Poet and Short-Story Writer
for Karen Wisdom
by J.S. Porter
The name pulled me in. It’s a poem in itself. I didn’t know how to spell it or say it. Mystery. Strangeness.
And can she ever write.
I knew her poetry before I acquainted myself with her prose. Small volumes put out by Pedlar Press in Newfoundland had more space than print, more non-ink than ink, as if they were ancient Buddhist scrolls or linked haiku. You can breathe between the words and take a long breath between the lines. Words and lines suggest more than they say.
If you look on poetry as an exercise in panning for gold, separating the genuine from the fake, then the pan seems unnecessary in Thammavongsa. There is only gold.
or be broken
You could write a small tract on this one little poem from Found. (Small Arguments and Light are equally airy and spacious. Her more recent poetry in Cluster is more conventionally laid out. It seems cluttered with words as opposed to being shorn of them.)
“Heart” is an exploration of the multiple meanings of the word heart. There is the physical bodily organ that pumps blood –it can’t break or be broken– and there is the metaphoric heart, the emotional heart, that can always break and be broken.
The physical heart is ugly, the speaker says, and by extension the emotional heart is beautiful. What breaks and can be broken is beautiful—think about that—and what can’t break or be broken is ugly. All the physical heart is good for is blood, simultaneously an embodiment of life and death. When the blood flows you live, when it overflows you die.
Born in the Lao refugee camp in Nong Khai, Thailand, in 1978, Souvankham Thammavongsa was raised and educated in Toronto. As well as being a gifted voice in poetry, she is an accomplished writer of fiction. Her debut collection of short stories, How to Pronounce Knife, won the Giller Prize in 2020.
The heart can break, or be broken, in How to Pronounce Knife. The short but deeply satisfying stories bubble with life – the fears, the dreams, the ironies. The tension of how much to tell and how much to hold back by both the narrator and the characters plays out in many of the stories.
Tensions ripple through restrained language. Do you please your birth family or try to please your new family of friends and associates? Names get changed from Chantakad to Celine. Are you loyal to home or to your new country? Cultures clash. The immigrant looks for traces of home, as in “Randy Travis.”
“My mother especially loved American country music, because it reminded her of the way the women in her family talked among themselves. It felt familiar. The pleas, the gossip, the dreams of the big city, what it was like to come from a place no one had ever heard of. The songs always told a story, you could follow— ones about heartbreak or about love, how someone can promise to love you forever…”
In “Edge of the World” the mother in the story learns her English from soaps on TV. She didn’t go to school but her daughter must go and do well. The daughter recognizes that they know different things in the world, about the world. Her mother “knew about war, what it felt like to be shot at in the dark, what death looked like up close in your arms, what a bomb could destroy.” And her refugee father knew when the mother left, “To lose your love, to be abandoned by your wife was a thing of luxury even—it meant that you were alive.”
In the title story “How to Pronounce Knife,” a school child from Laos is gently reprimanded by a teacher for failing to recognize that the word knife houses a silent k. In Lao, generally what you see you say. The father says of course you pronounce the k in knife (“kahneyff”). The father acknowledges that “his friends, who were educated and had great jobs in Laos, now found themselves picking worms or being managed by pimple-faced teenagers,” but implies that they still have authority at home. Alas, however, their dexterity in the old language doesn’t carry through to the new language’s nuances and subtleties.
The argumentative girl gets into trouble because she insists on pronouncing the word knife the way her father taught her – with the k pronounced. At supper, the father seems “small and shrunken” to the daughter. She wonders what else he doesn’t know, what else she will have to learn on her own.
Thammavongsa’s characters harvest worms, pluck feathers in a chicken processing plant, pack furniture for moving, drive a bus, pump gas, make cards for weddings, or paint nails at a local salon. Most of the stories take place in Canada, probably Toronto, but the only geographic signpost in the stories is Canadian Tire, twice-mentioned. Many of the most powerful stories explore the tensions of loyalty and independence between mothers and their daughters.
The stories are funny and poignant, sad and knowing, told with charm and ferocity. They are full of memorable details such as this one in “Picking Worms” where a daughter sees her mother “crouched down in the soft earth, groping for faceless things in the night, this shit of the earth” and realizes that her mother didn’t set out in life to be a worm-picker.