How To Pronounce Knife: a review

Title: How to Pronounce Knife

Author: Souvankham Thammavongsa

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

Pages: 192

My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Who will like it? Someone who would like to read about immigrant or refugee experiences.

Visiting the exhibition, “A Seat at the Table”, at the Museum of Vancouver, I saw the most carefully curated collection showcasing the Asian-Canadian experience. The exhibition encapsulated an experience, a wedge of life. The best part was that it wasn’t doused in academia, or out of arms reach for viewers. Seeing a painting of Theresa Tam and listening to dialects from all across China, it felt like a new way of finding a community so difficult to trace, and really truly see the challenges that unite us.

An Illustration of Dr. Theresa Tam (譚詠詩), the Chief Public Health Officer in Canada since 2017

Strangely, I feel a reluctance about reading stories about Chinese immigrants settling in Canada. There is always a deep touch of sadness. Years worth of medical degrees only amount to labour jobs. Generation gaps are magnifying. Children secretly throw out wrapped dumplings their mothers pack for their lunches, with every fold in the dumpling made carefully by hand, and while their mothers scrape for their own lunches at home. There are immigrants who live in conditions that are so uncomfortable that I grow restless reading about their cardboard furniture and the phrases they cannot communicate, partially because of how difficult the experiences themselves must be, and partially because I wonder if all Canadians see the struggles of immigrants this way and unconsciously to unify our experience into something I’ve never experienced firsthand, and see a trace of that when they see me. But I simultaneously feel guilty thinking that, because I fear that I am alienating people who have struggled the worst. The verdict is that sometimes I avoid books on the Chinese immigrant experience because as a second-generation immigrant, the messages are too close to home.

But as I read more, I’m starting to feel more at peace about reading other people’s stories of their own lives, not forcing their experiences onto my own life. I liked How to Pronounce Knife, this collection of short stories. My mom actually recommended this collection to me first, and then someone I met at the Museum of Vancouver showered it in such praise that I looked forward to reading it. Thammavongsa’s short stories remind me of Alice Munro’s, writing simply about life and nothing but life itself. Realistic, moving shots of life. The writing in How to Pronounce Knife is uncomplicated, and each of the stories evokes a pronounced sentiment about newcomers (often Laotian refugees) arriving in Canada or America and their narratives of adjusting between generations or within themselves, and how they struggle to build a living, placate their loneliness or learn to newly become a part of the majority and let other internal parts disappear from their identities.

I like this collection because the writing is simple, and because the writing doesn’t pretend to be anything more than what each short story is. I like that there are 14 stories, and although a note of sadness unifies all of them, they show little kids and 70-year-old grandmas, and the unmistakable differences between these very different people.

Some stories are funny, some are forlorn, and some tick readers off. Out of all fourteen, I found “How to Pronounce Knife”, “Chick-a-chee!”, and “Randy Travis” to be the most memorable.

A Seat at the Table — an exhibit at the Museum of Vancouver you can check out before the end of January 2023!

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