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How to Pronounce Knife  By  cover art

How to Pronounce Knife

By: Souvankham Thammavongsa
Narrated by: James Tang,Kulap Vilaysack
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Publisher's Summary

Shortlisted for the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize

“As the daughter of refugees, I’m able to finally see myself in stories.” (Angela So, Electric Literature)

Named one of the best books of the month by The New York TimesVanity FairSalon, The Millions, Bustle, and Vogue, 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.

©2020 Souvankham Thammavongsa (P)2020 Little, Brown & Company

Critic Reviews

"Souvankham Thammavongsa writes with deep precision, wide-open spaces, and quiet, cool, emotionally devastating poise. There is not a moment off in these affecting stories." (Sheila Heti, author of How Should a Person Be and Motherhood)

"Exacting, sharply funny short fictions." (O., The Oprah Magazine)

"These stories, written in a spare, distant register, twist the heart; Thammavongsa captures in a few well-chosen words how it feels for immigrant children to protect their parents. Moving, strange, and occasionally piercing." (Kirkus)

What listeners say about How to Pronounce Knife

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Thought provoking great little listen with sexual

My grandparents were immigrants. These stories pointed out to me how difficult simple, everyday things which we take for granted, must have been for them. Like work, school, family & relationships. But these are modern day stories. This is a great collection of short stories. I’m so glad I bought this Todays Deal! Well worth the 99 cents & my time. I feel like I understand what everyday life must have been like for my grandparents a little better. The stories are thought provoking & speak to the heart. WARNING: SEXUAL CONTENT! These are not stories fit to share with your kids. They give you a fresh, modern perspective on the lives, school & work hardships still being suffered & endured today. I think all immigrants must long for their homelands & traditions. You can feel their sense of isolation & being outcasts or rejected. The author has great insight. The narrators are very good. It’s a really interesting book. Not my usual genre so I was really surprised by how much I liked this book. Buy it! It’s worth a buck.

55 people found this helpful

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Two thumbs up!

Fourteen vignettes reflecting the lives of some Laotians displaced to a new country with a difficult language, new lifestyles, the things that they expected of themselves and the different ways which others expected of them that were new and different in every way to their pasts. It's kind of a reminder to any one of us who had family who were in similar circumstances years ago and how the social isolation and longing for the way things were in their particular homeland before whatever war drove them to this new land. Well written and sometimes raw. It comes across as reality, and who's to say that some of it isn't. Dr. Siri Paiboun would have been very proud of her.
I requested and received a free ebook copy from Hachette Book Group and Little, Brown and Company via NetGalley. Thank you!*****
That was in July, now I have the audio and it is even better! James Tang and Kulap Vilaysack alternate in the audio interpretation with very slightly accented speech and an obviously sympathetic understanding of the characters.

23 people found this helpful

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When Hope Is Survival

“How to Pronounce Knife” is a collection of snippets of life for Laotian immigrants to the US. Once you know that much, the title makes sense. We all can remember times when we were learning to read when we asked ourselves or our teacher, “Why is it spelled like that? Why are there so many letters in ‘thought’ when you only need ‘thot’ and why is ‘though’ pronounced like ‘tho’ when it is only missing one letter?”

I came away from this book with mixed feelings. On the one hand, with my experience of having lived most of my life as a foreigner (American) living in an Asian country, and also my work with Vietnamese refugees trying to adapt to life in America while trying to overcome the personal traumas they had experienced in Vietnam and as boat people escaping from there, I feel I better understood some of their feelings. I identified with so many  things about the characters in the book, from their struggle with the language, of looking so different and out of place, the giggles when you make cultural faux pas and you don’t even know what you said or did wrong, and the dependence on others sometimes to help with the most basic and simplest of tasks. Of course, I didn’t experience most of this to the same extent as they did, partly because the people where I lived were so gracious and wanting to help, and also because I didn’t have to struggle with low-paying jobs and others looking down on me for my position. Still, there was a great deal that struck home. 

But, I was looking for more coherence to the stories. I kept expecting to find some characters that appeared in more than one story. And, I found each story cut off too soon, just at the point where you might think that something was about to happen, for better or worse. The author could have told me more. I wanted some conclusions, some endings to the stories. 

Yet, it still kept pushing my thinking. Maybe the lack of endings was on purpose. Real lives don’t have conclusions until death, and even then the endings are not complete. In fact, maybe the point was that, for immigrants from a culture so very different from ours and especially for those who come from the bottom rung of the ladder, the best that most can hope for is continuation, not conclusion. The focus of most Americans is on immigrants taking jobs from Americans, but in this book, we see more of immigrants being exploited and held back. It exposes racism and our own assumptions that we are an equal society where anyone can get ahead. 

The adults are just trying to survive, sometimes by holding everything inside and plodding on, sometimes by focusing on a narrow area and trying to make that their own, from becoming a rabid fan or Randy Travis to working so hard to be the best at your job that you provoke the resentment of others. 

The children are torn between wanting to fit in and yet trying to still be Lao. Others go to the extreme of one or the other. And even among the immigrants there are sometimes similar divisions that can divide them. 

These are brief snippets built around one short turning point in a life, but in the end they do come together to show the struggles with the dreams. And maybe this book will help others see the real people who clean their offices, do their nails, and work on farms. By the end, I found that I liked the book better than I had thought.

6 people found this helpful

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Great insight

This book is So very interesting, so many different viewpoints. I enjoyed each story.

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Interesting premise

I thought there would be more culturally specific stories about how it's difficult to understand the vagaries of a new place. A few of the short stories did that but many were more universal. I caught myself tuning out since the short stories tended to meander and not be very interesting. The reader had a pleasant voice.

1 person found this helpful

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Lovely short stories full of life

This is a little jewel of a book. I lover the stories and how they made me live others’ lives. The reading is really clear and brings the stories even more alive

1 person found this helpful

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Flat and disappointing

I chose this book because the author had received an O’Henry Award back in 2019 and was trying to understand the dynamics of the Short Story.

I understand that Critics in the West might be interested in the perspectives that non-Western writers, particularly immigrants to America, might bring to their stories. Unfortunately, in the case of Knife, while the perspective of the author comes through in this debut, the tales she tells are pretty dull and uninteresting to any but a Sociologist. The general reader may will be disappointed, as I was.

Three stars. The narration was the most interesting part of the experience. ***

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They have become a backbone of our country

The US greeted newcomers with the possibility of working and building lives that are difficult but human. When so many born here select to take rather than give, the characters work to live. The author is outstanding, the narrator is very good.

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Poignant and informative

Well written and movingly read by both narrators.. Humorous and sad. at times. Informative perspective.

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Heartfelt and entertaining

I truly enjoyed listening to these stories. They made me smile, and they made me sad. Highly recommend.