Author Q&A:

How to Pronounce Knife

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Born in a Lao refugee camp in Thailand, Souvankham Thammavongsa was raised and educated in Toronto, where she now lives. Already an award-winning author of four poetry books, How to Pronounce Knife is her first collection of short stories, all of which are intimate tales of the lives of migrants and refugees, told with delicate precision and shot through with humour.

These stories all explore the experiences of migrants and refugees, but if there was one other interlinking theme running through the book, what would it be? 
The value and integrity and love of work.

The stories in this collection take place in unnamed places. Why?
When refugees lose what they know of their country, does it matter where they are? It isn’t home. We name what we know, we name what we belong to.

Many of the stories are written from a child’s point of view, or as memories from childhood. Was there anything in particular about children’s experiences that you set out to explore?
When I was a child, I longed to read books about me, about what I felt and knew and saw. When I had to be brave or strong, when I laughed or fought back, when I was alone. I was the only one who saw that in my life and that’s the power of being an adult now – I can go back and tell myself:
“I see you.” The other thing is, I think when adults talk about their childhood they use the language they used when they were a child and they sound the same. There are stories of adults in the collection too. The difficulty was not writing from the point of view of a child – it was holding back that it’s the voice of the adult all along, to collapse that time and surprise a reader, and allowing the adult stories to stand there too and belong and matter.

How informed are these stories by your own experiences? 
I know what it’s like to try to learn a language all by myself and to get it wrong and to have no one to ask if I am doing the right thing. I know what it’s like to work a job nobody wants, to do good work and to be passed over or not be noticed and valued. I know what it is like to watch someone with a sadness they can’t see. I know what it’s like to lose my place in the world and to have to begin all over again. I have seen the sky so black it looks like the middle of an eye. But it doesn’t matter what I know or see – can I get a reader to feel that, to know and to see that too?

From the title of the collection and throughout the book there’s an exploration of language itself. Tell me a bit more about that.
I’m really interested in sound: when it isn’t there but there’s a letter for it, when a scene isn’t there but we feel it, when all we are given is laughter in place of words. Language is also about reading not just words but situations, sounds, spaces. I like the ugly things of language. The way words like “the” or “it” or “this” or “that” or “here” can hold and do so much. I love it when language is so achingly bare and plain that it can’t hide itself and what it’s doing or how it feels. My stories deal with all those things.

What are similarities and differences in writing prose to writing poetry in terms of your creative process?
I don’t think of them as being different. They both have to deal with language and the ways in which language fails or how miraculous it is too. I think the attitude of readers towards those things, prose and poetry, is different.

Who are your literary influences?
I love Alice Munro, Richard Pryor, James Baldwin, Edward P Jones, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Clarice Lispector, Jane Bowles. I also love things that teach me about literature that come from other experiences like boxing. We talk a lot of inspiration and waiting for it, but in boxing when you get in the ring, you just go. Everything you know and everything you have, you just go with it. No point in waiting for inspiration. You’d get knocked out.

In your stories we hear from people who aren’t often given space to speak in literary works. What can the literary world do to make sure more voices from the margins have a voice?
The literary world likes to just have one – one at a time – and they like you to be like that one. The problem with that is you don’t get to be who you really are, and the brilliant and singular things that you achieve fade and disappear because it is not like that one. It is like when Simone Biles was winning so much and people kept comparing her to being the next Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt. She had the best answer. She said: “I am not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. I am the first Simone Biles.” That’s the best answer ever.

How is your writing practice going during the current coronavirus crisis and what are you working on next? 
I roll up my sleeves and get to work like I always do. Something is always coming after your time when you are writing. It doesn’t have to be the coronavirus. It could be someone you love, children, a job, family, friends, negative thinking – life, you could say. I work and try to stay alive like everyone else. Next, I’m working on a novel but that’s all I should say about that for secret reasons.

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