A failed boxer painting nails at the local salon. A woman plucking feathers at a chicken-processing plant. A housewife learning English from daytime soap opera. A mother teaching her daughter the art of worm harvesting.
How to Pronounce Knife is a collection of 14 short stories. The title story, which is also the first story, sets the tone for the rest of the collection. Collectively, these stories paint an image of sorrow, of displacement, of a longing to belong, to feel at home. “How to Pronounce Knife” describes a young girl in school learning how to read. The word “knife” appears in a book she has taken home to read for school, but there is not a picture next to the word to help her identify it, and so she asks her father.
It was her last chance before her father went to sleep. He was the only one in their home who knew how to read. She brought the book to him and pointed to the word, asked what it was. He leaned over it and said, “Kah-nnn-eye-ffff. It’s kahneyff.” That’s what it was, what it sounded like to him.How to Pronounce Knife, p. 7
At school, when the daughter says the word the way her father taught her, she is made fun of and told the “k” is silent. This story, almost an anecdote in itself, expertly illustrates the challenges of learning a second language and navigating cultures. The daughter is upset that her father was wrong, but she is also defensive, arguing in class that the “k” would not be silent because that makes no sense, “and none of them,” none of the students and teachers, “with all their lifetimes of reading and good education, could explain it.”
I immediately fell in love with this initial story and quickly devoured the remaining 13 stories. I could summarize and discuss many of the other stories, but instead I want to explain why I love “How to Pronounce Knife” the most. I have a background education in linguistics (I’m a certified instructor to teach students English as a foreign language), and one of the first things you learn in linguistics is that since native English speakers learned the language early, every rule of the language is ingrained in them intuitively. In other words, they recognize when a word, phrase, or sentence is wrong, but when questioned, many can only say, “I don’t know why it’s wrong, I just know that it is.” This, of course, makes it difficult for a non-native speaker to learn the language, because those around you behave as if all of these complex rules are obvious and you would be an idiot not to just know when something is incorrect.
I also learned that pronunciation skills do not reflect intelligence. If someone pronounces a word wrong, it’s most likely because they first encountered it as a written word and thus have never heard it aloud, as was the case with the daughter and her father in “How to Pronounce Knife.” Yet, because America places so much emphasis and value on public speaking abilities, we tend to undervalue and even dismiss people who are not verbal savants, even if they are highly intelligent on paper.
All of this is to say, I completely adored this book and its thoughtful way of highlighting the struggles of being an immigrant. Thammavongsa expertly portrays all the facets of coming to America, and while her characters are all from Laos, the experiences described within this collection encompass the experiences of anyone who feels like a foreigner or an outsider in a strange new land.
PUBLICATION DEETS: Black Bay Books, April 7, 2020, 179 pages
Category: literary fiction, short story collection