Scotiabank Giller Prize Spotlight: Souvankham Thammavongsa

September 17, 2020

Souvankham Thammavongsa’s short story collection, How to Pronounce Knife has been longlisted for the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

She is the author of four poetry books: Light, winner of the Trillium Book Award for Poetry; Found; Small Arguments, winner of the ReLit Award; and, most recently, Cluster. Her fiction has appeared in Harper’s, Granta, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Best American Non-Required Reading, The Journey Prize Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories. How to Pronounce Knife is her debut book of fiction, and the title story was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Born in the Lao refugee camp in Nong Khai, Thailand, she was raised and educated in Toronto, where she is at work on her first novel.

Do you have a favourite passage/quote from a book?

I love the line “I prefer not to” from Herman Melville’s Bartleby, The Scrivener. The permission and power to prefer not to is so lovely to have.

Is there an activity you do to help inspire your writing?

I like boxing. You don’t sit around thinking about what other people think of you or for a thing everyone calls inspiration. You get in the ring with all that you know and all that you have, and you just go. If you don’t, you get knocked out.

What are you reading now?

I am reading Philippe Petit’s On the High Wire, translated from the French by Paul Auster. It was written when Petit was 23 years old about his art as a high-wire artist. He’s a tightrope walker. He writes about setting up the wire, the first steps, going barefoot, exercises, performance, and what to do with fear. It’s such a great book to understand how writing works and also just to watch someone care so much about the mechanics of what they do. We also share the same birthday.

How did you know you wanted to be an author?

I wanted to be an actor actually. I auditioned for Little Red Riding Hood and didn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to just knock out the wolf. I didn’t listen to the director and beat up the wolf. Naturally, I didn’t get the part. The story came from somewhere, and I wanted to be the one to write it. I think I was seven years old at the time.

What inspired you to write your Scotiabank Giller Prize-nominated book?

This photo. I grew up in a home without books and whenever I saw a bookshelf I begged my parents to take a photo of me in front of one, like people do on vacation of the things they think they won’t get to see again.

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