#ShadowGiller: How To Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

Every story in this collection is strong. David Chariandy calls it “one of the great short story collections of our time.” Madeleine Thien calls it “a major work and a lasting one”. And Sharon Bala calls it a “masterful collection.” Susan (@ A Life in Books) says all the stories are “remarkable in their eloquent economy.” Anne (@ I’ve Read This) calls it “powerful.” Laura (@ Laura Tisdall) says that “Thammavongsa is sharply insightful on a number of registers.” Penny (@ Literary Hoarders) said that “If this doesn’t appear on the Longlist, I’ll be shocked.” (It did!) Lindy (@ Lindy Reads and Reviews) calls it an “outstanding collection of quiet stories.” And Kerry (@ Pickle Me This) calls the stories “subtle, wonderful and jarring.”

A book that clearly belongs on the Giller prizelist.

The fourteen stories in this book are all, in some way, about the immigrant experience. Many of the characters are parents or children (mainly from Laos), experiencing their new lives in very different ways. The one constant throughout being the desire to belong.

How To Pronounce Knife shows how the language barrier causes embarrassment for a child at school, as well as the realization that she may have to figure a lot of things out for herself in this new life: “As she watches her father eat his dinner, she thinks of what else he doesn’t know. What else she would have to find out for herself.”

In Paris, Red wants more out of life–more than showing up each morning at the factory to pluck chicken feathers: “Day after day, the sight of him in the same place and in the same clothes and giving her the same greeting each morning showed that, for them, nothing had changed. Nothing had happened.”

In Randy Travis, a woman’s mother listens to the radio everyday while her husband and daughter are at work and school, and becomes obsessed with Randy Travis: “The host always spoke briefly between songs and there was an occasional laugh. A laugh, in any language, was a laugh. His laugh was gentle and private and welcoming. You got the sense that, he too, was alone somewhere.”

In Mani-Pedi, an ex-boxer works in his sister’s nail salon: “Don’t you be dreaming big now, little brother. Keep your dreams small. The size of a grain of rice.”

In You Are So Embarrassing, a mother is desperate to sneak peeks of her daughter, but is careful not to be seen: “When you’re a mother, you create a life and then you watch it go on its own way. It’s what you hope for, and want, but when it happens, it happens without you.

The summer I turned eight, my great-grandmother showed me her boobs” is the attention-grabbing first line of Ewwrrrkk.

A few more lines to tempt you…

My father did not grieve. He had done all of this life’s grieving when he became a refugee. To lose your love, to be abandoned by your wife was a thing of luxury even – it meant you were alive.

The pain came afterwards, and matched the sadness he carried around in him, anchored in his body like an extra set of bones.

They’d had to begin all over again, as if the life they led before didn’t count.

I would be thrilled to see this book make the shortlist.

19 thoughts on “#ShadowGiller: How To Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

  1. Debbie Rodgers @Exurbanis says:

    Argh! I had to break down today and actually buy a Kindle copy of this since CEH Library doesn’t seem to have any plans to get it, and it’s too new for the others to let go inter-library. I know it’s a good thing to buy a book, and how authors make a living but I had promised myself no more ebooks until I get the number I already own below 1,500. 😉

  2. Rebecca Foster says:

    I’m even more keen to read this now. Alas that it is not available through my libraries. I love the story titles and the quotes you’ve highlighted. A similar-themed book of short stories you might enjoy is The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen (there the country of reference is Vietnam rather than Laos).

  3. annelogan17 says:

    I’d be thrilled to see this book join the shortlist too! The writing is just so sparse and gorgeous, you picked some of the best quotes from it, but there are so many others too 🙂

  4. buriedinprint says:

    Coincidentally, my post about this collection also just went up! Looks like we have a lot of the same favourite lines, though, as Anne’s said, there are a lot of good lines to admire. One of the reasons that I especially love this collection is that, even weeks later, when I see the title of a story, I remember the story. The titles are well chosen but the characters in them are so attentively developed too.

  5. Susan says:

    Love David Chariandy, and Madeleine Thien likes it too? It seems like everyone is loving this collection! Will it win?? Our library wait lists are swamped with all the shortlist Giller books. But I’m on the wait lists ….

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