I received Souvankham Thammavongsa’s collection of short stories “How to Pronounce Knife” as a birthday gift this year, and I was so pleased because I had been meaning to pick this book up. The entire book is decently short, with about 15 stories total. Each chapter depicts a story centred around Lao families in Canada – from a ex-boxer who took a job at his sister’s nail salon, to a mother obsessed with an American country heartthrob. These stories are extremely intimate and raw, and Thammavongsa truly lets us take a deep dive into each character’s experience.
One of the short stories that really resonated with me was the title chapter – “How to Pronounce Knife”. In this story, a father helps his young daughter sound out a difficult English word in her first grade book: “knife”. However, when the young daughter confidently reads the word aloud in her class as per her father’s pronunciation, she is met with laughter from the teacher and class – the pronunciation was incorrect. While the young girl is confused with how this could be wrong, her teacher eventually rewards her with a small prize for her attempts. Two themes which I picked up from this story are the fickleness of language, and our idolization of our parents.
As native English speakers, we often take for granted just how complicated the language is. For example: through, though, and rough all end with the same four letters, yet sound completely different. There are inconsistent rules, which may seem second nature to anyone who learned English as their first language, but create experiences of frustration and confusion for anyone else. When the young girl’s father sounds out the word “knife”, it doesn’t make sense that there should be a “k” at the beginning of the word. Upon pronouncing the word in class, the girl experiences this confusion, not knowing what she did wrong. Several members of my family immigrated to Canada from Italy, and shared these same experiences. Constantly believing they were “dumb”, or feeling judged when they couldn’t find the correct English word. As native English speakers, we all need to learn to have more empathy and patience for anyone trying to learn English.
The young girl in the story was so confident in her father’s pronunciation of the word knife that she assumed that the entire class must be wrong. When we are children, our parents are god. They are all knowing, the smartest people we know, who we look up to with all our hearts. Realizing that our parents are human, and do not know everything is a shock. In the father’s situation, trying to simultaneously be a father and role model, while navigating a new country, new job, and new language must be beyond challenging. Not being able to have all the answers for someone who looks up to you can be challenging.
Every short story in this chapter was extremely moving, and I would definitely recommend picking up this novel. I find short stories can be great, as sometimes it is easier to focus on short snippets of experiences, and not having to worry about remembering details throughout the entire novel.
Lots of Love,