Relating Tales of Dislocated Culture

By Ooi Kee Beng

May 2022 FEATURE
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Souvankham Thammavongsa.
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AUTHOR SOUVANKHAM THAMMAVONGSA’S initially hesitant demeanour over Zoom belies the writing style of her debut short story collection, How to Pronounce Knife. She mobilises everyday words and turns of phrase to rouse readers from emotional lethargy, rewarding them in the process with jabs of forgotten empathy.

Penang Monthly, as part of its collaboration with the Canadian High Commission in its celebration of Asian Heritage Month this May, sits down with the Canada-based Laos-born author whose poignant stories of cultural uprootedness strive to break the unsuspecting hearts of readers.

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Ooi Kee Beng: Your book has been very well received in the world, even here in little Penang. I’m awed by the empathy which I think imbues the wonderful stories in How to Pronounce Knife. You excel in giving salience to passing events or repeated behaviour, and releasing the latent emotive content in the characters you so skilfully describe in your stories.

You’re not out to comfort your reader, you’re out to bare the battered yet enduring souls of your protagonists, if I could put it this way. The reader may forget your story but they will not forget the sense of worry or resilience or suffering which is left in them after reading your stories.

And secondly, you surprise your reader by not taking the more easily assumed paths in your storylines. You do not seek closure in them, and you do not allow your reader to find closure either. How conscious are you in choosing that style of story writing, I wonder?

Souvankham Thammavongsa: I am very deliberate in not giving readers any closure; I like to surprise readers. You know, when we see a child at school who brings a smelly lunch, the common story would be that the child would feel ashamed, embarrassed or humiliated, but not this child. She fights back and tells everyone around her that they don’t know a good thing even if it came and sat on their faces [chuckles]. Or, you know, someone who is a boxer, who loses his dream of being a champion and then ends up painting nails at a beauty salon, you’d think he thinks himself a failure. That would be the easy route, but actually he’s a wonderful success, people line up around the block just to see him paint nails.

I never pity any of my characters; if I’m brutal, I’m brutal to everybody. I think that’s where the empathy comes from. I never describe feelings, I never say my characters are sad or angry or moved or touched, I make the readers feel them when they read the story. I know that my sadness is not a reader’s sadness. We each have our own life experiences and when we arrive on the page, I require that the readers feel the sadness that I’ve made. So I don’t use the word “sad”, I try to create that feeling on the page for the reader.

OKB: That’s a wonderful method, it works very well. Almost all your stories in How to Pronounce Knife have Lao refugees as the main protagonists, I suppose that’s what you know well and that’s what is close to you. But what makes your stories memorable is your ability to penetrate, to exaggerate for effect, the new social contexts in which they live, in order to tell their story.

The prominent theme is about surviving the refugee condition, I suppose. Do you feel a need to generalise their condition beyond that? To say something or to identify something that is common to refugees and non-refugees alike? Or is the refugee situation your major interest and approach?

S: Well, every time I encounter stories of immigrants and refugees, we only always hear about them when they’ve become a tremendous success; if they’ve gone to Harvard or became a doctor or a lawyer. But you know, other lives that haven’t gone that route are just as powerful, like someone working in a chicken processing plant or someone who packs door furniture, or even someone who works in a nail polish factory. Such a life is just as valuable.

I think, yes these are stories of immigrants and refugees, but I’m also up to much more than that. I’m saying something about language, about life, about work, about family, about love…

OKB: Yes. In The Gas Station, the protagonist need not be a Lao refugee at all, yet the reader cannot – because of the context of the book I suppose – but see their life as being a case of suffering that can just as well be independent of the refugee situation.

S: You’re absolutely right. You know, whenever we pick up a book, it isn’t often described where that character is from. And it doesn’t need to be. What’s lovely about this collection is, I play with that – sometimes I do describe it, sometimes I don’t at all, and it doesn’t even really matter after a while. I assume that everyone knows without me telling them that they are refugees.

OKB: Your characters do feel very much alive. You know them immediately. I also feel the female voice very strongly in your stories, even when the protagonist, the storyteller, is a boy or a man, as in Mani Pedi, for example. Interestingly, when you write about older people I don’t feel that as strongly.

What challenges do you feel when you write in the voice of a man? Like in The School Bus Driver, for example?

S: I think you touched on an unusual thing about my short stories. When we encounter a woman in the story, it’s not the way we often see women. For example, there is a woman who picks worms with her daughter and she is the best at her job. And she insists that this is what she does. Women behave in ways that we don’t usually get to see them, and it’s the same with the men. As you said about The School Bus Driver, he is quiet, submissive. It’s his wife who is having an affair with the boss and he’s the one suffering in silence – we don’t see men in such a submissive role.

The voice I do find difficult writing is the child’s voice because editors have said it’s too on the nose. A child can’t be this smart, can’t think this way, they said. But I think that that robs children of their intelligence and their scale of observation, and when I was a child I thought that, you know, I observed that. Our sense of children and what they think, I feel, is very narrow. I insist that these are viewed through the voice and observation of a child and that they stand alongside these adult voices.

OKB: Well, I think I was very intelligent as a child and it’s been downhill ever since [both chuckles].

Family relations, broken by the refugee situation sometimes, by life itself sometimes – that is a theme in some of your stories. Mother-child, father-child ties are also common. What’s also prominent are the dissonances between the world of the older people bogged down by cultural memories and pride and the fear of losing them on one side, and on the other, the world of the young, seeking to belong and seeking a less disjointed future. The old people in the stories tend to appear more naïve in their new world, whereas the young are cynically realistic. Is this a discourse on your part on the refugee family? In some ways, are these cases symptomatic of a certain giving up, or caving in in a new cultural context? Or is it a battle just to survive?

S: These are stories about the power of language, when you’re an adult and you move to a country where the language that you think in and you know things in is lost to you, you have to begin all over again. You become very much like a child. But you’re malleable to language when young, so it’s easier. A word is not difficult for you to pronounce because you’re still learning it as a child, but when you’re an adult, a word can be thought as being difficult to pronounce because your mouth is used to the language that you move and think in. And this loss of language, this power of language is something that the refugee families know very well.

OKB: That would be one reason refugee communities tend to get somewhat introverted, I suppose. Especially for the older people. There is much to write about in the refugee condition; will you continue to explore that further or can we expect you to move into problems of assimilation and cultural integration and cultural forgetting? Or perhaps even happier tales of cultural transitions? The Covid-19 pandemic must be a gold mine for material of the type you excel in describing.

S: I want to write whatever I want to write [laughs]. If I want to continue making my main characters refugees and immigrants, I will. Writing about the pandemic is not something I’m interested in right now, maybe because we’re in it still. All I want is to keep writing, to think of the word after the word after the word, to break a reader’s heart, to make characters that feel alive. And they don’t have to be refugees, they could be a mechanic, a grandmother, a next-door neighbour, I just want to make characters that feel real.

OKB: Can you share with us where you get your inspiration from? How do ideas, stories, storylines appear to you?

S: Inspiration can come from everything and nothing. I heard a woman laughing next door and I turned that into a story in Edge of the World. I like worms and I don’t think they’re gross or creepy, so I wrote a story about the joy of what it’s like to hold a worm in your hand. I’m obsessed with particular words that seem strange to me, like knife, how there’s a letter right there in front, and in the English language we all agree that there’s a letter there, but we’re not going to give it any sound.

I’m interested in how words are made and what they feel like, even a description of a word like “thief”, how in the English language it looks like a spit that never arrives. I’m obsessed with words and that itself inspires me, but also what I want to do, and what I find How to Pronounce Knife really does, is that it is written in English, yet it makes the language feel foreign.

Whatever stage of the English language you know, you forget that you know it for a little bit. You marvel, you criticise, you wonder about the language; the trick is that, I’m doing this in the English language, but I make it feel foreign. And I didn’t really notice this until it was translated into the French language. In another language you have that distance and then I thought, “Oh, I’m doing this in the English language!” I’m asking for this distance from the reader. And that’s something I want to continue doing.

OKB: I see. You’re known for short story-writing and for poems. As a last question to you, which of these formats do you prefer, or how do they express different sides of you?

S: I find it really easy to write a short story, whereas when I write poetry, it’s very difficult. One of the things that I do is that I work with very simple and direct language and sometimes, when you work so simply, the mechanics of what you do is not thought of because I hide how technical I am. And I feel, in the short story, that a technical, mechanic method is more visible, whereas in poetry, it isn’t so visible. Its clarity and simplicity is just taken for simplicity. I love both forms. I actually think of my short fiction as a smuggling in of poetry.

OKB: Yes, I do understand that. Well, I look forward to more stories from you that will break my heart. I love short stories myself; an author of short stories is a special kind of person who is able to mine from daily life very deep human experiences, and I think you do it fantastically well. All the best in your future undertakings.

Ooi Kee Beng

is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His recent books include The Eurasian Core and its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (ISEAS 2016). Homepage: wikibeng.com


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