Rebecca Peng Reviews Short Story Collections from Kaie Kellough and Souvankham Thammavongsa for EVENT 49/2
Rebecca Peng Reviews:
Kaie Kellough, Dominoes at the Crossroads, Véhicule Press, 2020
Souvankham Thammavongsa, How to Pronounce Knife, McClelland & Stewart, 2020
When it comes to the circulation of short-story collections by racialized Canadian authors, many are described in identical terms. The inside cover will promise a reader everything and, simultaneously, a very specific, yet often indescribable, something. It will present a motley crew of characters with a spectrum of curious careers and circumstances—all of which will, we are assured, reveal some strange, new truth of human nature. These rogue galleries will wrestle with race, yes, but also universal subjects: history, youth, love, hope and so on. In the blurbs, authors, each boasting their own notable works, will assure us these collections are powerful and precise, emotional and evocative, fierce, quiet, witty, erudite, raw and gorgeous. As any old idiom will tell you, it is, of course, unfair to judge any book entirely by its cover, but it’s hard not to think of these diffuse packages when considering the expectations and promises racialized authors must navigate: For whom is their collection? What value does it offer? What does the author hope it will accomplish and to what powers, if any, do they cater?
Dominoes at the Crossroads is a collection with finely sharpened ambitions. It is Kaie Kellough’s fifth book, but first short-story collection. Kellough is perhaps better known for his sound work and poetry; his 2019 poetry collection, Magnetic Equator, recently won the Griffin Poetry Prize. As in Magnetic Equator, Kellough’s work bends time and great distances. His stories are particularly concerned with the production and reverberations of history and with foregrounding Black Canadian histories (and, inseparably, Black futures) in Montreal and beyond. He is attentive to the margins; his stories are laced with sharp, imaginative references to figures historical (Marie-Joseph Angélique), fictional (Hamidou Diop) and contemporary (d’bi Young). Dominoes is an impressive, studious undertaking that is enchantingly rich in scope.
At points, however, the collection seems to buckle under its desire for precision, slipping into the didactic. It’s hard to read Kellough’s opening story, a fictional academic paper from the future, as entirely parodic. In this story, and throughout the collection, Kellough’s first-person narrators often pause to overexplain a scene, its implications. His narrators are usually culture producers: musicians, art dealers, radio DJs, who, equally frequently, inhabit a degree of privilege or security over their peers. And while Kellough’s own wide-ranging artistic knowledge informs engaging discussions of various art forms throughout, the narrator’s own hyperawareness of their positionality—and, at other times, anxiousness to impart a certain message—becomes a recurring narrative block, ultimately restricting characters from speaking with their greatest impact.
These limitations are clearest during the multiple instances where Kellough’s characters interact with the persona of the author himself. In the first story, the speaker is Kellough’s great-great-grandchild, who explicates Kellough’s work, themes and intents:
Kellough’s content, much like mine today, often looked at place and identity. In the city of his day, he saw the various social, cultural, and economic positions navigated by Black citizens. He also saw the way Black histories were constructed as minor narratives, and as narratives that ran counter to official Québec histories. This allowed for the suppression and minimization of the contributions of Black Quebeckers to Québec culture, and for an erasure of their historical presence.
One metareference in a collection strikes me as cheeky, but Kellough is a recurring figure. In ‘Petit Marronage,’ the narrator, a jazz musician, encounters Kellough at a literary festival. This speaker is more critical than Kellough’s imagined descendant: ‘[Kellough] benefits from being a middle-class light-skinned man… To his credit he’s aware of his contradictions, but even so, people like him become indignant at the slightest suggestion of adversity because they’ve never known it deeply.’ Perhaps the repeated arbitration over the fictionalized Kellough and his work is, indeed, meant to suggest self-awareness. However, though Dominoes takes great pains to spell out its politics (again, we may ask, to whom?), these passages inevitably make the collection feel mistrustful of both its audience’s ability to comprehend and its own ability to articulate its ideas with nuance. The desire to educate his audience is understandable, considering the continued marginalization of Black histories and narratives in Canadian culture at large, but this level of explication does inadvertently limit some of the collection’s power.
Dominoes at the Crossroads works best when the stories are not concerned with imparting an intended message. As promised, Kellough skillfully transports us through time, rendering everywhere from Montreal, Québec—past, present and future—to Georgetown, Guyana, in immersive, compelling prose. He foregrounds necessary narratives with intelligence. His narrators are keen, tactile political observers, but one wonders how much stronger this collection would be if it believed in its audience’s ability to observe alongside its narrators.
Souvankham Thammavongsa’s How to Pronounce Knife engages with a different sort of precision. Her collection is more interested in uncovering emotional clarity than delivering any specific message.
Like Kellough’s collection, Knife is invested in illuminating the margins. Thammavongsa’s stories feature Laotian immigrants, usually of humble means (the inside jacket introduces us to boxers turned manicurists and bus drivers searching for belonging). Their worlds are small; they are largely without material glamour. Their desires, however, are focused. Thammavongsa’s protagonists are intensely empathetic, possessing rich and emotional imaginations. Accordingly, Thammavongsa’s stories are compelling for the range of relationships and intimacies she explores, each with discernment and sensitivity.
How to Pronounce Knife probes weighty questions: How we mitigate or compromise our expectations of one another, what quiet sacrifices we make to sustain others’ fantasies, how closely pain can live alongside love. The script of an American dream underpins this text, which is perhaps inevitable considering the patterns of migration within which her characters move. Most of Thammavongsa’s stories feature at least two generations: parents, refugees and immigrants, who crossed oceans for a more stable and prosperous future for their children; and their children, who inherit the full weight of these hopes. Thammavongsa interrogates the secret, symbiotic work both parties do to sustain these lofty dreams.
Left at that, this would be familiar ground, but Thammavongsa nuances this common narrative: Her stories often surface tensions between what one wants and what one is willing to sacrifice in order to attain one’s desires—be they global migrations or changes of the heart—and demonstrate the different ways these impulses can be complexly tied together. On multiple occasions, mothers leave their children. Families unravel, strain against individual desires. Of one character, Thammavongsa writes, ‘Hope was a terrible thing for her—it meant it wasn’t there for you, whatever it was you were hoping for.’ These desires wound, but the wounds, themselves, can be affirmative: ‘To lose your love, to be abandoned by your wife was a thing of luxury even—it meant you were alive.’ Life is bound up with loss. To pursue something, you must leave something else behind. The stories perform emotional calculus; they begin to weigh the costs.
Intimacy, affection and love, in Knife’s world, are neither straightforward nor always pleasant. In ‘Slingshot,’ a 70-year-old woman has an affair with her 30-year-old neighbour, Richard. It’s an unexpected pairing, but one that produces some of Thammavongsa’s most powerful prose. At a dinner with Richard, his ex-partner Eve, and Eve’s new boyfriend Daniel, the protagonist watches her sometimes-lover pine desperately for Eve’s attention and feels herself pulled into a strange romantic quadrangle: ‘What kind of person was Eve, to see someone else’s love and agree to see it wasn’t there.’ Throughout the collection, Thammavongsa articulates emotion with this same shocking poignancy. The narrator watches Daniel with ‘a sadness he couldn’t see.’ Elsewhere, in ‘Mani Pedi,’ an argument between two adult siblings is cut short by the sound of children laughing, an ordinary occurrence that, here, shimmers with a sense of loss neither character can articulate, only experience: ‘Now, that kind of giggle seemed foolish for them to do. It was like a far distant thing, a thing that happened only to other people. All they could do now was be close to it, and remain out of sight.’
Where her characters experience miscommunications or feelings that go unseen or unspoken, Thammavongsa commands a deeply affective clarity. Her prose is simple, but expansive. Thammavongsa is an accomplished short-story writer, and Knife’s technical skill comes down to a rare confidence, itself a form of trust. Thammavongsa resists the impulse to explicate: ‘Both women cried, but for different reasons,’ she writes, drawing another well-crafted story to a close. In these moments, How to Pronounce Knife delivers on its promises; it trusts the reader to make the final leap.