"Don't speak Lao and don't tell anyone you are Lao," a father tells his daughter in the title story of Souvankham Thammavongsa's new collection, "How to Pronounce Knife." "It's no good to tell people where you're from."
The man, like most of the characters in Canadian poet Thammavongsa's excellent fiction debut, is an immigrant to North America from Laos, trying to adapt to life in a country that's often hostile. The title story features a heartbreaking scene in which the young girl asks her father for help in pronouncing the word "knife"; he insists that the "k" is voiced, which leads to the girl embarrassing herself at school. "As she watches her father eat his dinner, she thinks of what else he doesn't know," Thammavongsa writes. "What else she would have to find out for herself."
Family relationships form the basis for several of the stories in the collection. In "Randy Travis," a woman becomes obsessed with the titular music star, much to the consternation of her husband, who doesn't see the appeal: "He thought it was ridiculous to be moaning about love so much. What kind of man was Randy Travis, with his health, his looks, his fame, and his money, that he should ever have anything to cry about?"
But he indulges her, and starts to wear jeans and cowboy boots, even taking her to see Travis in concert. After the show, he reaches for his wife's hand, "but he missed. So he put both his hands in his pockets and looked to the ground, at his cowboy boots." It's the kind of small but heartbreaking moment that Thammavongsa captures perfectly.
In one of the collection's saddest stories, "You Are So Embarrassing," a mother waits outside her daughter's workplace, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. She wants to make sure her child is happy but doesn't want the young woman to see her in her present condition, dirty from her work on a farm. She remembers an incident from when her daughter was 13 and was humiliated when her mother visited her at school. The woman longs to reconnect with her child, but fears it might be too late: "When you're a mother, you create a life and then you watch it go on its own way. It's what you hope for, and want, but when it happens, it happens without you."
Thammavongsa isn't just gifted at exploring the dynamics of families adjusting to new lives, she's also an immensely talented writer. Her gift for poetry translates perfectly into fiction; her prose is spare but vivid, with no wasted words, and she has an unusual gift for descriptions that stick with the reader.
"How to Pronounce Knife" is a wonderful fiction debut that proves to be a perfect showcase for Thammavongsa's skill with language and her abundant compassion. It's also a reminder of our shared humanity at a time when we need it most.
Michael Schaub is a member of the board of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Texas.
How to Pronounce Knife
By: Souvankham Thammavongsa.
Publisher: Little, Brown, 192 pages, $26.