Language and Immigration in Thammavongsa's How to Pronounce Knife

by: Philip Swieton
July 6, 2022

How to Pronounce Knife is the debut short story collection of Canadian author — and already-established poet — Souvankham Thammavongsa. Winner of the 2020 Giller Prize and the 2021 Trillium Book Award, the collection narrates the experiences of Lao immigrants as they orient themselves within Canada —many of these relating to their confrontations with the English language. The stories are informed by Thammavongsa’s own experiences immigrating to Canada: she herself was born in a Lao refugee camp in Nong Khai, Thailand, and, at the age of one, immigrated with her family to Toronto per a sponsorship program that the Canadian government enacted in July of 1979. According to the 2016 Census of Canada, just under 25,000 people of Laotian ancestry live in Canada today.

The collection opens with its title story, “How to Pronounce Knife”, which follows a Laotian grade one student named Joy struggling with one particular word, ‘knife’, in her practice book. Enlisted to help, Joy’s father confidently asserts, “Kah-nnn-eye-ffff. It’s kahneyff”. When confronted about her pronunciation at school the following day, Joy stands by her father, arguing, “It’s in the front! The first one! It should have a sound!”

What others regard as mispronunciations, Thammavongsa’s characters regard as opportunities for integrity and for reward.

Thammavongsa’s characters in these stories are uncompromising about language. She uses language and its difficulties as a vehicle not for shame but for laughter - the jokes not at the expense of the characters ‘foreignness’, but at everything and everyone but. Thammavongsa tells The Paris Review:

Yes, my parents mispronounced things all the time, and they did it with a wonderful and grand confidence. I would tell my parents that the kids at school pronounced knife with no k sound and we would laugh and laugh at how silly they were. There’s a letter right there and they don’t even do anything about it! And they call themselves educated! All of the stories play with that in some way—what is lost and what is gained in these mistakes.

A similar motif appears in the story “Chick-A-Chee!”: the young narrator’s father takes her and her brother trick-or-treating in a neighbourhood of colossal Victorian homes, instructing them to go to the door and yell “Chick-A-Chee!” at whoever answered. The owners are so endeared by this mispronunciation that, even when in a group with other children, the narrator and her brother are beckoned to come forward and get more candy. And when (amid boasting the next day about her exploits) the child is corrected by her teacher, she replies: “No, Missus Furman. We went Chick-A-Chee!”

Herein lies the treatment of language in How to Pronounce Knife. What others regard as mispronunciations, Thammavongsa’s characters regard as opportunities for integrity and for reward. In an interview with New Canadian Media, Thammavongsa says, “Whenever we pronounce English words wrong, we are often expected to feel ashamed or embarrassed or humiliated — but that isn’t the right feeling. I didn’t feel that way, but I do see people expect me to”. The young narrators of these two stories stake their claim with their ‘mistakes’; in the mispronunciations themselves is an assertion of the children’s identity. After all, why pronounce something correctly if it could only mean less candy?

“The right way to pronounce ‘trick-or-treat’ isn’t even an issue,” Thammavongsa says. “It doesn’t matter how you say it because the candy’s already in the bag”.