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Where Lonely Refugees Learn English From Daytime Soaps

By Souvankham Thammavongsa

Today the word “refugee” is practically synonymous with those who have fled the Syrian war and its trail of destitution. But in a different time, in the aftermath of a different war — the one in Vietnam — the term evoked the more than three million people who fled Southeast Asia for a chance at a better life.

Souvankham Thammavongsa, a writer who has published four books of poetry, was born in a refugee camp, to Laotian parents, and raised in Toronto. In “How to Pronounce Knife,” her impressive debut story collection, her family’s arduous, yearslong journey west forms the unspoken back story of the immigrant Laotians who congregate in its pages. Like her own parents, Thammavongsa’s protagonists have lost their place in the world; now, in various unnamed North American cities, they are forced to invent their lives anew.

Thammavongsa’s spare, rigorous stories are preoccupied with themes of alienation and dislocation, her characters burdened by the sense of existing unseen. She sets several stories in the workplace, where noxious hierarchies rooted in race and class reinforce and intensify her characters’ feelings of invisibility. In “Picking Worms,” a woman who has a job on a hog farm collecting worms brings along her daughter and her daughter’s friend James to work alongside her, sharing with them “all the little things that had taken her months and seasons to learn and figure out on her own.” But when the farm’s owner wants someone to take over for him, he makes James the new manager. “And they accuse us of taking their jobs,” the woman says. “Well, you know what? That coulda been my job. My job! … He doesn’t even need the money.” In “Paris,” Red, a quiet loner, works on the line at a chicken processing plant where everyone stationed in the coveted front office has a “thin nose” that sticks out from his or her face and points “upward.”

[ Read an excerpt from “How to Pronounce Knife.” ]

Thammavongsa’s gift for the gently absurd means the stories never feel dour or predictable, even when their outcomes are by some measure bleak. When he’s anointed manager, James is only 14. And at the processing plant, Red’s co-workers begin turning up with nose jobs, angling for a position in the front office.

It is when the characters’ sense of alienation follows them home, into the private space of the family, that Thammavongsa’s stories most wrench the heart. In “Edge of the World,” a young mother learns to speak English by watching daytime soap operas. Soon she begins “practicing what she learned,” accusing her husband of carrying on an affair. At parties, while her husband charms guests with entertaining stories, she keeps to herself in the kitchen. The closest she comes to having friends are the cashiers at Goodwill. Then, one night, the young mother walks out the door with a suitcase and never returns. Her daughter, narrating the story from a distant future, no longer thinks about why she left. “What matters is that she did.”

Thammavongsa’s protagonists find respite from their loneliness in unexpected connections, even if they are only temporary. In “Slingshot,” a 70-year-old woman ignites a romance with her 32-year-old neighbor. “I didn’t think about what would happen to me,” the woman says, “what the future would look like. I was in it.” And in “The Gas Station,” Mary, an accountant in her 30s, begins an affair with the attendant at her local gas station. She finds him “grotesque” but also “unforgettable.” She understands from the start that the relationship will not last.

“For a time, he was tender and sweet and loving,” Thammavongsa writes. “The world and its little towns fell away. What time it was, what day or hour, where the sun was in the sky, or if it had been there at all, Mary never noticed.” We should all be so lucky.

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