Over the course of the collection’s 14 stories, Thammavongsa’s tales of Lao immigrants in the Western world continually subvert many such prejudices. Her careful dissection of everyday moments of racism, classism and sexism exposes how power and privilege drive success, how work shapes the immigrant identity, and how erasure and invisibility lead to isolation.
Several stories feature child narrators seesawing between two cultures. Their raw impressions of the adults around them — parents especially — underscore both their vulnerability and resilience. In the title story, for example, the schoolgirl narrator defies attempts to shame her mispronunciations and shabby clothes while she simultaneously tries to protect her parents from similar ridicule.
Most of the adult characters have a quiet, seething restlessness that creates long-lasting ripples in the lives around them. Sometimes, they do this with forbearance, as with the husband in “The School Bus Driver,” trying to cope with his cheating wife. And sometimes, there is defiance, as with the wife in “Randy Travis” who won’t give up her obsession with the country singer.
Almost every story seems to gear up toward some major summit, only to stop abruptly before the climb fully begins. This gives a sense of loose ends or unresolved finishes. But, as Graham Greene famously wrote, a short story is not so much about a start or an end as about “that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” Thammavongsa’s spare, unsentimental writing certainly frames those defining moments meaningfully. The single moment where a childhood friendship eventually falls apart in “A Far Distant Thing” is preceded with carefully depicted bonding events. “The Edge of the World,” told from a daughter’s perspective, and “You Are So Embarrassing,” narrated by a mother, show different but inevitable culminations of fraying mother-daughter bonds.
The overall impression, however, is of a collection that aims to educate the white reader about how various inequalities play out for minorities rather than to render fully faceted immigrant experiences. When Hannah Arendt wrote about the refugee’s admirable, if deluded, optimism in the face of loss of home, familiar daily life, occupation, language and more, she was discussing how, despite all the uncertainties, displaced people never give up the fight for dignity and destiny, even if it means putting up fronts. That’s why we need immigrant narratives that go beyond illustrating the trials and tribulations of assimilation, the missteps and miscalculations of ambition, and the concerns and confusions of survival. Let’s also appreciate the immigrant’s endless invention of possibilities, enduring anticipation of small delights and eventual realization of aspirations.
Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator and reviewer. Her short story collection, “Each of Us Killers,” is forthcoming in September.
How to Pronounce Knife
By Souvankham Thammavongsa
Little, Brown. 193 pp. $26.