“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.