Literary Hub

Souvankham Thammavongsa Wants Readers to Question What’s Real

First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.

This week on First Draft, Souvankham Thammavongsa joins Mitzi to discuss her story collection, How to Pronounce Knife, out now from Little Brown and Company.

From the episode:

Mitzi Rapkin: One of the things that I noticed about your stories is that a lot of them are retrospective. So they might open it in a moment, usually when there’s a daughter, who’s young and in school, maybe anywhere from ten to teenage-hood and then you learn at the end of the story that they’re an adult, looking back. This is a structure or a theme that you used a lot.

Souvankham Thammavongsa: When I was a child, anytime I was sad or happy or brave or strong, there was no one there but myself to witness that. One of the powers of writing is that you can go back and you can tell yourself, you know, I see and that structure for me, it’s just telling myself that a child can understand what is going on. Maybe not in the moment, but definitely when they get older. But I also love the surprise that all along it’s an adult talking, and one of the things that I’ve received in terms of response from readers is that they feel a nostalgia in the stories. I think that’s so amazing in that that’s not their life.

Not everybody has had a fermented fish sauce; yet, at the end of the story, they feel nostalgic like they’ve been eating that their whole entire lives and they get teary-eyed at not being able to have a particular fermented fish sauce made by a particular person. I wanted to make people forget who they were and to feel deeply for these stories, to feel like it happened to them. I mean, it’s one thing for me to be here or to create a moment. It’s another for a reader to feel or to question, Is this real? I can’t believe this is not real, or like to be curious about the real life behind the story.

To listen to the rest of the episode, as well as the whole archive of First Draft, subscribe and listen on iTunes or wherever else you find your favorite podcasts.


Souvankham Thammavongsa is the author of How to Pronounce Knife. Her stories have won an O. Henry Award and appeared in Harper’s Magazine, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Granta, NOON, The Believer, Best American Nonrequired Reading 2018, and O. Henry Prize Stories 2019. She is the author of four books of poetry, Cluster, Light, Found, and Small Arguments.

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