cover image How to Pronounce Knife

How to Pronounce Knife

Souvankham Thammavongsa. Little, Brown, $26 (192p) ISBN 978-0-316-42213-0

Poet Thammavongsa (Cluster) makes her fiction debut with this sharp and elegant collection that focuses on the hopes, desires, and struggles of Lao immigrants and refugees in an unnamed English-speaking city. In one of the best stories, “Slingshot,” a 70-year-old woman experiences a sexual reawakening with her 32-year-old neighbor, Richard: “It was the start of summer and I wanted something to happen to me.” In “Randy Travis,” a seven-year-old daughter is made to write hundreds of letters to country singer Randy Travis after her mother—who can’t write in English—becomes obsessed with him, and watches her father wear cowboy boots and flannel in an attempt to draw his wife’s attention. In “Mani Pedi,” a former boxer begins working at his sister’s nail salon (“It amazed him to see clients transformed. It was like what happened in the ring, but in reverse.”) and pines after a wealthy white client. In “A Far Distant Thing,” two 12-year-old girls have a short but meaningful friendship before they lose touch and their lives take different paths. Thammavongsa’s brief stories pack a punch, punctuated by direct prose that’s full of acute observations: in the final story, about a mother and her 14-year-old daughter picking worms at a hog farm, those laboring in the field “looked like some rich woman had lost a diamond ring and everyone had been ordered to find it.” This is a potent collection. Agent: Sarah Bowlin, Aevitas Creative Management. (Apr.)