Souvankham Thammavongsa on the Inner Lives of Children

“The present is always haunted by the things that have happened in childhood.”

Souvankham Thammavongsa overlaid on geometric shapes
Sarah Bodri / The Atlantic

Edge of the World,” a new story by Souvankham Thammavongsa, will appear in her debut story collection, How to Pronounce Knife (available on April 21). To mark the story’s publication in The Atlantic, Thammavongsa and Thomas Gebremedhin, an editor at the magazine, discussed the story over email. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Thomas Gebremedhin: You started your writing career as a poet, publishing your first book of poetry in 2003. How does your sensibility as a poet inform your short fiction?

Souvankham Thammavongsa: Both poetry and fiction require discipline and rigor and attention. But when writing fiction, I try to make sure it doesn’t lean on what I’ve done in poetry. The fiction should be distinct. The writing is always a surprise.

Gebremedhin: One of the predominant themes of “Edge of the World” is alienation: The narrator’s father feels alienated at work, while the narrator’s mother feels alienated in her marriage (we learn that the closest thing she has to friends are the cashiers at the local Goodwill). How does their displacement as refugees from Laos affect this alienation?

Thammavongsa: The narrator and her parents are displaced, but I have also placed them at the center of the story, so that the reader becomes the one who is displaced. We don’t know why the mother has no friends, why the father is treated so cruelly at work, why their marriage ends. We understand that the outside world is alienating, but the story takes it further, inside the family unit. As refugees, all you have is one another. But what happens when that alienation—that thing that is often encountered outside—is brought home, is intimate? It is a kind of loneliness that is so bare and heartbreaking and cruel because there is no outside thing to blame, and there is nothing to grab on to in order to feel safe.

Gebremedhin: We know the narrator’s family has emigrated from Laos, but we are not given the name of the country to which they have moved. We also don’t know when the story is set. Was that intentional? If so, why did you choose to withhold this information?

Thammavongsa: Withholding the setting is part of what forces the reader to feel displaced, much like the story’s characters. I don’t do the work of giving you your bearings. That haunts a reader, the way it haunts the characters.

Gebremedhin: In many ways, this is a narrative about childhood. In an essay for the London Review of Books, Jenny Diski once said, “Children are born spies. Every parent … knows: a child arrives and it starts to watch you.” Why did you decide to center “Edge of the World'' on the experiences of a child? Were there any inherent challenges in doing so?

Thammavongsa: What does it mean for a child who has just themselves in the world? They still have to find a way to get on. I remember being a child—everything I felt and observed then has stayed with me in a way that doesn’t happen anymore. The challenge with putting a child at the center of a story is that readers find it hard to believe a child could feel or know what the child sees. It is too “on the nose” and so somehow burdens the story’s believability. But I know that I felt these things as a child, and to have it not believed in a story robs the power of my observation—not just as a child, but as a writer.

Gebremedhin: What authors do you think write about children well? What makes their writing so acute?

Thammavongsa: I love Frankie from Carson McCuller’s The Member of the Wedding. Anything by Judy Blume. S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. And I just discovered Edward P. Jones. I love the narrator in his story “The First Day.” It’s the first day of school and the child narrator describes her shoes as “my greatest joy, black patent-leather miracles, and when one is nicked at the toe later that morning in class, my heart will break.” That feeling of a fancy shoe being your greatest joy, black-patent-leather miracles—adults don’t look at their shoes that way. We are grown-ups, after all. Our hearts will not break if the shoes get nicked at the toe.

Gebremedhin: We are given hints throughout “Edge of the World” that the narrator is telling us this story from a distance of many years, as an adult, but it’s only in the final paragraph that we catch up with the present. Why did you decide to end the story in this way?

Thammavongsa: The present is always haunted by the things that have happened in childhood. Often, we think we are so grown up and we’ve left our childhood feelings behind, but that isn’t true. The things that hurt us remain the same, and they hurt us even more as adults because we’ve held on to them for a long time.

Gebremedhin: When did the ending crystallize for you? Some writers start a short story with an ending already in mind—is that how you work?

Thammavongsa: For this story, I started with a sound. The ending came to me first. I heard laughter in the air vent late one night and I wondered what could make someone laugh like that at that hour. But I try not to think too much about how I work. When we see a beautiful sunrise, I think it is best to just enjoy the light. Why ask why it shines?

Gebremedhin: This story will appear in your forthcoming debut collection, How to Pronounce Knife. How does it speak to the other stories in the collection? Upon revisiting the finished collection, did you discover a thematic through line?

Thammavongsa: The cornerstone of these stories is laughter. Laughter does the work that sometimes language cannot, and it demands that you read it closely in order to understand it. There are varieties of laughter—laughter when it’s uncomfortable; laughter when what you feel is so unbearable; laughter when you are angry; laughter when you are scared; laughter to feel strong; laughter when you are happy. Laughter is always power.

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