than anyone else and complimented her work.
“You did good, Red. Keep it up. We’ve got plans for you.”
What those plans were, she never knew. Just that they had them for her. Sometimes Tommy would buy her a cola from the machine or sit at her table during her lunch breaks. It wasn’t how he behaved with the other girls who worked for him. There was no interest in her body. He didn’t notice what was there, didn’t lean in close or whisper anything. They talked. Mostly about his boys and how he was planning a trip to Paris with his wife for Valentine’s Day.
Tommy’s wife, Nicole, had a nose Red wished she could have. It was a thin nose that stuck out from her face and pointed upward. Everyone who worked in the front office had that kind of nose.
Nicole always came to the plant’s annual Christmas party wearing something fashionable, in fabric no one else’s clothes were made out of. The material fit tightly around her curves, smoothed out and pressed, not a wrinkle in sight. At these parties, Nicole always stood the whole time in a group with the other wives whose husbands ran or owned the company. This was the one occasion in the year their wives were seen, brought out for show. Sometimes one of them would come over to say hello to a couple of people who worked on the line. They would introduce themselves, shake a few hands, and then go back to stand in a corner with the other wives, as if they’d done some great charity work by breaking away from their huddle. Nicole never came over.
Every year at the party they served fried chicken. It never bothered Red that the pieces she ate could have been from one of those dead chickens that came to her to get plucked. Cut up into pieces like that, there wasn’t a face to think of. And every year, she looked forward to this party, wore her best clothes to it: a pair of jeans, a blue-and-white checkered shirt, and thick black boots from Canadian Tire. Her clothes weren’t fancy like what some of the other girls wore, and they didn’t show much, but there wasn’t much Red wanted to show.
A few years ago, one of the girls who worked on the line got a nose job. Her glasses didn’t have to be held up with an elastic band at the back of the head anymore. The girl got her hair done after that, every week. She already had a small, thin body. “Cute” was what Tommy called it. Soon, she started getting more shifts and, eventually, a job in the front office. The front office! In this town, a girl either worked at the chicken plant or the Boobie Bungalow. At least at the Boobie Bungalow you could make some quick cash and get the hell out of town, never look back, or you could get someone who could love you just long enough to take you away. Any man you met there was single or on his way to being single. At the plant, most of the men were married, and if they weren’t they would be eventually, to someone who didn’t work there.
Red knew, for her, it was going to be the chicken plant. She didn’t have much in the chest area, and couldn’t dance to music even if it had a beat. The way men never looked at her gave her the sense that the Boobie Bungalow wasn’t going to be an option for her. At the plant, you made enough money to pay for what you needed. But the big things in life, the things that could make you happy, well, you just never made enough to get all that.
About two years back, the girl who worked in the front office had stood with Tommy’s wife and the other wives at the company Christmas party as if she was now one of them. All their noses looked the same, sticking out in the air like that. The wives didn’t talk to the girl or include her in their conversations. When the group laughed together, her laughter came a few seconds behind.
But the girl doesn’t work in the front office anymore. Something about Nicole and the other wives not liking her there, working with their husbands. She was asked to take her old job on the line again. She quit after that, on account of having been someplace better.
After the front office job became available again, all the women who worked on the line did what they could to get it. Some started by getting themselves nose jobs. Where they found a surgeon was something Red didn’t know. No facility around here to support that kind of thing. Maybe that’s why everyone’s nose looked different: some were slightly bent, didn’t heal properly, or scarred badly. One girl, when she talked, her nose moved in every direction that her upper lip moved. It was like her nose was attached to that lip. Most of the girls at the plant started to come to work with their hair curled and pressed and wearing heels and office clothes. They’d change into their work gear, the plastic shower cap and the matching white plastic pullover, then change right back when their shift was over. They looked so glamorous. But all of this was for nothing. None of them got the job. It was given to a girl just out of high school whose father worked in the front office.
RED DROVE HER TRUCK into the plant’s parking lot and pulled up to a spot near the entrance. There was one closer, but it was reserved for those who worked in the front office. She didn’t want to park where she did and imagined the day when she’d see her big red truck up there. She turned off the ignition and got out and walked to the entrance.
Somboun was standing outside alone, smoking. When he saw her coming, he dropped his cigarette and put it out with his shoe. Then he blew into his palm to check his breath and yelled out, “Hey, Dang!” Dang was what people who knew Red called her. It means red in Lao. It wasn’t her real name, just a nickname she got because her nose was always red from the cold. 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.
Wherever she was in the plant, if he was around he would head straight toward her, excited and hopeful for something to happen between them. He was there when she punched in her time card, there at the end of the day when she punched out. He followed her around as if she were carrying feed. She wondered how he never got tired of smiling so much. She would look away from him, uninterested, but he would follow her gaze. He had seen her interest in the girls who got nose jobs, had seen her taking in how everyone else was noticing them too.
“I just don’t see what the big deal is,” he had said. “Why go and do that to your face for?”
“But it’s not real.”
“It’s real to her.”
“I don’t see it. I just don’t.”
“I want to get one too, you know,” Red had confessed, before she realized she should not have said that to Somboun. Now that he knew she wanted something for herself, he might think he was some kind of friend to her.
“No. Not you. Not you. No way.”
“Why not me? You think I don’t want to be beautiful?”
“Why in hell would you do that to yourself! You’re already beautiful.” Somboun said this with such sincere conviction that she was embarrassed for him. How naked and bare, his want.
“How would you know. You don’t know about girls.”
Somboun lowered his head and quietly said, “I don’t got to know anything about girls to know what’s beautiful.” He was so proud, and all for nothing. He’d worked at the plant the longest. Started when he was in high school, thinking this was something that was going to get him to college. Ten years later, he was still working at the plant doing the same thing. He was the one who slit the necks in the other room before they got to Red. He saw the chickens when they were still alive. She shuddered at the thought of doing anything with Somboun. What kind of gentleness could a man who did that for a living be capable of?
Still, after that, nose jobs were the one thing Somboun could manage to get Red to talk to him about. Who had got a nose job and when and if it was a good one. Red told him she was going to get a nose job too as soon as she saved up enough. She always said, “Next year, for sure. For sure.”
When Red saw Somboun standing at the entrance that morning, still smoking even though he often talked about quitting, and wearing the same drab uniform and the same haircut all these years, he reminded her of all the things she wanted for herself but still didn’t have. Day after day, the sight of him in the same place and in the same clothes and giving her the same greeting each morning showed that, for them, nothing had changed. Nothing had happened.
“I didn’t get one!” she yelled at him.
“You look fine the way you are,” he said, as if they were just picking up a conversation where they’d left off. As if the only time that counted for him were the ones they spent together, talking.
Walking quickly past him, she said, “Thanks, Sam.” Red knew he hated to be called by his English name. “Not Sam,” he would insist, “Somboun,” pronouncing the tones of the vowels the way Lao people would, refusing to make it easy. But he took what she said as if she was teasing and he smiled widely. To know someone’s dislikes was to be close to them.
“Hey, Dang?” Somboun called after her, trying to hold her attention and to keep up with her as she entered the plant.
“What is it?” Red said irritably, hoping not to encourage him further.
“Did you hear about Khet? It was cancer. Started a few months after her nose job. Might have something to do with the material they put in there.” Somboun was always coming up with reasons as to why a nose job was a bad idea. “Just something to think about,” he said, grinning as if the cancer was a blessing in disguise, opening up an opportunity for him to talk with Red.
She walked faster and he soon fell behind.
IT WAS TIME to break for lunch. They only got twenty minutes. Enough time to use the washroom and gobble down some food. Red often used the time to be alone. The smell of raw chicken flesh and loosened guts and all that killing and packaging sometimes made her forget she was alive and living in the world too. She was on her way out of the line when she saw Tommy come by and tap the shoulder of one of the girls who worked for him. This was something he often did. That girl was the one selected for that day. Red made her way outside. A short time later, Tommy and the girl came out and walked to his car, where all of it took place. Red wondered what that felt like, to be seen, to feel the mouth of someone who wanted you. It didn’t matter if what Tommy did wasn’t for forever. He did it and you got to be something to him for a little while.
Just as they were getting into the car, Tommy’s wife pulled into the parking lot.
She didn’t even bother to park properly.
Nicole wore a white fur coat, her blond curls bounced fresh from the salon. She had bright red lipstick on and rouged cheeks. She looked so glamorous and beautiful.
She was yelling at him about something. Furious.
Then Nicole grabbed Tommy by the arm. He pulled his arm back and shoved her away. She didn’t fall. She clung to a sleeve, her white heels dragging in the snow. What she wanted didn’t matter to Tommy. He shut the door and drove away with the girl in the car. The bottom of Nicole’s white fur coat was dirty with mud. If Red had not seen the whole thing, she might have thought the mud was shit. Might have asked how the shit got all over her like that.
From where Red stood, she could tell Nicole’s eyes were smeared with mascara, and her quivering lips looked a clownish red now. Women like Nicole are who the romantic movies were made for. They are always the star of their own lives and they always got their man in the end. But beauty, for all it could get you and all that fussing it took to get it, seemed so awful a burden to have to carry and maintain. There was so much to lose. 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 public declaration of love in front of family and friends like Nicole and Tommy had—Red knew it wasn’t something that would ever happen for her. It didn’t matter what Tommy did outside of that promise. It had been made, and he would always come back to it sooner or later.
The only love Red knew was that simple, uncomplicated, lonely love one feels for oneself in the quiet moments of the day. It was there, steady and solid in the laughter and talk of the television and with her in the grocery aisles on the weekends. It was there every night, in the dark, spectacular and sprawling in the quiet. And it all belonged to her.
Nicole spotted Red and ran to her. She grabbed Red and held her like they were the closest of friends, and buried her pointy nose in Red’s neck. She could feel the poke. Nicole probably would have grabbed on to anyone standing there. Probably. They stood there together in each other’s arms. It was the first time someone had ever been that close to Red, had touched her. Both women cried, but for different reasons.
I WAS SEVENTY when I met Richard. He was thirty-two. He told me he was a young man, and I didn’t say anything about that because I really didn’t know what that was, to be a young man, if that was a good thing to be or a bad one. He had moved in next door to us, me and Rose, my granddaughter, in January. She was hardly home that summer. She had gotten together with a new guy and was mostly at his place across town.
*Winner of the 2020 Giller Prize*
*A 2020 National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist in Fiction*
*A finalist for the 2020 PEN Open Book Award*
*Longlisted for the 2020 Believer Book Award*
**Named one of the most anticipated books of 2020 by Electric Literature, The Millions, and Ms. Magazine****Named one of the most anticipated books of the month by the New York Times, O. The Oprah Magazine, Vogue, Bustle, and Salon**
- "An impressive debut...Thammavongsa's spare, rigorous stories are preoccupied with themes of alienation and dislocation, her characters burdened by the sense of existing unseen... Her gift for the gently absurd means the stories never feel dour or predictable, even when their outcomes are by some measure bleak...It is when the characters' sense of alienation follows them home, into the private space of the family, that Thammavongsa's stories most wrench the heart."—NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
- "These poignant and deceptively quiet stories are powerhouses of feeling and depth; How to Pronounce Knife is an artful blend of simplicity and sophistication."—MARY GAITSKILL, author of VERONICA and SOMEBODY WITH A LITTLE HAMMER
- "In sparse prose braced with disarming humor, Thammavongsa offers glimpses into the daily lives of immigrants and refugees in a nameless city, illuminating the desires, disappointments, and triumphs of those who so often go unseen...Though short enough to read in one sitting, [these stories] feel vast in their scope, offering ample room to wander."—THE PARIS REVIEW
- "I love these stories. There's some fierce and steady activity in all of the sentences-something that makes them live, and makes them shift a little in meaning when you look at them again and they look back at you (or look beyond you)."
—HELEN OYEYEMI, authorof WHAT IS NOT YOURS IS NOT YOURS and GINGERBREAD
- "In Thammavongsa's work, refugees don't have to be just tragic or sad but can be imbued with humor, complexity, and the unexpected. Most importantly, Thammavongsa doesn't write for a white audience. She writes, tenderly and profoundly, for her characters. Her love is apparent in her delicate descriptions: confident children protect their parents, workers perform jobs with care and pride, and messy love stories show us that leaving is proof we are alive. The power of How to Pronounce Knife lies in seeing the unseen. I know that firsthand--as the daughter of refugees, I'm able to finally see myself in stories."—ANGELA SO, ELECTRIC LITERATURE
- "Fourteen piercing sketches illuminate the workaday routines and the interior lives of Laotian refugees. Characters who undertake 'the grunt work of the world', laboring in poultry plants, hog farms, and nail salons, also harbor vivid fantasies... brief glimpses of freedom in otherwise impenetrable places."—NEW YORKER
- "Souvankham Thammavongsa writes with deep precision, wide-open spaces, and quiet, cool, emotionally devastating poise. There is not a moment off in these affecting stories."—SHEILA HETI, author of HOW SHOULD A PERSON BE and MOTHERHOOD
- "Deceptively devastating...strange but biting stories."—TIME MAGAZINE
- "Tinged with melancholy, anger, and a healthy dose of dark humor, all of these stories exhibit a fierce pride in what one can accomplish. After leaving everything behind and dealing with a country that does not cater to you, one can still celebrate the resilience of the human spirit by merely surviving."—SALON
- "In How to Pronounce Knife, Thammavongsa plumbs the depths and superficialities of what it means to be human. She's at ease in the dark. With authority, her fiction asks: How do we survive? What does it mean to endure?"—BOMB MAGAZINE
- “The stories are slender, spare, and slide between your ribs like a super-sharp blade, fast and soundless, before you realize what’s happening.”—VANITY FAIR
- "Exacting, sharply funny short fictions."—O., THE OPRAH MAGAZINE
- "Thammavongsa's radiant debut collection of short stories is full of precarity, strength, uncertainty, messiness and life."—MS. MAGAZINE
- "The stories here will gut you, as Thammavongsa's insight proves to be razor-sharp."—BUSTLE
- "Every once in a while you come across a book with writing so breathtaking that you take note of the author so you can read everything they ever write in the future. How to Pronounce Knife is one of those books."—ELLE
- "Thammavongsa's careful dissection of everyday moments of racism, classism and sexism exposes how power and privilege drive success, how work shapes the immigrant identity, and how erasure and invisibility lead to isolation."—THE WASHINGTON POST
- "With spare, precise prose, Thammavongsa evokes a world of strong emotion made livable by painful, unstable social constraints. The syntactical simplicity of the writing throws the internal complexity of these characters and their situations into stark relief, displaying how restraint can pack an unexpectedly sentimental punch. Quietly poetic, How to Pronounce Knife also produces a shivering recognition in its readers."—SHELF AWARENESS
- "Thammavongsa isn't just gifted at exploring the dynamics of families adjusting to new lives, she's also an immensely talented writer. Her gift for poetry translates perfectly into fiction; her prose is spare but vivid, with no wasted words, and she has an unusual gift for descriptions that stick with the reader. How to Pronounce Knife is a wonderful fiction debut that proves to be a perfect showcase for Thammavongsa's skill with language and her abundant compassion. It's also a reminder of our shared humanity at a time when we need it most."—MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE
- "Brings to life figures that might otherwise not figure on the literary radar, from a failed boxer turned manicurist to a young woman working at a chicken processing plant and a mother-daughter worm-harvesting team, with enough panache to keep the reader gripped throughout."—VOGUE
- "These stories feel simple, but they move within you and it is impossible to let them go. They are sharp and vital. Thammavongsa is a master over the sentence."—DAISY JOHNSON, author of EVERYTHING UNDER
- "A book of rarest beauty and power. Souvankham Thammavongsa has already earned a devoted readership for her poetry. And in each of these exquisitely crafted stories, we experience the profound emotional effects of economy and distillation. We feel the reverberating energy around each judiciously placed word. This is one of the great short story collections of our time. Do not miss it."—DAVID CHARIANDY, authorof BROTHER and I'VE BEEN MEANING TO TELL YOU
- "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. This is a major work and a lasting one."—MADELEINE THIEN, author of DO NOT SAY WE HAVE NOTHING
- "A book of unusual ferocity and grace. Souvankham Thammavongsa carefully unpacks the aches and aspirations of immigrant and refugee life in tight, commanding prose; and these subtle yet shattering stories glow with empathy, humor, and wisdom."—MIA ALVAR, author of IN THE COUNTRY
- "Reading Souvankham Thammavongsa's How to Pronounce Knife is like finding, at last, a part of you that you had lost and had been searching for all this time. Not since the stories of Edward P. Jones have I encountered such a unified and yet wide-ranging vision-both geographically and emotionally-that captures the spirit of not only a community but of the greater world-then, now, the future. This is a book full of powerful resilience, great journeys, and above all else: fierce, heart-wrenching love."—PAUL YOON, author of RUN ME TO EARTH
- "A beautiful collection of stories about immigrants in America."—PEOPLE MAGAZINE
- "Thammavongsa has shown herself to bea master of controlled intimacy, eschewing preciousness in favor of aclear-eyed humanity...What all the storieshave in common is the stubbornness of desire manifested by the characters,whether it is the desire to defend your parents against mockery, the desire tofit in, the desire for physical intimacy, or the desire to be seen...This sharpinterplay between defiance and desire throughout the collection is a welcomestrike to narratives that are often demanded of refugee writers--narrativesladen with nobility, the commodification of trauma, and respectability politics...Instead of being foreigners in a newland, these characters make foreigners out of those who would pity them...Thammavongsa hasmade English speak to us in her own language."—PLOUGHSHARES
- "How to Pronounce Knife is a masterful collection, written with so much veracity, you'll swear every word is true. Thammavongsa's prose is spare, the images she evokes so crystalline, they require no embellishment. Here is life, rendered with precision and insight. Instantly recognizable. She offers sharp sensory details, piercing imagery, endings that will punch you in the gut and leave you yearning for more."
—SHARON BALA, author THE BOAT PEOPLE, winner of theHarper Lee Prize
- “Somehow barebones and surreal, Souvankham Thammavongsa's How to Pronounce Knife is a collection whose stories will stay with you long after you've closed the book's cover.”
- “Thammavongsa centers the day-to-day lives of immigrants in fourteen stories, written in a precise and emotionally devastating style...The stories are quiet but shattering—powerful because you can feel how much truth there is in them.”
- "These stories have a quiet brilliance in their raw portrayal of the struggle to find meaning in difficult times and to belong in a foreign place. Thammavongsa writes with an elegance that is both brutal and tender, giving her stories and their characters a powerful voice."—BOOKLIST (Starred Review)
- "In under 200 pages, Canadian poet Thammavongsa showcases 14 spectacular stories in her fiction debut...a poignant, eyes-wide-open exploration...pristine short fiction: think Paul Yoon, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Phil Klay."—LIBRARY JOURNAL (Starred Review)
- "These stories, written in a spare, distant register, twist the heart; Thammavongsa captures in a few well-chosen words how it feels for immigrant children to protect their parents. Moving, strange, and occasionally piercing."—KIRKUS
- "Sharp and elegant. . . These brief stories pack a punch, punctuated by direct prose that's full of acute observations...This is a potent collection."—PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
- “It put words to what I saw during the pandemic in a way that changed my life.”
—CLAIRE CAMERON, THE MILLIONS
- On Sale
- Apr 21, 2020
- Page Count
- 192 pages
- Little, Brown and Company