Having a Good Time: Souvankham Thammavongsa Interviewed by Zach Davidson

On her debut story collection, happy refugees, and why personal biography isn’t art.

Book cover of How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

I was introduced to Souvankham Thammavongsa’s work five years ago as an editor of the literary annual NOON. Diane Williams plucked Thammavongsa’s story “The School Bus Driver” from the submission pile and read it to us aloud. What did we think? We were moved. Thammavongsa’s language was powerfully lyrical. But there was a hitch—the ending pestered us. So she sent us a revised ending. Then she sent us a revision of her revision. 

“I have written a new ending to the ending I resubmitted to NOON,” Thammavongsa wrote. “Here is a third revision.”

But this ending wasn’t quite right either, and we didn’t publish the story.  

Many months later we wrote to Thammavongsa to tell her that her story haunted us. Its uncanny tenderness left an abiding impression. We asked her, if she hadn’t yet placed it elsewhere, might we please read the story once again. How lucky for NOON that it was still available! 

We reconsidered the original ending, and we concluded that it was perfect—that is, perfectly rich and confounding.  

The stories in How to Pronounce Knife (Little, Brown, and Company), Thammavongsa’s debut fiction collection, require you to return to them. Like her characters—immigrants and refugees who negotiate an impersonal city—her writing is quietly tenacious and often very funny. Her sentences, similar to the laborers in “Picking Worms,” are dexterous. “After each pick I watched her dip her hands into the soup can and rub the tips of her fingers in the uncooked rice.” Coolness and discovery and feeling define the steady activity of her robust prose. In How to Pronounce Knife, Thammavongsa plumbs the depths and superficialities of what it means to be human. She’s at ease in the dark. With authority, her fiction asks: How do we survive? What does it mean to endure?

—Zach Davidson 

Zach Davidson Your story, “Mani Pedi,” concerns two Laotian siblings: Raymond and his sister [who is unnamed]. Raymond, who is a failed boxer—a “trial horse”—is enlisted by his sister to work at her nail salon. In the story’s final scene, the brother and sister are sitting in the sister’s car. The sister reiterates her instructions to Raymond to recalibrate his ambitions. In a deviation from his typical character, he “talks back” to her. As they sit in silence, the concluding words of “Mani Pedi” are “remain out of sight.” 

I feel like this scene encapsulates a lot of the tension in your stories. Characters, particularly refugees, struggle with being “seen” versus fitting into the boxes that society, without their consent, has prefabricated for them. In your poetry collection Found, as well as in the documentary that bears the same name, you openly discuss your own experience as a refugee who was sponsored to Canada. For those who are unfamiliar with your personal story, can you talk about that experience?

Souvankham Thammavongsa I don’t think refugees struggle to be seen. Every time we encounter stories about refugees we see sadness and trauma, but that is the only thing we ever see. If we are happy, it’s weird. But why should that be? It’s a narrow view, isn’t it, if we only ever see sadness and trauma? What does struggle to be made visible about refugees is that we are also furious and hilarious and fun and ungrateful and ferocious. The final scene of “Mani Pedi” is about a sister telling her brother not to have big dreams, not to love, and he’s furious that she would tell him this because while his sister is delivering this line they both know it doesn’t come from her truly—it’s how racism can get inside you in an intimate way and you end up telling the people you love not even to have their dreams. What’s out of sight is the sadness—it’s a moment of triumph, of fighting back, and it’s the note that ends and amplifies the story.

My personal story isn’t original. 

I was born in the Lao refugee camp in Nong Khai, Thailand. I am not Thai just because I was born there. In a refugee camp, you are stateless and so when you are born there you are stateless. You belong to no country. My parents were born in Vientiane, Laos, and they are from Laos. They built a raft made of bamboo to get to that refugee camp in Thailand. My parents didn’t have degrees or skills other countries wanted. They were not teachers or engineers. My father carved things out of wood. Who would want that skill in a country? A church-going couple sponsored us to Canada. Most sponsors take you in and help you get set up for a tax break or for their own good feelings, but our sponsors really loved us like family and we remained close our whole lives. We didn’t even know what snow was when we arrived in Canada. When the plane landed, it was the middle of winter, and we were met at the airport by our sponsors. I had bare feet. And the sponsor, Earnest Kuplais, took off his Russian fur hat and covered my feet. We didn’t know how to speak English, or how to speak to each other, but with an act like that, was language even necessary?

But that’s my biography and everyone has one. It isn’t art.

ZD Names occupy a leading role in your fiction. In the story “Paris,” Red—the protagonist—hates that her co-worker at the factory calls her “Dang,” which means “red” in Lao. In “The School Bus Driver,” Jai is renamed “Jay” by his adulterous wife. One of the details that I found interesting about “Mani Pedi” is that the sister is unnamed. Why did you choose not to name Raymond’s sister?

ST She’s so powerful that any ordinary name, any name at all would take away her brilliance and how original she feels. What if I named her “Susan.” How many Susans do you know who look and talk like that? And the way you know your Susans will disrupt what I’ve made. Do we need to name people to know them? How often do we call our mothers by their first names? You love Raymond’s sister and feel who she is by what she does, what she notices, how she talks. Her name may be out of sight, but she herself is not out of sight. It’s a challenge that presses on the skill of a writer and I want that.

Sarah Bo Studio2019 Souvankham Tupdated Web 10

Photo of Souvankham Thammavongsa by Sarah Bodri.

ZD To go by a different name—or, indeed, by no name—is one strategy to remain out of sight. The assumption of a new identity by the characters in your stories feels like a kind of violent whitewashing: being “other” is treated as a flaw that must be covered up. (This is physically manifested in “Paris,” when Red articulates her wish to get a “nose job,” and thereby to resemble her boss’ wife Nicole.) One character who pushes back against this homogenizing force is the printer Mr. Vong in “The Universe Would Be So Cruel.” When Mr. Vong opens a wedding invitation that lacks traditional Lao lettering, his daughter defends this absence on the grounds that the bride and groom may not read Lao. Mr. Vong answers: “It doesn’t matter! The language should be there whether you can read it or not. It’s where you come from. Why leave it out?”

As a writer who has been characterized as a “Laotian Canadian poet,” do you identify with Mr. Vong? When writing stories with characters who speak Lao, do you feel like the Lao language should be there? And, relatedly, does it matter to you if your audience can read Lao or not? Here, I’m particularly thinking about an instance where the editors of NOON asked you about the meaning of hee keyow—which, perhaps, you’d like to translate for BOMB’s readers?

ST I am as protective of my art as Mr. Vong. What is a Laotian writer? Is it a writer from Laos? Is it a writer with Lao parents? Is it someone who eats spicy things and hangs out around Lao people? I was born in a Lao refugee camp in Thailand, but I have never been in Laos. I write in English. Does that make me an English writer? But I’ve never been to England and I am sure the English may not agree because there are some Lao words in the stories so it’s not entirely English. Is it what my passport says? That’s a government document. And what happens when the government changes the rules of what makes me a citizen? What would I truly be then? Someone living in Laos, born and raised there, writing in the Lao language could take offense if I said I was a Laotian writer. Also, what is a Canadian poet? Maybe poetry that happens in Canada is a lot like what happens in Las Vegas. What happens there, stays there. My head spins thinking of these things. It isn’t literature. It’s a definition of me that I can’t define and it can change independent of me. What can’t change is the quality of my art.

When writing fiction, I don’t think of how Lao I am and I don’t need to, because, you know, it’s fiction. You do whatever you want in fiction. That’s its power.

I think cussing in the English language is nothing. It’s never as vicious as it is in Lao. Nothing anyone can ever say to me could hurt as much. In English, it also never tries to be clever or even funny. In Lao, it can leave you with such an unforgettable image that you can’t think of a comeback because you are too devastated or because you are so busy picturing that image in your mind and laughing. I love a good invective. I wanted to get away with being able to say something that late-night television or public radio would bleep out, but because they don’t know the language, I could get away with being able to say it out loud. And as a reader, it wouldn’t feel offensive—you would see the word, you wouldn’t know its true meaning but I do. Hee keyow is a tricky word. Said in the wrong tone and it’s something else. Its literal translation is “itchy pussy.” If you can picture that and the way a body might twist and turn to scratch at a private part … in the wrong tone, it can also mean “green pussy” and that’s just not the right image for that particular sentence. It only matters that readers understand something is being said and that what is being said is not a compliment. At the same time, I’m teaching you how to say something bad to someone. I think it’s devilishly funny to get away with it, to have it be seen and not out of sight though the meaning is.

ZD In “The Universe Would Be So Cruel,” there’s an anecdote concerning Mr. Vong ordering a lobster dinner. “The lobster shells might have been cracked open or chewed to a pulp, but he told everyone to put the shells back onto the main plate so he could rearrange the broken bits, unfold the bones to their original shape, and reassemble the lobster’s body back together to see if there was something missing.” How do you make sure that there’s nothing missing from your own writing? When did you know that How to Pronounce Knife was, so to speak, ready to be served?

ST I don’t really think about what’s missing from the work. I think about what’s there and if it does enough with what’s there and if it holds up with what it has.

I knew the book was finished when I found myself enjoying and laughing out loud and having a good time. It didn’t need my life or how I got here or where I come from to explain what the stories were doing or what they were about. They can explain themselves. The book is its own independent and living thing. I made it. That’s all.

How to Pronounce Knife is available for purchase here.

Zach Davidson is a senior editor of NOON. His essays, fiction, and interviews have appeared or will be forthcoming in Los Angeles Review of Books, Paris Review Daily, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, New York Tyrant, and NOON. He lives in the Bronx.

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