For many who brave the journey to a strange country, escaping violence and persecution or simply looking for a better life, the new world can become a source of anxiety and isolation. With spare prose and a subtle mastery of tone, poet and essayist Souvankham Thammavongsa captures this alienation time and heartbreaking time again in How to Pronounce Knife, an impressive debut collection of short stories.

The author’s characters emerge from a very specific background; she grew up in Toronto and was born of Lao parents in a refugee camp in Thailand; in a recent Paris Review interview she explains that, “Most people are recognized as a citizen by the country they are born in, but in a refugee camp, you are considered stateless.” That sense of not belonging runs throughout these highly efficient and effective stories, even when they don’t directly address the immigrant experience.

Thammavongsa is a patient stylist who gets at universal truths through the particulars of her life. The title story depicts what could be an episode from her youth, and while the details are unique to her, the emotions it evokes are instantly recognizable to anyone who grew up as a first-generation immigrant. “How to Pronounce Knife” is about Joy (or so her name has been anglicized), a little girl who’s the daughter of Lao immigrants. She respects her father, and when she’s not sure how to say “knife,” she asks him—and gets in trouble at school when she insists to the class that the “k” must be pronounced. The plot sounds like a cute story of childhood embarrassment, but Thammavongsa observes this without cheap sentimentality; after the classroom incident, which she doesn’t tell her parents about, Joy watches her father at dinner, “How he picks up each grain of rice with his chopsticks, not dropping a single one.” Without fanfare, it’s a restrained way of showing the girl’s great awe for her father. She doesn’t correct his pronunciation; who is she to tell him anything? But as she watches his easy command of chopsticks, it feels like we’re seeing the child’s eventual command of this mystifying language, making it look easy but walking a delicate tightrope of language and emotion.

That title story presents a profound metaphor for Thammvongsa’s prose; while the instrument pictured on the book’s cover isn’t particularly threatening, these words are quietly cutting, portraying the lives of characters whose struggles are sometimes that of language and simply being different, and at other times reflect the ordinary difficulties of life: making ends meet, finding companionship, navigating the world.

As often as not, that common experience that Thammavongsa’s characters share is loneliness. The title may not sound like it, but “Slingshot” is the collection’s richest love story. This is one piece where, although it’s clear from the context that the protagonist is an immigrant, the conflict doesn’t come from ethnic tension but from another kind of concern for appearances. “I was 70 when I met Richard,” the narrator begins before she goes into her tender affair with a much younger man. This is a romance told without any Nicholas Sparks or even Harold and Maude mawkishness; as with all her characters, Thammavongsa treats these unlikely lovers with respect. The author has a gift for ending on a perfect, aching note; it’s not much of a spoiler to note how this union ended, and as Richard runs into his former lover and tries to get her attention, the final line is chilling: “Nothing, not even the call of my name, could make me stop.”

Though many of these characters are in dire straits, Knife is full of humor as well. “To me, laughter isn’t frivolous,” Thammavongsa told The Paris Review. “It is a way of surviving.” “Randy Travis” is about a middle-aged Lao woman whose obsession with a country singer leads her (or is perhaps symptomatic of) a neglect for her family, but the unexpected fandom is a source for some degree of mirth, albeit one that grows bitter. The title “Ewwrrrkk” comes from the sound the protagonist’s great-grandmother telling the narrator, then eight, that, “The first time a guy says ‘I love you’ your legs will pry open like this.” But this sordid humor, too, turns devastating.

Thammvongsa’s stories have something of the economy of Raymond Carver, but she also declares a less likely influence: Richard Pryor. “He makes the audience laugh and then he holds onto that laughter like a shield so that the experiences he’s talking about can’t destroy him,” she says. How to Pronounce Knife announces a singular and thoroughly effective voice that fondly displays human failures and foibles in small packages that pack an enormous gut punch.

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