How to Pronounce Knife: Stories (Hardcover)

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Named one of The New York Times' "7 New Books to Watch Out for in April," this revelatory debut story collection from O. Henry Award winner Souvankham Thammavongsa honors characters struggling to find their bearings far from home, even as they do the necessary "grunt work of the world."

In the title story of Souvankham Thammavongsa's debut collection, a young girl brings a book home from school and asks her father to help her pronounce a tricky word, a simple exchange with unforgettable consequences. Thammavongsa is a master at homing in on moments like this -- moments of exposure, dislocation, and messy feeling that push us right up against the limits of language.

The stories that make up How to Pronounce Knife focus on characters struggling to build lives in unfamiliar territory, or shuttling between idioms, cultures, and values. A failed boxer discovers what it truly means to be a champion when he starts painting nails at his sister's salon. A young woman tries to discern the invisible but immutable social hierarchies at a chicken processing plant. A mother coaches her daughter in the challenging art of worm harvesting.

In a taut, visceral prose style that establishes her as one of the most striking and assured voices of her generation, Thammavongsa interrogates what it means to make a living, to work, and to create meaning.

About the Author

Souvankham Thammavongsa was born in the Lao refugee camp in Nong Khai, Thailand and was raised and educated in Toronto. She is the award-winning author of four books of poetry and her fiction has appeared in Harper's, Granta, the Paris Review, Ploughshares, Best American Non-Required Reading 2018, and the O. Henry Prize Stories 2019.

Praise For…

"An impressive debut...Thammavongsa's spare,
rigorous stories are preoccupied with themes of alienation and
dislocation, her characters burdened by the sense of existing unseen... Her gift for the gently absurd means the
stories never feel dour or predictable, even when their outcomes are by some
measure bleak...It is when the characters' sense of alienation follows them home,
into the private space of the family, that Thammavongsa's stories most wrench the heart."—NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW

one of the most anticipated books of 2020 by Electric Literature, The Millions, and Ms.

**Named one of the most anticipated books of the month by the New York Times, O. The Oprah Magazine, Vogue, Bustle, and Salon**

"These poignant and deceptively
quiet stories are powerhouses of feeling and depth; How to Pronounce Knife
is an artful blend of simplicity and sophistication."—MARY GAITSKILL, author of VERONICA and SOMEBODY WITH A LITTLE HAMMER

"In sparse prose
braced with disarming humor, Thammavongsa offers glimpses into the daily lives
of immigrants and refugees in a nameless city, illuminating the desires,
disappointments, and triumphs of those who so often go unseen...Though short
enough to read in one sitting, [these stories] feel vast in their scope,
offering ample room to wander."—THE PARIS REVIEW

"I love these stories.
There's some fierce and steady activity in all of the sentences-something that
makes them live, and makes them shift a little in meaning when you look at them
again and they look back at you (or look beyond you)."


Thammavongsa's work, refugees don't have to be just tragic or sad but can be imbued with humor, complexity, and the
unexpected. Most importantly, Thammavongsa doesn't write for a white
audience. She writes, tenderly and
profoundly, for her characters. Her love is apparent in her delicate
descriptions: confident children protect their parents, workers perform jobs
with care and pride, and messy love stories show us that leaving is proof we
are alive. The power of How to
Pronounce Knife
lies in seeing the unseen. I know that firsthand--as
the daughter of refugees, I'm able to finally see myself in stories."—ANGELA SO, ELECTRIC LITERATURE

"Fourteen piercing
sketches illuminate the workaday routines and the interior lives of Laotian
refugees. Characters who undertake 'the grunt work of the world', laboring in
poultry plants, hog farms, and nail salons, also harbor vivid fantasies... brief
glimpses of freedom in otherwise impenetrable places."—NEW YORKER

Thammavongsa writes with deep precision, wide-open spaces, and quiet, cool,
emotionally devastating poise. There is not a moment off in these affecting

"Deceptively devastating...strange but biting stories."—TIME MAGAZINE

"Tinged with melancholy, anger, and a healthy dose of dark
humor, all of these stories exhibit a fierce pride in what one can accomplish.
After leaving everything behind and dealing with a country that does not cater
to you, one can still celebrate the resilience of the human spirit by merely

"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?"—BOMB MAGAZINE

"Exacting, sharply funny short fictions."—O., THE OPRAH MAGAZINE

radiant debut collection of short stories is full of precarity, strength,
uncertainty, messiness and life."—MS. MAGAZINE

"The stories here will gut you, as Thammavongsa's insight
proves to be razor-sharp."—BUSTLE

"Every once in a while you come across a book with writing so
breathtaking that you take note of the author so you can read everything they
ever write in the future. How to
Pronounce Knife
is one of those books."—ELLE

"Thammavongsa's careful dissection of everyday moments of racism, classism and sexism exposes
how power and privilege drive success, how work shapes the immigrant identity,
and how erasure and invisibility lead to isolation."—THE WASHINGTON POST

spare, precise prose, Thammavongsa evokes a world of strong emotion made
livable by painful, unstable social constraints. The syntactical simplicity of
the writing throws the internal complexity of these characters and their
situations into stark relief, displaying how restraint can pack an unexpectedly
sentimental punch. Quietly poetic, How to Pronounce Knife also
produces a shivering recognition in its readers."—SHELF AWARENESS

"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

"Brings to life figures that might otherwise not figure on
the literary radar, from a failed boxer turned manicurist to a young woman
working at a chicken processing plant and a mother-daughter worm-harvesting
team, with enough panache to keep the reader gripped throughout."—VOGUE

"These stories feel simple, but they move within you
and it is impossible to let them go. They are sharp and vital. Thammavongsa is
a master over the sentence."—DAISY JOHNSON, author of EVERYTHING UNDER

"A book of rarest beauty and power. Souvankham
Thammavongsa has already earned a devoted readership for her poetry. And
in each of these exquisitely crafted stories, we experience the profound
emotional effects of economy and distillation. We feel the reverberating
energy around each judiciously placed word. This is one of the great short
story collections of our time. Do not miss it."—DAVID CHARIANDY, author of BROTHER and I'VE BEEN MEANING TO TELL YOU

"A riveting,
subversive collection that alights within us like a shock to the system. I find
it miraculous - and liberating and joyful - that language so radiantly exact
can be so raw, so brazen. This is a major work and a lasting one."—MADELEINE THIEN, author of DO NOT SAY WE HAVE NOTHING

"A book of unusual ferocity
and grace. Souvankham Thammavongsa carefully unpacks the aches and aspirations
of immigrant and refugee life in tight, commanding prose; and these subtle yet
shattering stories glow with empathy, humor, and wisdom."—MIA ALVAR, author of IN THE COUNTRY

Souvankham Thammavongsa's How to Pronounce Knife is like finding, at last, a
part of you that you had lost and had been searching for all this time. Not
since the stories of Edward P. Jones have I encountered such a unified and yet
wide-ranging vision-both geographically and emotionally-that captures the
spirit of not only a community but of the greater world-then, now, the future.
This is a book full of powerful resilience, great journeys, and above all else:
fierce, heart-wrenching love."—PAUL YOON, author of RUN ME TO EARTH

"A beautiful collection of stories about
immigrants in America."—PEOPLE MAGAZINE

"Thammavongsa has shown herself to be
a master of controlled intimacy, eschewing preciousness in favor of a
clear-eyed humanity...What all the stories
have in common is the stubbornness of desire manifested by the characters,
whether it is the desire to defend your parents against mockery, the desire to
fit in, the desire for physical intimacy, or the desire to be seen...This sharp
interplay between defiance and desire throughout the collection is a welcome
strike to narratives that are often demanded of refugee writers--narratives
laden with nobility, the commodification of trauma, and respectability politics...Instead of being foreigners in a new
land, these characters make foreigners out of those who would pity them...Thammavongsa has
made English speak to us in her own language."—PLOUGHSHARES

"How to Pronounce Knife is a masterful collection,
written with so much veracity, you'll swear every word is true. Thammavongsa's
prose is spare, the images she evokes so crystalline, they require no
embellishment. Here is life, rendered with precision and insight. Instantly
recognizable. She offers sharp sensory details, piercing imagery, endings that
will punch you in the gut and leave you yearning for more."
SHARON BALA, author THE BOAT PEOPLE, winner of the Harper Lee Prize

"These stories have a quiet
brilliance in their raw portrayal of the struggle to find meaning in difficult times
and to belong in a foreign place. Thammavongsa writes with an elegance that is
both brutal and tender, giving her stories and their characters a powerful
voice."—BOOKLIST (Starred Review)

"In under 200 pages, Canadian poet Thammavongsa
showcases 14 spectacular stories in her fiction debut...a poignant,
eyes-wide-open exploration...pristine
short fiction: think Paul Yoon, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Phil Klay."—LIBRARY JOURNAL (Starred Review)

and elegant. . . These brief stories pack a punch,
punctuated by direct prose that's full of acute observations...This is a potent

Product Details
ISBN: 9780316422130
ISBN-10: 0316422134
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication Date: April 21st, 2020
Pages: 192