How to Pronounce Knife, by Souvankham Thammavongsa. Pub 2020
I selected this book (as a Christmas present) for a few reasons: I liked the title; it is a prize winner; there was positive “buzz” about it. Lessons learned – those are terrible reasons to read a book.
All of these stories are about the Laotian immigrant experience in Canada. According to these stories, all of those experiences are terrible and miserable, with the only humour or quasi-happiness occurring through mispronunciations (“Chick-a-chee” instead of trick-or-treat is cute but also a bit painful). While that misery is a place to start a tale, and stories are a good way to get to the reader’s understanding, these stories are so uniform in their expression and circumstances of misery and otherness that it’s not at all clear that anything is learned or reparable in these circumstances. At the same time, the stories and characters are so quirky as to be unbelievable as approximating any kind of real experiences of immigrants. Children and parents are afraid, everyone is poor, many are abused. But there are also no actions by anyone to make the situations different or better. Think A Fine Balance without any forward movement or attempt by anyone to make things better or even different.
Even with the title story: we learn that the father of the family mispronounces “knife” but rather than there be any resolution of that, everyone just shrugs it off, accepting that they will go on being made fun of for their poor English, even when they know it is poor and know how to correct it. It could have become one of those funny family legends or stories, like a nickname or an anecdote, but it just remains unresolved.
And all of the stories are like that. There is a real art to short stories, to create situations and characters that are believable and that can be described and resolved in a few pages. This author misses the mark over and over again, trying to include unusual characteristics with little depth and situations and stories of little interest that are either unresolved or predictably concluded. While the stories are/may be accurate reflections of the immigrant experience, the lack of forward movement and predictable misery (and honestly the dull language and vocabulary) in any of the stories make them boring and unmoving.
Fate: charity shop/little book library.
8 – a book with a female author
18 – a book of short stories
25 – a new author to me
33 – a book with a Canadian author
34 – a book that has won a prize (2020 Giller)