Poet Souvankham Thammavongsa turns her eye to a debut story collection

Souvankham Thammavongsa has released four poetry collections to high acclaim, including 2019’s Cluster. The same year, she also won an O. Henry Award for her short story “Slingshot.” The author, who was born in Thailand and rasied in Canada, has turned her eye away from poetry long enough to put together an emotional and personal story collection that features that award-winning story.

How to Pronounce Knife is experimental at times, leaving readers off-kilter on the edge of their seats. Stories are often about the middle class and how they view the world and how the world views them. Not just white-American middle class; she delicately explores refugees and immigrants. These stories, historically not shared in American literature, offer an illuminating insight into these characters’ minds and lives.

I corresponded with Thammavongsa via email to learn more about her poetry and her fiction.

Though How to Pronounce Knife is your first story collection, you published four poetry collections since 2003. What would you say your poetry is about? Emotionally, thematically, or stylistically.

Each book was its own thing. They are about things in the world, a scrapbook I discovered that belonged to my father in the refugee camp, light, and a cluster of things. All my poems are very bare. They deal with a lot of blank space. The blank space has as much power and voice as the words that are used. The words that are used are not very beautiful and appear to be delicate, but delicate the way that thorns are—on a rose everyone notices the brilliance of the flower, but none of that would be possible without the stem and its thorns doing all the work.

Many of these stories have appeared in a variety of journals throughout the years. How did you go about selecting which of your published works would make it into your debut collection? For the stories that weren’t published, when were they written and how were they selected for Knife?

The stories that were not published but appear in the collection were written near the end. I felt since they were going to be published in book form, why send them out? There was a story about a doll that was alive, but no one knew except the doll. And the only thing that was left of it in the end was its head. It seemed too strange to put in the collection—it seemed out of place, though being “out of place” is one of the themes. In the end, I let it go because it seemed more on the “experimental” side of things. The ones that are in the collection revolve around each other nicely—they lift, balance, disrupt, redirect, amplify, rescale, variate, illumine themselves or another story in the collection. If a story did not do these things then it was left out of the collection. I wanted the collection to be a self-contained and unified thing—not a collection of writings just because they were written. 

I always like to take a deep dive into a specific story. One of my favorites was “Edge of the World,” which was just recently published in The Atlantic. Can you take readers into the genesis and writing of that story?

I heard a laughter from the air vent and I wondered what would make a person laugh like that at this hour in the night. I imagined a mouth, a wide-open mouth, and what it looked like in there. And I wanted to end a story with this image in mind. There were several moments where the story could have ended and it would be just fine. It could have ended where the mother walked away. It could have ended when the father does nothing. But to end it inside a mouth in the act of laughing felt fantastic.

I went to a bookstore with my mother once and I told her to pick out a book so that I could buy one for her. She picked out a children’s book with a patch of cotton in it. She told me she liked that you could touch something inside a book. I thought she was brilliant, and right. And I hoped that when I get older I could hold on to a sense of wonder about the world. I saved that moment in my mind to use some day.

I think adult refugees speak about the things in their past with the voice and language they had when they first encountered their pain and it never changes even when they talk about it as an adult. I wanted to capture the language and surprise the reader in the end. This is tricky because it demands that you keep going, that you believe a child can know and see and understand and process. And I wanted to show why some people don’t cry about things. That sometimes leaving, being able to make a blank space in someone’s life is normal and these normal things are also acts of luxury you get to have even when you feel safe.

And I wanted to put it all together with language that was achingly plain and bare. I wanted readers to forget this was a story I made up. Someone read it in The Atlantic and said to a friend, “Oh, I hope she finds her mother.” I thought that response was great. It feels so real, they can’t believe it’s not real. I didn’t correct it either and just let the person have the magic of what felt real to themselves. As a reader, she earned that. 

Many fiction writers discuss how reading and studying poetry helped them create their novels. How has not only reading and studying poetry, but also writing it, influenced your writing?

With poetry, I feel you actually have to know stuff. You can’t get away with having a great personality and opinions. You can’t lean on a story to keep a reader because all you have is the sentence. You also have to learn to create drama, to “make something happen” when all you are looking at is snow or the rain. And you do all this in an environment where you constantly come up against ideas like poetry is “too hard” or that it is “dead.” When you walk into a bookstore, there might only be a dusty shelf in the back where no one goes to browse—and that is where your book sits. When you encounter that all the time and it doesn’t stop you from wanting to write, you learn about the quality of art that is writing and concerns about “being a writer” don’t touch you because you already are and no one can take that from you.

Your last poetry collection, Cluster, came out in 2019. Is there another collection you’re currently working on?

It takes me a long time to write poetry. I usually wait four or five years before I write another poetry book. Poetry is not like fiction. It’s not something I can do in one afternoon. 

Are there any intentions to ever write a novel?

I am working on one right now, actually. I can’t say much about it, for secret reasons. I can only say that there’s boxing and to get the boxing right, to know what it feels like to absorb a punch, to throw four different jabs, and to control the centerline, I have to learn to box. I have been training for the last six months at the gym. At first it was for research, but now it is the brightest joy in my life. I feel like no one can mess with me now.

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Adam Vitcavage is the founder of Debutiful. His interviews and criticism have also appeared in Electric Literature, The Millions, Paste Magazine, and more.

Visit Souvankham Thammavongsa at her website.

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