Literary MagNet: Souvankham Thammavongsa

Dana Isokawa
From the May/June 2020 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Souvankham Thammavongsa assembles a collection of powerful stories about longing, misunderstanding, and loneliness in How to Pronounce Knife (Little Brown, April). In every story characters reckon with what goes unsaid in relationships. A child observes her mother, a Laotian refugee, learning English through soap operas. A worker at a chicken processing plant notices that her boss is cheating on his wife. A young girl is mocked at school for mispronouncing the word knife the way her father mistakenly taught her and then chooses not to tell him. Thammavongsa, who has published four poetry collections, writes in taut, spare prose; she cites Edward P. Jones, Carson McCullers, Alice Munro, and Tennessee Williams as the storytellers she turned to in writing the book. Thammavongsa’s fiction has appeared in the publications listed below, as well as Granta, Joyland, and Ploughshares, among others.

Top: Souvankham Thammavongsa (Credit: Sarah Bodri)

Thammavongsa submitted her story “Mani Pedi” to the online quarterly the Puritan because she respected the guest fiction editor at the time, Doretta Lau. “I knew I would be given the freedom to create a female character that could say bold and blunt and nasty things, the permission to cuss and be funny, be complicated—and Doretta wouldn’t say it was a character that didn’t feel real,” says Thammavongsa. Edited in Toronto, the Puritan publishes poetry, fiction, nonfiction, long-form interviews, and criticism. Submissions from writers worldwide are open year-round via Submittable.

Doretta Lau learned how to edit fiction by apprenticing with Diane Williams, the editor and founder of the twenty-year-old print annual NOON, and says the experience was “like watching a master craftsperson cut and polish a precious gem to reveal its sparkle.” So it is fitting that Williams has also published two stories from How to Pronounce Knife. When Thammavongsa first submitted her story “The School Bus Driver” to NOON, she didn’t get quite the answer she was looking for but was nevertheless thrilled to receive a handwritten rejection from Williams. One year later Williams got back in touch and asked if the story was still available because she couldn’t stop thinking about it. The two worked on a new ending, and the story appeared in the 2016 issue of NOON, alongside frequent contributors Kim Chinquee and Deb Olin Unferth. “She let me cuss in Lao and gave me the freedom to not translate this,” says Thammavongsa of working with Williams. Edited in New York City, NOON publishes mostly fiction, as well as nonfiction and translation; the journal is open for submissions via postal mail year-round.

Thammavongsa, who grew up in Toronto, has published in many Canadian journals, including Ricepaper, which celebrates Asian Canadian literature, arts, and culture. Founded by the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop Society in Vancouver in 1994, Ricepaper in its first edition consisted of eight photocopied and stapled pages. Today the online magazine publishes poetry, fiction, nonfiction, graphic narrative, criticism, and interviews by Asian writers from all over the world. “Canada is a land of many cultures,” write the editors. “A story outside our borders can be as relatable as one found within.” Ricepaper is open for submissions year-round online.

When her story “Slingshot” was out on submission at Harper’s Magazine, Thammavongsa was doubtful the editors of the 170-year-old print publication—which features reporting, essays, fiction, and poetry—would accept the piece. “I was someone they had never heard of, and I have no Twitter followers,” she says. “My story is about a seventy-year-old woman who has a lot of sex with a thirty-two-year-old man. And it is not her sexual awakening—it is his.” But the editors did accept the story, and it went on to win an O. Henry Prize in 2019. The publication was one of Thammavongsa’s first in a major general-interest magazine; she brought it to her workplace, a tax office, and was delighted to watch her coworkers “seriously reading the story, not looking up once.” Headquartered in New York City, Harper’s, which is released every month, does not accept unsolicited poetry submissions; it does accept fiction submissions and nonfiction queries year-round via postal mail.

Thammavongsa enjoyed working with her editor at Harper’s, Hasan Altaf, saying, “He never questioned what I could do. He was cool and dispassionate and said ‘change this,’ ‘write another scene here,’  and just gave me the freedom to get it together.” So when Altaf left Harper’s to become the managing editor of the Paris Review, Thammavongsa was even more eager to publish with the print quarterly. Her story “The Gas Station” was published in the Spring 2019 issue alongside nonfiction from Sarah Manguso, poetry from Bhanu Kapil and Danez Smith, and fiction from Kate Zambreno. Submissions in all genres are open on Submittable during February and September.


Dana Isokawa is the senior editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.