Souvankham Thammavongsa has come a long way from Nong Khai refugee camp in Thailand in which she was born in 1978. Her family, originally from Laos, were able to settle in Canada when she was a year old. Now an award-winning poet and short story writer, her first collection of stories, How to Pronounce Knife, begins with a story of the same name. Joy, a young girl in a Lao immigrant family, goes to school on the day of the class photo in her standard sweat suit; her father hasn’t paid attention to the notes she brings back. Her classmates are all dressed up; Joy is strategically placed in the class photo where the tattered parts of her clothes are not visible. She’s also made to hold the class sign to cover more of herself.
While not all of Thammavongsa’s stories are about Lao immigrants, they all address this feeling of invisibility. Yet it’s these stories of Southeast Asian immigrants and their struggles to be seen—the country of Laos is all but erased in the immigrants’ new homes in Canada and the US—that make this book special. In the story, “Edge of the World”, the narrator states,
When my parents read the newspaper or watched the evening news, they never heard anything about what was happening in their country. It was almost as if it didn’t exist.
In “Chick-A-Chee!”, two young siblings stay alone at home after school because their parents work long hours that don’t allow for a 9 to 5 workday. The children are taught to never answer the door under any circumstances and to hide in places that murderers won’t be able to find. For fun, the family points out their favorite homes in the wealthy neighborhood they pass on their way to buy groceries in Chinatown on the weekend. The narrator recounts how the nice neighborhood starts to change once the days shorten into autumn.
One time, I noticed that every house on that street had raw pumpkins on their front steps—either a giant one or a cluster of little ones.
Their father returns home early and his kids worry he was fired. He’d never been home so early.
I was certain then that he really had lost his job and what we were doing was part of his plan to send us away, something our parents often threatened when we were misbehaving or we wanted something they didn’t have the money for. I wanted to cry, but I saw how my brother was looking at me—like he needed me to be brave for the both of us.
It happens to be Halloween and he instructs his kids to change into their costumes and rush into their car. He drives them to the wealthy neighborhood they pass each weekend and ushers his kids up to a fancy house, imploring them to ring the bell and say, “Chick-A-Chee”. Reluctant and worried, the kids stall until their father convinces them to try it. The owners of that house are so taken by the kids’ cuteness that they give each of them two bags of crisps. The rest of the evening brings even more success. For the first time, the children feel like they blend in.
Invisibility features in the adult stories as well. In “The School Bus Driver”, Jai drives a yellow bus in Canada and surprises his wife with roundtrip airfare back to Laos so she can enjoy a nice vacation after working long hours at a coffeeshop. The couple doesn’t have enough money for them both to travel. But when his wife asks her boss, Frank, for vacation time, the boss agrees only if he can go with her. Frank pushes his boundaries with Jai’s wife, but Jai doesn’t know what to do. He had never seen men in Laos behave this way with other men’s wives.
Sometimes he was certain Frank was mocking him, but it was just too awful to think about. How could he be sure, and to whom could he bring this up? His wife would just say he was jealous of their friendship, and accuse him again of not letting her have any friends. He didn’t want to see like a possessive, jealous husband, even if that’s how he was feeling.
While Souvankham Thammavongsa is an established poet, this book is her first collection of stories. It is compelling.
Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.