Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Short Miracles

The 2020 Giller Prize Shortlist was announced yesterday, and I have read and reviewed three of the five nominees, if I include today's post, which is about Souvankham Thammavongsa's How to Pronounce Knife. As I said earlier, I have reduced some pressure on my reading by dropping long-listed nominees that did not make the short list. I feel pretty good about my chances of reading all the short-listed books. I will start Shani Mootoo's book after I finish this post, and I expect a copy of Adamson's Ridgerunner to arrive at my door via Audreys Books free delivery service for orders over $50.00. I am quarantining right now--I have a sore throat--so I was pleased to get that book delivered to me. Else I would have had to depend on the kindness of strangers to get a copy.

The Giller judges dropped the book that I had favoured the most among the three I had read, namely Seth's Clyde Fans. I am saddened somewhat, but not enough to think that I should take nominations and awards seriously. A short-list likely is better than a long-list for sales, but a long-list is good too. I hope people consider reading Seth's book anyway. As it turns out, the fourth book on my reading list was going to edge ahead of Clyde Fans on my most favourite list.

How to Pronounce Knife is another story collection, this one of fourteen stories. All of them are short. (This collection has no novella, as Bergen's Here the Dark has.) Thammavongsa has primarily been a poet, so I am not surprised, as brevity characterizes poems as much as short stories. Like Bergen's collection, a few motifs dominate these unconnected stories. Most of the stories feature immigrants from Laos. The people in these stories tend to be urban-dwellers, and some of them like to fold things into squares, whether a newspaper, a mat, or a parking ticket. Thammavongsa tends to favour the indeterminate ending more than Bergen, though some of his stories do use this ending. I imagine that indeterminate endings drive novel-readers insane, but I like them usually. As I grow older I have grown less tolerant of slice-of-life stories, which often have indeterminate endings. These stories, however, are not slice-of-life, because the events in the stories mark a change in the lives of their protagonists.

Some of the stories could be about the same family, though the differences are enough to make clear they are not the same family. The family is a mother and father with one or two children, all of them recent migrants to Canada, to the point where the parents' English is weak. The children, however, are dependent on their parents for knowledge about the world, and the fact of the parents' foreignness leads to some problems, some relatively minor, as in "Chick-A-Chee," in which the two children do not know what they are supposed to say to home-owners on Hallowe'en. Other problems are major, as in "Picking Worms," when the mother invites her daughter's white date for the school dance to pick worms at her workplace to make extra money, and the boy gets promoted to be the mother's manager. In the title story, the daughter knows her parents shouldn't ignore the notes her teacher pins to her coat, but she defers to their parental good intentions to the point that she argues with her teacher over the pronounciation of "knife."

The tension in these stories tends to stem from cringeworthy misunderstandings and power imbalances. In "Mani Pedi," a young boxer finds himself bottoming out in his career and finds shelter with his sister, who owns a nail salon. The boxer soon finds himself doing nails, but he comes to see that his proximity to beautiful white women doesn't have as many benefits as he would hope; his sister certainly disabuses him of his fantasy of upward mobility. In "Slingshot," the elderly narrator makes friends with a thirty-two-year-old fellow tenant in her apartment building. She knows that other people see only her exterior, but Richard seems to acknowledge the flesh and blood on the inside. Ten years later, she sees him on the street, and she decides to looks through and past him, just like most people do to an eighty-year-old woman.

The stories feel light because of their brevity and the clarity of the writing. Thammavongsa's stories put on no airs, but that doesn't mean that they lack profundity. The stories' depth  lies in the particular details of daily life and the effects of an accumulation of days on a person, a family, and a culture.


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