News and Interviews

EMWF: Souvankham Thammavongsa on What Makes for a Great Event


While this year's physical edition of the Eden Mills Writer's Festival may be cancelled, fans and creators alike were thrilled to hear that organizers had decided to make the experience virtual, presenting a six-month-long (May to October) program of free online literary events featuring over 40 of Canada's best and brightest literary talents. Over the next little while, we'll be interviewing a few participating authors to get their thoughts on the festival and what fans can expect from their appearance.

While there are many events to look forward to this year, one of them is guaranteed to be tomorrow's panel featuring O. Henry Award-winning author Souvankham Thammavongsa, reading from her new short story collection How to Pronounce Knife (Penguin Random House Canada). 

Previously published in Harper's, Granta, The Atlantic, and The Paris Review, the stories in Thammavongsa's collection document the everyday struggles of those trying to carve out a place for themselves in a new, unfamiliar country. Through backbreaking shift work, language barriers, and family ties, the characters in How to Pronounce Knife come wondrously alive with Thammavongsa's clever, measured prose.

We're very excited to have Souvankham at Open Book today to discuss what she does to prepare for a reading, how some reviewers have misinterpreted her book's title story, and why she's staying mum on which EMWF authors she's most excited to see.

Catch Souvankham Thammavongsa as part of the "Looking Backward, Looking Forward" panel, happening tomorrow (July 9th) at 8pm EST. Visit the EMWF website to register. 


Open Book:

Have you participated in the Eden Mills festival before? If so, do you have a favourite memory from the festival, and if not, what are you looking forward to this year?

Souvankham Thammavongsa:

I haven’t been part of the festival before, but I have sold my books at a table and saw a beautiful little bridge and a creek. It was a sunny day then.


Can you tell us a little bit about what you'll be doing at the festival this year?


I want to read from the opening story of my book because I want to show what a story sounds like in real life and how a reviewer reads a story. Reviewers think the little girl in “How to Pronounce Knife” is “ashamed” or “sad” or “humiliated,” when she doesn’t know how to pronounce the word, but that’s an interpretation of the text that has to do with the reviewer and not necessarily true. Not once do those words ever appear in what I have written, because when someone does not know the English language, they are not any of those things. What they are is alone—alone with the task in front of them. And that is what I want a reader to hear and see for themselves.


What makes a great event in your opinion? Do you have any rituals for getting ready for a public reading, or any tips you'd share with emerging writers?


A great event depends on the audience. Are they listening, are they present, do they want to hear you, do they like your work or are they open to discovering it? A really great stage and a good sound system helps, too.

Before an event, I don’t eat or drink anything for three hours. I put Vaseline on my teeth so I don’t gum up. And I don’t talk to anyone all day.

We always think emerging writers need our advice, huh? They actually know what they are doing, I think, and they are keeping things interesting and innovative. Also, what makes me so sure I myself am not an emerging writer? When does a writer stop emerging? I think coming forward with new material is an emerging act, and it’s nice that no one knows anything about what you’ve made until you’ve brought it there.


Are there any other writers or events at the festival you’re excited to check out?


Oh, so many! I will not mention which ones in particular, as we all know writers are sensitive creatures and we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings—they might write about you!


What are you currently working on?


I bought a few herbs to take care of this summer—rosemary, oregano, basil, parsley—and I am working on keeping them around.


Souvankham Thammavongsa is the author of four poetry books, and the story collection How to Pronounce Knife (M&S, 2020). Her stories have won an O. Henry award and appeared in Harper's MagazineThe Paris ReviewThe Atlantic, and other places. The New York Times said of her "A talented new voice emerges."

Buy the Book

How to Pronounce Knife: Stories

Named one of the best books of April by The New York TimesSalon, The Millions, and Vogue, and featuring stories that have appeared in Harper'sGrantaThe Atlantic, and The Paris Review, this revelatory book of fiction from O. Henry Award winner Souvankham Thammavongsa establishes her as an essential new voice in Canadian and world literature. Told with compassion and wry humour, these stories honour characters struggling to find their bearings far from home, even as they do the necessary "grunt work of the world."
A young man painting nails at the local salon. A woman plucking feathers at a chicken processing plant. A father who packs furniture to move into homes he'll never afford. A housewife learning English from daytime soap operas. In her stunning debut book of fiction, O. Henry Award winner Souvankham Thammavongsa focuses on characters struggling to make a living, illuminating their hopes, disappointments, love affairs, acts of defiance, and above all their pursuit of a place to belong. In spare, intimate prose charged with emotional power and a sly wit, she paints an indelible portrait of watchful children, wounded men, and restless women caught between cultures, languages, and values. As one of Thammavongsa's characters says, "All we wanted was to live." And in these stories, they do--brightly, ferociously, unforgettably.
A daughter becomes an unwilling accomplice in her mother's growing infatuation with country singer Randy Travis. A boxer finds an unexpected chance at redemption while working at his sister's nail salon. An older woman finds her assumptions about the limits of love unravelling when she begins a relationship with her much younger neighbour. A school bus driver must grapple with how much he's willing to give up in order to belong. And in the Commonwealth Short Story Prize-shortlisted title story, a young girl's unconditional love for her father transcends language.
Unsentimental yet tender, and fiercely alive, How to Pronounce Knife announces Souvankham Thammavongsa as one of the most striking voices of her generation.