Photography by Nathan Dharamshi, courtesy of Scotiabank Giller Prize
The moment Wilfrid Laurier University English instructor Souvankham Thammavongsa’s name was called at the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize ceremony, she thought of all the times in her writing career she didn’t win a prize.
“Thirty-six years ago, I went to school and pronounced the word ‘knife’ wrong – and I didn’t get a prize,” Thammavongsa said during her acceptance speech. “Tonight, there is one.”
Thammavongsa was named winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize – one of Canada’s most prestigious literary prizes – in November for her short story collection How to Pronounce Knife. The moment was broadcast live across the country, instantly raising Thammavongsa’s profile in Canada and beyond.
How to Pronounce Knife, published by McClelland & Stewart, is a collection of stories focused on characters struggling to make a living, including both humorous and tragic stories about the daily lives of immigrants. Thammavongsa, who was born in a Lao refugee camp in Thailand and sponsored to Canada, highlights the hopes, endeavours and hardships of unforgettable characters caught between cultures, languages and values.
“Whenever I encountered stories that focus on refugee and immigrant experiences, they were always sad or about shame,” says Thammavongsa. “I thought it was a narrow view. We are also angry and ungrateful, hilarious, mean and normal. Mostly, we are capable of joy and happiness in our lives.”
The characters contained in Thammavongsa’s winning collection of stories include a child who mispronounced “knife” at school, an older woman who has an affair with a younger man, a woman obsessed with country singer Randy Travis, and a retired boxer who takes on work at his sister’s nail salon. Each slice of life captured invokes a range of emotions in readers, from sadness to triumph.
Thammavongsa’s work has previously been featured in prestigious publications including The New Yorker, Harper’s, Granta and The Atlantic. How to Pronounce Knife is her first work of fiction. She previously published four poetry books, Light, Found, Small Arguments and Cluster.
Thammavongsa says the transition from poetry to short stories came naturally, as she sees both as part of her writing.
“I haven’t moved away from poetry at all – it’s still here in my writing life,” she says.
Thammavongsa teaches creative writing at Laurier’s Brantford campus. She says she hopes to teach her students to be better readers, to love what they make with words and inspire curiosity.
“Teaching has taught me a lot about being a good writer,” says Thammavongsa. “No one taught me what to pay attention to or even how to pay attention. No one taught me how to be curious and to wonder.”
Despite the accolades she has received, Thammavongsa says winning the Scotiabank Giller Prize hasn’t changed much about her classes.
“My students knew me before I was a Giller winner. They showed up to class, all 31 of them, every week, stayed from the first minute to the last minute,” says Thammavongsa. “I don’t think they are impressed with awards the way some people are. They decide for themselves what is good, what’s worth showing up for. It’s a tough crowd, that’s for sure.”
Thammavongsa encourages her students to be kind to themselves and take care with the written projects they create.
“Anyone can be a writer and anyone can be talented,” she says. “It doesn’t mean anything if they don’t love what they make.”
Since winning the Scotiabank Giller Prize, How to Pronounce Knife has also been named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and PEN/America Open Book Award, a New York Times Editors’ Choice and among Time Magazine’s 100 Must-Read Books of 2020. Thammavongsa was also selected to serve as a judge for the upcoming 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize and is looking forward to writing her first literary review, to be published in the New York Times.
“No one has ever asked me to write a review before, to opine about literature,” says Thammavongsa. “I am really excited and nervous.”
Thammavongsa is also working on finishing a new novel. She says winning the Scotiabank Giller Prize has changed the way many perceive her work.
“A lot of people thought what I did was cute, but now they see how serious I am and have been all along about my art,” says Thammavongsa. “No one asks me anymore if what I write is in English. No one tells me anymore that poetry doesn’t matter and that short stories don’t sell.”