Enjoying literature in a virtual age

Vancouver may be shut down, but the Vancouver Writers Fest continues to march on. Last month, the festival hosted a virtual Facebook event with authors David Bergen, Maria Reva, and Souvankham Thammavongsa.

The event, titled Voices of Place: Short Fiction of a New Decade, showcased the writing of three authors and the varied landscapes and environments in their short fiction. The whole event is available on the Vancouver Writers Fest Facebook page and can be enjoyed anytime, anywhere.

Thammavongsa shared her newest work of fiction, How to Pronounce Knife. Thammavongsa has received major acclaim for her works, including an O. Henry award as well as publication in Harper’s MagazineThe Paris Review and The Atlantic. How to Pronounce Knife is set to publish this month (April 2020), but it is far from her first work. She is the author of four books of poetry, including LIGHT, which won the Trillium book award for poetry in 2013.

Stranger in a strange land

Souvankham Thammavongsa borrows directly from her childhood years
in Canada and the other immigrant families she observed growing up | Photo by Nam Phi Dang

How to Pronounce Knife is Thammavongsa’s first story collection and it allows the reader a look into the immigrant experience of moving to a new country. Thammavongsa was not born in Canada, so she pulls all of her content from personal

Born in a Laotian refugee camp in Thailand in 1978, Thammavongsa came to Canada as a young child and had to quickly assimilate to a country and language completely foreign to her.

“I was born in a Lao refugee camp in Thailand,” says Thammavongsa, “and when you are born in a refugee camp, you are stateless, which means you belong to no country. I don’t think about culture when I am writing. I think about the sentence. Where I come from and my life experience is in the sentence.”

The universality in poetry

April is National Poetry Month and the importance of the written word is near and dear to Thammavongsa’s heart. While writing How to Pronounce Knife, Thammavongsa found that the medium of poetry always possesses the ability to teach her things about herself. Thammavongsa is currently writing her first novel in a bid to continue her lifelong enchantment with the written word.

“Poetry helped me get my start, and I wrote it for almost 25 years,” says Thammavongsa. “Did it lead me to a life of writing? It is too soon to say. Life is long and to sustain writing in it is difficult. I am writing now, and I have books, but a year from now what will that mean?”

Experience into art

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa. | Photo courtesy of Penguin Random House Canada

The stories in How to Pronounce Knife focus on several different characters trying to find their footing in a new territory and highlights the challenges of straddling two cultures at once. Thammavongsa borrows directly from her childhood years in Canada and the other immigrant families she observed growing up. She wants the reader to feel this push and pull of two different worlds to better understand the life of so many of the citizens of this country.

“All the characters in How to Pronounce Knife come from me,” says Thammavongsa. “I know what it is like to try to learn a language and to get it wrong. I know what it is like to do a good job, to be the best, and to be passed over. I know what it is like to look at someone with sadness they can’t see. I have seen the sky as black as the middle of an eye. But it doesn’t matter what I actually know or who has inspired them. Can I get you to feel this is all true and real? And can you see this too?”

To learn more about the Facebook event, visit www.writersfest.bc.ca/event/incite-voices-of-place