Portraits of Tragedy
A remarkable debut collection
From Susanna Moodie and Charles G. D. Roberts, Pauline Johnson and Lucy Maud Montgomery, to Margaret Atwood and George Bowering, Joy Kogawa and Michael Ondaatje — and along with such writers as Michael Crummey and Katherena Vermette — there has been a strong and unique feature of Canadian literature: authors working in poetry and in prose, first as accomplished poets, then as sophisticated novelists and short story writers. It seems only Thomas King and Robert Kroetsch have reversed the pattern, becoming poets after they established careers as novelists.
To the list of writers who successfully blur the line between poetry and prose, it’s time to add the name of Souvankham Thammavongsa. Born in the Lao refugee camp in Nong Khai, Thailand, and raised and educated in Toronto, this forty-two-year-old poet has published four acclaimed volumes. Now a collection of fourteen stories, How to Pronounce Knife, marks her debut in fiction, and it is remarkable.
Thammavongsa’s meticulous, often austere poetry captures the joys and the agonies of her childhood memories. She writes of the deathly nature of war and its enduring legacies, and she chastises modern commerce for its inhumanity. She does all this with plain, direct vocabulary, where the reader must think; her poetic silences, created through carefully controlled line structures and elongated pauses between the lines, make personal introspection absolutely necessary. “My poems don’t think for you,” she has stated, “they think with you.”
Her short fiction follows a similar pattern, employing plain, direct vocabulary to present portraits of people trapped in their own problems and their own tragedies. She captures feelings and thoughts with scalpel-like precision and disarming humour. Her characters are transplanted men and women from Laos, “a bombed-out country in a war no one ever heard of.” Having lost their former rootedness, these refugee-immigrants are fixated on their fight for new and impoverished homes in a nameless country.
Thammavongsa’s opening story, “How to Pronounce Knife,” crystallizes many of the features that appear throughout the collection. Joy, a young elementary student, lives with her father and mother “in a small apartment with two rooms.” Her father scolds her, “Don’t speak Lao and don’t tell anyone you are Lao. It’s no good to tell people where you’re from.” What is she to make of this when he’s wearing a T‑shirt on which “four letters stood side by side: LAOS”? When Joy’s school sends a note home for her parents, inviting students to wear something special, they toss it in the garbage. A few days later, Joy is the only one in her classroom not dressed appropriately: “All the girls showed up wearing different variations of pink, and the boys had on dark suits and little knotted ties. Miss Choi, the grade one teacher, was wearing a purple dress dotted with a print of tiny white flowers and shoes with little heels.”
On another occasion, Joy asks her father how to pronounce “knife.” He replies, “Kah-nnn-eye-ffff. It’s kahneyff.” The narrator explains, “That’s what it was, what it sounded like to him.” The next day, having been corrected by a “yellow-haired girl in the class,” Joy returns home, wanting “to tell her father that some letters, even though they are there, we do not say them.” Noticeably shaken by her father’s mispronunciation, Joy still seeks to protect her parents from similar criticism. “She decides now is not the time to say such a thing. Instead she tells her father only that she had won something.”
In these stories, the Laotian people survive, though only barely. There is always a cultural clash, with the younger generation adapting somewhat to the new land and the older generation unwilling or unable. Thammavongsa maps the new worlds her characters encounter as they try to adapt. They have lost their place and are frequently compelled to reinvent their lives. In “Paris,” a young woman has “that simple, uncomplicated, lonely love one feels for oneself in the quiet moments of the day.” She lives an isolated life, cut off from human intercourse: “It was there, steady and solid in the laughter and talk of the television and with her in the grocery aisles on the weekend. It was there every night, in the dark, spectacular and sprawling in the quiet.”
How does one overcome such loneliness? In connections that only increase the loneliness? The seventy-year-old narrator of “Slingshot“ begins a romance with her thirty-two-year-old neighbour. When their passion inevitably subsides, so does the relationship. In “The Gas Station,” Mary, a thirty-six-year-old accountant, has a brief affair with a “grotesque” but “unforgettable” man, who had “a reputation for being someone women fell in love with” even though “he was known to abandon them when that happened, leaving them wailing in the street below his window.” Aware from the beginning that the affair will not last, Mary abruptly leaves town. “What was the difference between someone who lied about love and someone who didn’t love you? Nothing.”
In perhaps the finest story in the collection, “You Are So Embarrassing,” a woman parks her “small blue car” in an alley, with hopes of catching “a glimpse” of her estranged daughter, “who left work every day at around four in the afternoon.” She then recalls a day, almost twenty years earlier, when she went to meet her daughter in front of her high school locker. “And can you not talk to my friends, please?” the girl scolded her mother. “You are so embarrassing.” Now sitting in the alleyway, the woman, who has recently recovered from a stroke, cannot even approach her daughter. She stays put: “It was hard to tell now what was happening inside the car and out. The blur, the wet, the rain, the sobbing.” In this story, as in so many in this volume, the plights of the Laotians, with the desires and the disappointments that mark their lives, are singularly heartbreaking.
To counteract the lonely rootlessness in this new homeland, some characters resort to yearning for personal betterment. In “Mani Pedi,” Raymond tells his sister, “Don’t you go reminding me what dreams a man like me ought to have. That I can dream at all means something to me.” Yet something always prevents him from realizing his hopes. As they sit in her car, Raymond and his sister can hear a “young and fragile and innocent” family giggling in their backyard: “It was the kind of giggling they themselves did as kids. Now, that kind of giggle seemed foolish for them to do. It was like a far distant thing, a thing that happened only to other people. All they could do now was be close to it, and remain out of sight.” Other people can dream and have their dreams come true. But for these characters, there is almost no room to dream, to see their fortunes rise, to aspire to higher things.
How to Pronounce Knife captures men and women searching for meaning in a desolate world. All fourteen stories are haunting and bleak. Souvankham Thammavongsa is indeed an important voice. And she rightly joins that talented list of Canadian writers who have transferred poetic skill into exceptional works of fiction.