Laotian Refugees Take Center Stage in “How to Pronounce Knife”

Souvankham Thammavongsa on writing stories about people we seldom hear from but see all the time

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Often in literature, a refugee’s narrative ends with their arrival to a Western country, grateful and full of hope for a better future. But what happens when the “happy ever after” promise is not an easy tale of assimilation but a complicated tale of survival in the forgotten? Souvankham Thammavongsa’s first book of fiction, How to Pronounce Knife, asks readers to see the stories behind the Lao immigrants and refugees who are our school bus drivers, our nail salon technicians, our worm pickers, and our chicken factory workers—and challenges us to reimagine refugees, assimilation, and survival.

For one, only a handful of stories mention the CIA bombing of Laos or the Secret War. Then there’s the hero of the stories themselves. Unlike the traditional refugee narrative, which moves the refugee off to the side and ends with the heroism of the West, Laotian characters take center stage with robust interiority. 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.

I spoke with Souvankham Thammavongsa on the phone to discuss upending expectations with humor, the power of lonely love, and what it means to succeed as a refugee.  

Angela So: I wanted to start by asking you about the title of the collection, which is also the title of the opening story. How to Pronounce Knife has such a strong directive, and it is already raising concerns of language and misunderstanding. But also the knife itself is so vivid, because it can be violent and yet be protective. How did you come up with the title?

Souvankham Thammavongsa: I thought about the word “knife” itself. We all agree that we cannot say the letter we see right there. We learn to do that. It isn’t just a letter or a word—not knowing how to pronounce it lets other people know where you come from, what your family life is like without meaning to tell. Those things aren’t hidden and it begins with a word and the way you say it. And I felt like it was the armature of the collection: every story is about people we seldom hear from but we see all the time.

AS: When I was reading the collection, I was so intrigued by the sense of namelessness, because all the stories take place in a nameless Western city. But sometimes, characters receive no name, like the girl in “How to Pronounce Knife.” And this is where I feel implicated as a reader, which I thought was very fascinating.

ST: That it could be you, right?

AS: Right, that could be me! But I also realize, especially on my second reading, that there were more characters whose names I didn’t remember. I remembered their occupations. So in that Western way, I was minimizing them still. I was shifting back and forth, and as the daughter of refugees, I wanted to see these people but my brain was still calling Jai, the School Bus Driver. How did you decide to name characters?

Every story is about people we seldom hear from but we see all the time.

ST: I felt like not naming the characters could give me a kind of remove and distance. I feel that remove is important to the story, and yet, even though we don’t know their names, there’s a kind of intimacy to them. I don’t feel that the main characters are minimized. When we talk about a school bus driver, I want people to think about the story of the School Bus Driver. If they see a school bus driver, I want them to not think that he just drives a school bus, but that he has another life we don’t know about.

But he is named in that story. It’s the narrator that calls him the School Bus Driver. I think that’s the tragedy of that story. What it does is it isolates him. His own wife renames him Jay, and the outside world just sees him as the School Bus Driver, and even in a story where he’s at the center, the narrator calls him the School Bus Driver. That’s why at the end, when he insists his name is Jai and that it means heart, the moment is so charged.

AS: I also love the line the narrator says, “No one here knows Jai means heart,” she would say. So what if that’s what it means? It doesn’t mean anything in English. And English is the only language that means something here.” That really broke my heart, because the notion that English is all that matters here is woven throughout a lot of the stories.

ST: The moment is sad, but it’s also sort of funny. Because what if we take a name like Joe, what does Joe mean in English? Like [Jai’s wife] is saying, “Oh, I know Jai means heart,” but what does a popular easy name like Joe mean, either. Of course, the School Bus Driver doesn’t say that, because he doesn’t know the language. It’s not the outside world that’s being racist or terrible to you. It’s this intimate relationship that’s in your own house.

AS: That’s something that I thought was fascinating about the collection, because when people talk about assimilation, they always assume it’s just the children that want to assimilate, and not the adults. But in “Edge of the World,” there’s an older woman that is surprised that the protagonist still speaks Laotian. And there’s a moment, when as a reader, I expect, “Oh, good for you, you are keeping our culture,” but instead, she’s like, “That’s a terrible mistake.” She scolds them, the protagonist and the protagonist’s mother. I thought that was so funny.

ST: And the mother is like, “Why would anyone want to do that!” You know, you’re going to learn English anyways, so why lose this private intimate language? I felt that there was an opportunity to laugh there.

AS: It’s one of my favorite moments. You’re so gifted in upending expectations. That moment for me, I really thought it was going to fall into that traditional Western notion of assimilation.

ST: Right, or in “Picking Worms,” when you think maybe the mother is going to take on some White lover, she says, “What do you want me to do? Get one of them white guys? Can you imagine. They probably will want me to say things like ‘Me lope you long tie’ and pump me like one of them hogs.” 

AS: When you were writing these stories, were you consciously deciding those moments?

I wanted to write stories about refugees and immigrants that are trying to get to the next minute, hour, day, or next year.

ST: No. I thought of my mom and dad. Whenever they talked about—which they rarely did—but in those moments, I caught them or their friends talking, it was somehow very funny. Like if my dad’s talking about building a raft of bamboo to cross the Mekong River to get to the refugee camp, another refugee will say, “Well, you know what? I got across by holding on to someone’s severed leg!” Then they would burst out laughing. It wasn’t two sad people talking about how sad they were; they would one-up each other in a more tragic way, and then they would laugh at how ridiculous it really was. I wanted to capture that. Whenever I read stories about refugees and immigrants, they’re always so sad and tragic—and rightly so—but also that’s a very narrow way of looking at ourselves.

There’s a lot more to us than being sad, we are also really fun and hilarious and angry and ungrateful. Whenever we hear stories about immigrants and refugees, we hear about success. It’s always children going to Stanford, or they have a Ph.D. in chemistry. Or we are some brave hero and saving a dangling baby on the side of a building, or we’re crazy rich. I just wanted to write stories about refugees and immigrants that are trying to get to the next minute, hour, day, or next year. Those lives are important and successful too.

AS: I remember thinking the political way refugees are used to show the power of humanity.

ST: If a county lets you in, they’re quite proud and want to be patted on the back for what they did for you. But my dad always says, “Someone needed your help, and you should help them not because you want attention for your capacity to recognize someone else’s humanity.” 

AS: You talked about how you wanted your story to shine a light on the stories that aren’t shown, because they’re just trying to make it to make it to the next day. I think about how the refugee story is typically set in the camps and then they make it to a Western country and then the story ends.

ST: None of these stories take place in the camps.

AS: Did you decide that when you were working on these stories?

ST: Yes, because there are already books and movies and documentaries and photographic documentation—that deal with that. I felt like I didn’t need to do that. Also, it’s not really my experience—it’s my parents. I left the refugee camp when I was a year old, so to ask me, “What was the refugee camp like?” How do I know? I was just a year old! I don’t want to be a talking head for refugees or give people a history lesson. I want to be a writer and I’m here to be one. 

I was thinking about how to pronounce knife and not knowing how to do stuff, making mistakes, and how doing something wrong is actually a powerful thing, because you can see the error. You have a wider view of things. You can see why someone would get something wrong. Why put a letter in front, if you’re not even going to use it, to say out loud? At the same time, who are these people who have been educated, but they can’t even explain to the child why the letter that is right there we do not say out loud.

AS: I remember reading that story and laughing, because I never thought about the absurdity of the English language. The rules don’t make sense.

ST: It’s not like the child is wrong. It does make sense the first letter should be said, but when she gets into that argument, she’s also protecting her dad, the love of her dad. She doesn’t want everyone at school to know her dad doesn’t know. Even that scene, it’s supposed to be traumatic and sad, it’s told off-stage. That was a private moment for the character, and I didn’t want people to see that moment, so I wanted it to happen off-stage.

Even in the story, “Chick-A-Chee!” the lunch lady says, “Don’t you mean trick-or-treating? And the child says, “No, Missus Furman. We went Chick-A-Chee!”

AS: I love the description of her face—it’s intrusive. That’s so funny to me, and so real. That’s how it feels.

ST: Right! Like how people come with their knowledge, and they want to correct you. But actually it’s just funny to have the child so sturdy and confident in what she knows and what she did. And part of the reason she gets so much candy is because she’s saying it wrong.

AS: I remember finishing the story, and the first thing I thought was, “This is a collection of love stories.”

ST: Yes, love of self! These stories are not about people who hate themselves. That’s what it is when the child says, “No, Missus Furman. It’s Chick-A-Chee.” Someone is protecting themselves and the way they imagine the world. Or even in the story, “Paris.” Red thinks about what she knows of love. “The only love Red knew was that lonely love one feels in the aisles of the supermarket, or the talk of the television. It’s always there for you, sprawling out at all hours of the night.” Love of self, love of family, even when it’s romantic love, like that seventy-year-old woman being able to walk away.

AS: That “simple uncomplicated lonely love”—how do you resolve that tension between lonely and love?

ST: Just because someone is alone it does not mean they don’t feel love. Love can be lonely.

AS: I’m curious about homes, because it feels like that lonely love has to happen in a place where you belong. You write about the homes of these characters with such great details and as a way to protect the self from the intrusive outside, but also there’s mold and sometimes blood outside your front door. What does home mean in the collection?

ST: I feel that home is an interior thing. It’s not just a building with a door that you have a key to get into. The home that you carry inside you, your interior home, it’s always there for you wherever you are, wherever you live.

AS: In a lot of these stories though, there are things that challenge their interior homes. One of the challenges is their occupation. You write with authority but also tenderness. Each job feels like an art form—I especially think of the Worm Picker. She has a system, and when I read it, it felt like a ballet. She has such precise, careful movements. How did you decide which occupations and how were you able to paint them in such a way that was so lived and believable?

ST: Work is really important to me. Work can carry you the way love can. It takes up a lot of hours in your life, you devote yourself to it. 

I wanted to write a mother-daughter story where they didn’t go to the mall or get their nails done, but they’re doing manual labor.

My dad always said to me, “You can do anything and you would be good at it.” I thought about the integrity a person brings to a job, even if it could be thought of as demeaning or as a thing you would hate to do, it’s your job and you bring some sense of pride and love into it, whether you’re doing nails or picking worms. That integrity is heroic. I think there’s some form of love that makes them show up every day. I feel that everyone who has a job—they feel a sense of pride, not just for having the job, but that they belong somewhere.

It’s always been a thing for me to notice something beautiful in something other people wouldn’t find beautiful—redefining what others define for me. Like worms. I was one of those kids, if I saw a fat juicy worm, I would pick it up and show it to my friends, and they would run away. But I didn’t understand why. I would think this worm would make such good fishing bait, because it was so juicy, whereas other people would be afraid of it. I hadn’t seen anything in literature about worm picking. I was reading some Richard Ford stories, and when the father and son are together, they go hunting. I wanted to write a mother-daughter story where they didn’t go to the mall or get their nails done, but they’re doing some manual labor. I wanted to bring out the beauty of that work.

AS: I have one more question, and it’s about hope. In “Mani-Pedi,” Raymond says, “Don’t you go reminding me what dreams a man ought to have. That I can dream at all means something to me.” But then the narrator’s response to the sister is fascinating. “She didn’t want to recognize that face and see it hoping. Hope is a terrible thing for her. Hope meant it wasn’t there for you whatever it was you were hoping for.”

Both of those seem like theses in some way; there’s a lot of hope in the stories. There’s also a sense of hopelessness. How is that theme working throughout? And maybe the ways it connects to love? To me, there’s this triangle: being seen/unseen, being love/unloved, and hopeful/unhopeful.

ST: All these things we desire for ourselves, like love and hope, but they’re not like a rubber ball. They’re things we can’t see, but we feel them alone. Even when you fall in love, it’s brutal, because you’re alone with those feelings until the other person confesses or says it out loud. Even then, you don’t really know if that’s true, because you’re not inside that heart. I think hope and love are like that letter in knife, the silent k. They are things we know about and maybe see sometimes, but we agree to not say out loud.

AS: That saying out loud—that’s the moment I felt like these were love stories, because there are so many attempts to find love, but not many that end successfully. There’s a risk with the hopefulness that they can fix things. But also the father in “Edge of the World” doesn’t go after his wife. To even have lost love means I’m alive.

ST: Being alive is the most important thing.

AS: That’s such a triumphant sense of asking to be seen, and in some ways, asking to be loved.

ST: To be loved, you have to be seen. 

I put someone at the center of the story. You’re the star. You’re the leading man. You’re the leading woman. Maybe you don’t get the love or hope you wanted, but you are still at the center of the story. 

What is success? Is it successful to get what you want? What happens when you get what you want? That want is always going to be there—it’s just in a container for now. 

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