From How to Pronounce Knife
“When I write poetry, I feel like I’m not allowed to be funny,” Souvankham Thammavongsa told Quill & Quire prior to the publication of her debut short fiction collection, How to Pronounce Knife. “I feel like I can’t carry that.” This is a surprising admission from a poet who has won accolades and awards for her spare, stripped-down body of work, much of which has to do with erasure – of identity, of history, of meaning.
The same minimalism that has garnered Thammavongsa praise as a poet is at work in her short stories, which extend her sensibility and linguistic approach, paring down everything to the bare essentials and prying significance out of lacunae and ellipses.
And there’s also a good dollop of humour.
Take, for example, the basic premise of “Mani Pedi,” which was included in the Journey Prize Stories 28 anthology. Raymond, a boxer of Lao descent abandons the ring and finds work as a manicurist at a nail salon run by his sister, where he becomes a huge draw among the female clientele.
If the simple idea behind the story is amusing, so too are the details. The Bird Spa and Salon (slogan: “Nails! Cheap! Cheap!”) is owned by Raymond’s sister, a firecracker who treats her brother with a mixture of brusqueness and aggression. Her reaction to Raymond taking a couple of jobs in a mall food court is typical: “Raymond, what you cook at the mall, I can vomit up shit better than that!” She chastises him for what she considers a lack of ambition and fealty to what their family went through to acquire a new life in North America: “She said they didn’t leave Laos, a bombed-out country in a war no one ever heard of, ‘on a fucking raft made of bamboo to have you asking, “You want sprinkles with that?” ’ ”
What is notable is not so much the humour, but the use to which Thammavongsa puts it. Here, as elsewhere in her collection, the Lao immigrant experience hovers in the background, informing the lives of her characters and their particular motivations. Raymond’s sister has found success with her salon and is incensed by the thought of Raymond squandering the opportunity he has been given in this new land. There is some indication that she understands the potential awkwardness in having a masculine pugilist pivot into a role at a nail salon, so she tries to cajole him by appealing to his macho side: “It would be just like it was in the ring. She’d yell at him like he was in the corner and he’d just go out and get it done.”
The sense of cultural disconnection is strong for both sister and brother, who work subservient jobs at the salon when Raymond is not being beaten up in the ring for the enjoyment of spectators and the career advancement of his opponents. Raymond leaves boxing because he recognizes that he has become a “trial horse” – a body for more skilled boxers to practice on before advancing to more lucrative prize bouts. He was never expected to win or to acquit himself well: he is merely a punching bag for the benefit of others. Raymond’s pride will not let him continue in such a role, though this is the position the society he finds himself in has assigned him, both inside the ring and out of it.
Raymond’s sister is also cognizant of their respective places in the social hierarchy. When Raymond becomes smitten with one of the salon’s wealthy female clients, his sister scolds him for dreaming above his station in life: “You and me here, we live in the real world. You’re given a place and you just do your best in it.”
The systemic inequities at the heart of a system that will allow minorities or marginalized figures like Raymond and his sister to succeed only up to a point, and then only so long as they know their place and are content to remain in it, form the unspoken thematic heart of Thammavongsa’s story. The setting of “Mani Pedi” is kept deliberately vague: the specific city or town in which the story takes place is never made clear. The implication is that the story could take place anywhere in Canada or the U.S. The structural roadblocks preventing Raymond and his sister from advancing beyond a certain point are pervasive and not limited to a particular geographical region.
What rescues Raymond from the strain of cynicism espoused by his sister is his unwillingness to participate in a system that is rigged against him. He quits boxing when he realizes he has been put in the position of trial horse and he would rather take a menial job cooking sub-par food at the mall than accept what he assumes to be his sister’s charity. When he does start working at the salon, he is able to use his masculinity to win over his clients; his sister is astonished when she discovers how much he makes in tips, notwithstanding his rather rudimentary skills when it comes to actually polishing and painting nails.
Here, too, he is forced to play a role; he has his eye on Miss Emily, an attractive client, but she does not see him as anything other than a servile figure. When she enters the salon after seeing off her partner, she is redolent of expensive men’s cologne and her smile is “just polite.”
But Raymond remains true to himself and his aspirations regardless of his sister’s attempt to make him understand how the world in which he finds himself is organized. “I know I don’t got a chance in hell, but it’s something to get me through,” he tells her. “It’s to get through the next hour, the next day. Don’t you go reminding me what dreams a man ought to have. That I can dream at all means something to me.”
One can suggest that Raymond’s sister gets the last word in the argument, as the final scene has the two of them sitting in a car listening to a family enjoy themselves beyond their sightline. In the world of the story, they remain where they have always found themselves: out of sight of the truly happy, eavesdropping on their contentment from afar. Raymond realizes that the scars and disfigurements on his face that are a result of his rounds in the ring serve as a physical manifestation of his sister’s inner torment and the story leaves them without the satisfaction of overturning the systemic order of their world.
But Raymond’s final assertion is not without hope. His professed unwillingness to relinquish his dreams is testament to the fact that maybe – just maybe – he will find a way to break out of the constraints that have been placed on him. After all, while he may be biding his time as a manicurist at a nail salon, he is first and foremost a fighter.