Souvankham Thammavongsa has won the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize for her debut work of fiction, the short-story collection How to Pronounce Knife. Ms. Thammavongsa has published four books of poetry.
“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,” Ms. Thammavongsa said Monday evening live from her home after winning the prize, which is worth $100,000 – and a bump in book sales.
The stories in the collection – some have appeared in Harper’s, Granta, The Atlantic and The Paris Review – illustrate the day-to-day lives of immigrants, from an unlikely Randy Travis fan to an equally unlikely nail-salon superstar.
“How to Pronounce Knife is a stunning collection of stories that portray the immigrant experience in achingly beautiful prose,” read the jury citation. “The emotional expanse chronicled in this collection is truly remarkable. These stories are vessels of hope, of hurt, of rejection, of loss and of finding one’s footing in a new and strange land. Thammavongsa’s fiction cuts to the core of the immigrant reality like a knife – however you pronounce it.”
Ms. Thammavongsa was born in a Lao refugee camp in Thailand. When she was 2, she moved with her parents to Canada, sponsored by a family in Mississauga. After two years living in that family’s basement, the Thammavongsas moved to Toronto, where the author still lives (as do her parents).
“When I was 14, my family lived in a van and I remember looking at the light inside someone’s warm house because we were parked outside of it and I remember there was so little difference between us,” Ms. Thammavongsa told The Globe and Mail immediately after winning the prize in a phone interview.
“And this money just means that I can own and have that light inside that house now. It is life-changing money. It’s not to buy beer with.”
She said she hoped to buy a home with her prize. But the award means more than just the money. “It means that a writer can look like me. A writer can have a difficult name to pronounce like mine. And that my stories are Canadian because I am Canadian.”
This year’s Giller event was a far cry from the usual invitation-only swish Toronto gala. Streamed live online and broadcast on CBC, the event was hosted by Canadian actor Eric McCormack (Will & Grace) from the Vancouver Public Library and featured music by Diana Krall.
The producers stationed crews at the homes of each of the five nominated writers, who participated live. Pre-recorded elements included front-line workers performing the readings from the nominated books – including a physician from the Hospital for Sick Children and a nurse manager from University Health Network.
Prize executive director Elana Rabinovitch told The Globe that in the spring, the organization began reorienting toward a virtual ceremony – and moving other events, such as the Between the Pages interviews, online.
“We had to come up with a plan pretty quickly because it was going to take some time to reframe all of these events in a way that would look like we weren’t just doing a Zoom call,” Ms. Rabinovitch said.
The other finalists for the prestigious prize, each of whom receives $10,000, were Gil Adamson, for her novel Ridgerunner; previous Giller winner David Bergen for his short-story collection Here the Dark; Emily St. John Mandel for The Glass Hotel; and Shani Mootoo for Polar Vortex.
The money saved from not throwing the gala this year went into funding two other organizations: Diaspora Dialogues and the Indigenous Voices Awards each received $25,000 from the Giller organization.
“Both are geared toward helping nurture and foster minority writers in the various different communities that were finding themselves in crisis this year,” Ms. Rabinovitch said.
This year’s Giller jury included authors Mark Sakamoto, who was jury chair; David Chariandy; Tom Rachman; Eden Robinson; and The Guardian literary critic Claire Armitstead.
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