The power of words

The power of words

A special interview with Scotiabank Giller Prize winner Souvankham Thammavongsa who will take part in Bangkok Literature Festival

The power of words

Following the success of the first event in 2019, Neilson Hays Library invites fans of literature or bookworms to the 2023 instalment of Bangkok Literature Festival, a celebration of books and ideas in the heart of Thailand's capital.

In collaboration with Neilson Hays Library and The Japan Foundation Bangkok, the two-day event will take place this Saturday and Sunday at the library and its partner venues, including Bangkok Marriott Hotel The Surawongse; The Standard, Bangkok Mahanakorn; and Chakrabongse Villas.

The event will feature more than 50 renowned local and international authors, poets, and storytellers for a truly global experience. Showcasing the richness and diversity of the literary world, the festival embraces the spirit of creativity and cultural exchange. Whether you're a devoted bookworm, budding writer or just curious, there's something of everyone. Like always, both days of the festival will be filled with activities, from writing and illustration workshops, poetry readings to author talks, book signings, interviews and Q&A sessions.

The event will feature up to 50 renowned Thai and international writers and storytellers, including the famous Japanese writer Toshikazu Kawaguchi, author of Before The Coffee Gets Cold; and Bernardine Evaristo, a British writer of Nigerian descent and Booker Prize winner. Another highlight guest includes the winner of Canada's Scotiabank Giller Prize 2020, Souvankham Thammavongsa, a Lao-Canadian author whose book How To Pronounce Knife is a collection of idiosyncratic and diverse stories, exploring the tragedy and humour of the daily lives of immigrants.

(Photos courtesy of Neilson Hays Library)

Life recently caught up with Thammavongsa for an interview where we talked about her books and short storties, her career and especially her experience winning the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the biggest literary award in Canada.

Can you talk about your early life in a Lao refugee camp in Thailand? How much can you remember of your time in the country and your journey to Canada as a child? How has this background influenced your writing?

I was almost two years old when we were in the Lao refugee camp. I don't remember much of that time, except from the pictures and talk my parents and their friends have of me. This background has influenced my writing in that I am often asked to speak about this time, to tell this story over and over, and it asks me to gesture to something other writers do not have to do.

Could you tell us about the books and authors that have had the most significant impact on your writing style and storytelling?

I really love the stories of Alice Munro. Her stories are often just described as women living in small towns, but she is up to much more than that. I love how so devastatingly brutal she can be with a sentence and its simplicity.

How To Pronounce Knife is your first collection of short stories. What inspired you to transition from poetry to short fiction, and how did the process differ for you?

I want to write. I know there should be some profound moment when I changed and moved, but the truth really is just that I wanted to do it. And isn't that profound and inspirational? To want to do something in the world, and to be able to choose and be deliberate about it.

How To Pronounce Knife won the Giller Prize in 2020. Can you describe the emotions and thoughts you had when you learned about this prestigious award? How has it impacted your career?

I mostly thought about the writers who did not win. There are so many. How close they came. I just tried to think of their feelings and not parade too much. I have been writing for more than 25 years, I was doing good work, meaningful work, but very few people knew about my work. When I won the prize, I saw just how long readers have been noticing my work and how excited they were for what I make. The prize gave them confidence to declare their love, to say they knew my work and are so happy for me.

Author Souvankham Thammavongsa. (Photo: Neilson Hays Library)

In your short story collection, you explore the lives of migrants and refugees. What do you hope readers take away from these stories?

That we are not sad and quiet lumps. We are proud of who we are and we love our food. We have our own beautiful language and names. We love our families and the lives we have -- our greatest triumph is that we are alive. We are not poor or lazy. We have been asked to begin all over again in a place we don't know with very little. Like everyone else in the world, we just want to laugh and to live and fall in love and bury our dead. We are allowed to have complicated feelings like being ungrateful or angry.

Out of your award winning books such as How To Pronounce Knife, which won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the short story Slingshot, which won the O. Henry Award, and Light, which won the Trillium Book Award for Poetry in 2014, which one did you feel connected to and proud of the most? And why?

I am so grateful to have this question. I love all my books, but my first poetry book, Small Arguments, is special to me. I didn't know how to become a writer and there was no one who could help me with that. I knew people who picked worms and slit the necks of pigs in factories. None of us knew much about publishing and books. In some ways, this not-knowing and trying anyway is really dear to me. I printed and bound my own books and sold them out of my school knapsack to bookstores that would give me a space on their shelves. I wrote about what most people might call small and quiet things -- a snail, a grasshopper, the snow -- and it's the kind of voice that might disappear. The small press in Canada encouraged my spirit and let me do what I want. I got to determine for myself what a writer can sound like, what a writer can look like, and what a writer can write. The first book was like a compass for my voice and what I wanted to make. I return to it over and over, and remind myself how far a place from all this was to me.

(Photo: Neilson Hays Library)

What are your current and future projects in the world of literature? Are there any new genres or themes you're looking forward to exploring in your work?

I am finishing up a novel, Pick A Colour, about a nail salon worker. Doesn't matter if it's poetry, short stories, a novel, a memoir. I want whatever I make to sound like I made it. The sound is what matters.

What's happening at Neilson Hays library stage?


9am Opening Ceremony

10am Who Owns The Story?
Nguyen Phan Que Mai, Mai Nardone and Pim Wangtechawat with Glenn Diaz

11am Going Deep With Will Schwalbe
Will Schwalbe with Mihoko Iida

12pm Ripped From The Headlines
Andreas Harsono, Liza Lin, Thanyarat Doksone and Patrick Winn

1pm Time Travel With Toshikazu Kawaguchi
Toshikazu Kawaguchi with Artch Bunnag

2pm Bernardine Evaristo: Girl, Woman, Other
Bernardine Evaristo with Sunisa Manning

3pm It's Personal: Writers on LGBTI Rights
Will Schwalbe and Norman Erikson Pasaribu with Andreas Harsono

4pm The State Of Reading: Who Is Consuming Thai Literature?
Uruda Covin, Weerasak Chansongsang and Artit Srijan with Charoonporn Parapakpralai

5pm Adam Higginbotham: Midnight In Chernobyl
Adam Higginbotham with Nisid Hajari

6.30pm Film Screening: Before The Coffee Gets Cold
Q&A with Toshikazu Kawaguchi


10am Books Are Magic
Norman Erikson Pasaribu, Elia Barceló and Toshikazu Kawaguchi with Shivani Sivagurunathan

11am Bad Actors?
Manu Joseph and Liza Lin with Nisid Hajari

12pm Crafting History In Fact And Fiction
Nguyen Phan Que Mai and Adam Higginbotham with Fred Hogge

1pm Grappling With The Real World
Glenn Diaz and Tomorn Sookpreecha with Lisa Martin

2pm Manu Joseph: It's Not Funny, But It's Funny
Manu Joseph with Cod Satrusayang

3pm Is Class Everything?
Emma Larkin, Shrayana Bhattacharya and Sunisa Manning with Gwen Robinson

4pm Bernardine Evaristo: Manifesto
Bernardine Evaristo with Elia Barceló

5pm Books For Living: How Reading Can Save You?
Will Schwalbe, Pim Wangtechawat, Edmund Wee and Emma Larkin

6.30pm Screening: Decoupled With Creator Manu Joseph
With Q&A with Manu Joseph and Fred Hogge

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