How To Pronounce Knife, Souvankham Thammavongsa
An understated set of short stories, reading this collection reminded me that the range of difficulties encountered when settling in a foreign country, one that you don't speak the dominant language of, and in which the culture, food, and acceptable behaviours differ so much from your native land, are about as wide ranging and complex as they possibly can be.
The title story makes a light-hearted, but pointed, exploration of learning to pronounce the simplest of things in English. Many native English speakers will have tales to tell of spectacular mispronunciations (I've got a million - mostly of words read but never heard) that have come back to bite me in recent years, but imagine the feeling for a parent, the only person in the family who can read English, tackling the pronunciation of something like "knife" for an earnest, trusting child and student.
The stories vary from something as small, but vitally important in not embarrassing a child in a fraught school environment, to the heart wrenching ending to a story of a woman's fascination with a Country and Western singer, and everywhere in between. There are, as always stories in this collection that will resonate with some readers more than others.
But re-reading them all from the prism of trying to understand that shuttle referred to in the blurb - between idioms, cultures, and values and this collection provided much food for thought.
In her stunning debut, Souvankham Thammavongsa captures the day-to-day lives of immigrants and refugees in a nameless city, illuminating hopes, disappointments, love affairs, and above all, the pursuit of a place to belong.
An ex-boxer turned nail salon worker falls for a pair of immaculate hands; a mother and daughter harvest earthworms in the middle of the night; a country music-obsessed housewife abandons her family for fantasy; and a young girl's love for her father transcends language.
Uncannily and intimately observed, written with prose of exceptional precision, the stories in How to Pronounce Knife speak of modern location and dislocation, revealing lives lived in the embrace of isolation and severed history – but not without joy, humour, resilience, and constant wonder at the workings of the world.