Lifelong Learning

The Minerva Literary Society

On October 14, 1891, Eloise Wickard of the CC English Department invited five girls to her home. The result was the formation of the Minerva Literary Society, the first all-female club at CC. In this new iteration, it is a club for people who identify with all genders but focuses on books written by female-identifying authors.

Book cover of How to Pronounce Knife.

Book: How to Pronounce Knife

Author: Souvankham Thammavongsa

Chosen by: Aline Lo, CC Assistant Professor of Asian American Literature

Summary: This collection of short stories is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN Open Book Award, and winner of the 2020 Giller Prize. This revelatory story collection honors characters struggling to find their bearings far from home, even as they do the necessary “grunt work of the world.” A failed boxer painting nails at the local salon. A woman plucking feathers at a chicken processing plant. A housewife learning English from daytime soap operas. A mother teaching her daughter the art of worm harvesting.

In this, her debut story collection, O. Henry Award winner Souvankham Thammavongsa focuses on characters struggling to make a living, illuminating their hopes, disappointments, love affairs, acts of defiance, and, above all, their pursuit of a place to belong. In spare, intimate prose charged with emotional power and a sly wit, she paints an indelible portrait of watchful children, wounded men, and restless women caught between cultures, languages, and values. As one of Thammavongsa’s characters says, “All we wanted was to live.” And in these stories, they do – brightly, ferociously, unforgettably. Unsentimental yet tender, taut and visceral, How to Pronounce Knife announces Thammavongsa as one of the most striking voices of her generation. 

Discussion Questions

  1. In the story “Paris,” no one ever goes to Paris and it does not take place in Paris. Why do you think the author decided to title this story “Paris”?
  2. Many of the stories have main characters who are not named and other who are but then their names end up changing. What is the value of a name? How do you feel about a character that is not named?
  3. Work is an important theme in this collection. What is Thammavongsa saying in these stories about work? The value of work? How work is perceived?
  4. The stories often refer to the setting as simply “here.” Why do you think the author did this with the setting of a story?
  5. In “A Far Distant Thing” the narrator said that even friendship that doesn’t last is worth having. Do you agree? 
  6. Sound is important to many of these stories. The silent letter at the front in the word knife, the voice of a mother in a dream, the way sound lasts only for a short while and disappears, or how sounds can often stand in for meaning. Why is sound a concern in these stories?
  7. In “The Gas Station,” Mary believes there are two kinds of people. Those who are seen and those who are not. What is Thammavongsa saying about the seen and unseen? Do you agree with this? Is being seen something important to you? 
  8. Love is an important feeling and theme. Love of family, romantic love, love when it’s failed, and love of self. Discuss the ways in which the characters love or lose their love. Which love story in the collection were you most moved by?