The stories that make up How to Pronounce Knife focus on characters struggling to find their bearings in unfamiliar territory, or shuttling between idioms, cultures, and values. Thammavongsa interrogates what it means to make a living, both in the sense of work and in the sense of creating meaning and identity in precarious circumstances.
Thammavongsa isn’t just gifted at exploring the dynamics of families adjusting to new lives, she’s also an immensely talented writer. Her gift for poetry translates perfectly into fiction; her prose is spare but vivid, with no wasted words, and she has an unusual gift for descriptions that stick with the reader. How to Pronounce Knife is a wonderful fiction debut that proves to be a perfect showcase for Thammavongsa’s skill with language and her abundant compassion. It’s also a reminder of our shared humanity at a time when we need it most.
... written in a precise and emotionally devastating style ... In unembellished prose, Thammavongsa expertly crafts small moments such as this throughout How to Pronounce Knife. The stories are quiet but shattering—powerful because you can feel how much truth there is in them.
... impressive ... 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 ... Thammavongsa’s gift for the gently absurd means the stories never feel dour or predictable, even when their outcomes are by some measure bleak ... 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.