Souvankham Thammavongsa wins 2020 Giller Prize for fiction debut ‘How to Pronounce Knife’

Toronto-based writer Souvankham Thammavongsa is the winner of this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Thammavongsa received the $100,000 honour Monday night for her fiction debut, How to Pronounce Knife, published by McClelland and Stewart.

Thammavongsa smiled as she showed off the trophy to her two friends at her Toronto home. In her acceptance speech, she thanked her parents for providing the inspiration for the title piece in the short story collection.

“Thank you to my mom and dad,” she told the camera. “Thirty-six years ago, I went to school and I pronounced the word ‘knife’ wrong. And I didn’t get a prize. But tonight there is one.”

In their citation, jurors hailed the book as “a stunning collection of stories that portray the immigrant experience in achingly beautiful prose.”

Born in the Lao refugee camp in Nong Khai, Thailand, and raised in Toronto, Thammavongsa traces the stories of immigrants building new lives far from home, straining against the mores of both societies as they search for a sense of belonging.

The characters of How to Pronounce Knife are caught in this cultural confluence: a mother who becomes infatuated with country singer Randy Travis; a failed boxer who trades in his gloves for a nail file at his sister’s salon.

The story “Slingshot,” which is part of the collection and won the U.S.-based O. Henry Award for short fiction, features a 70-year-old woman who finds herself in an amorous entanglement with a 32-year-old neighbour.

Thammavongsa is also a rising star in poetry circles, touting four published collections.

She won the Trillium Book Award for Poetry for her 2013 volume Light. Her 2007 collection, Found, inspired by her father’s scrapbook, was adapted into a short film.

Thammavongsa’s writing has also appeared in such esteemed publications as Harper’s Magazine, the Paris Review and the Atlantic. She’s received numerous grants, including $25,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts for her forthcoming first novel.

The first-time finalist beat out several Giller regulars to snag the prize, including former winner David Bergen, who was up for his fifth nomination with the story collection, Here The Dark, published by Biblioasis.

Four-time nominee Shani Mootoo was also shortlisted for her love-triangle novel Polar Vortex, published by Book*hug Press.

Also among the runners-up are newcomers Gil Adamson for Ridgerunner (House of Anansi Press) and British Columbia-raised, New York-based Emily St. John Mandel for The Glass Hotel (HarperCollins Publishers).

The Giller nominees were feted at a virtual ceremony on Monday evening rather than the usual Toronto literary to-do.

Giller executive director Elana Rabinovitch said organizers spent months working to preserve the evening’s signature “sizzle” within the public health constraints of COVID-19.

The televised ceremony featured a mix of pre-taped and live elements. The nominees introduced their books, while front-line workers read excerpts from each of the titles.

Canadian actor Eric McCormack hosted the festivities from a Vancouver library, while jazz artist Diana Krall performed for audiences.

Rather than walking the red carpet, a procession of high-profile personalities made home-recorded cameos.

The finalists were chosen by jury members Mark Sakamoto, Eden Robinson, David Chariandy, Tom Rachman and Claire Armitstead.

The long list of 14 titles announced in September had some big names who didn’t make the cut, including Thomas King, Emma Donoghue and Lynn Coady.

A total of 118 works were submitted for this year’s prize, according to organizers.

Founded in 1994, the Giller awards $100,000 annually to the author of the best Canadian novel, graphic novel or short story collection published in English, and $10,000 to each of the finalists.

Last year’s winner was Ian Williams for Reproduction.

Watch below: (From August 2017) Canada’s literary world is mourning the loss of a man who helped elevate writers to be success stories. Jack Rabinovitch was the creator of the Giller Prize, one of the leading awards for Canadian authors. As Cindy Pom reports, Rabinovitch is being remembered for leaving behind a literature legacy.

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