TORONTO — When the executive director of the Scotiabank Giller Prize walked through Souvankham Thammavongsa’s door to award her the $100,000 honour, the Toronto-based writer looked to her friend to see if her imagination had gotten the best of her.
“I’m a fiction writer, so I’m really good at telling myself stories,” Thammavongsa, 42, said by phone after Monday night’s virtual award ceremony.
“I just wanted to see his reaction to make sure that it was real.”
Thammavongsa won the Giller for her short story debut, “How to Pronounce Knife,” published by McClelland and Stewart.
Born in the Lao refugee camp in Nong Khai, Thailand, Thammavongsa said her childhood self never would have believed she’d go from studying English as a second language in a Toronto classroom to receiving one of Canada’s most prestigious fiction prizes.
“I always thought these kinds of things happen to other people. They don’t happen to me,” Thammavongsa said. “Here I am. I wrote a book which is considered one of the best books in the country.”
Smiling as she showed off the trophy to the cameras in her Toronto home, Thammavongsa gave her parents a special shout-out in her acceptance speech for providing the inspiration for the book’s title piece.
“Thirty-six years ago, I went to school and I pronounced the word ‘knife’ wrong,” she told viewers. “And I didn’t get a prize. But tonight there is one.”
In their citation, jurors hailed “How to Pronounce Knife”as “a stunning collection of stories that portray the immigrant experience in achingly beautiful prose.”
In the book, 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; a young girl working alongside her mother at a hog farm.
Another piece in the collection, “Slingshot,” which 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.
Monday night’s festivities were a far cry from the typical literary feting Giller winners receive at a swanky Toronto gala, which was called off this year in favour of a digital bash because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Thammavongsa, a first-time finalist, said the scaled-down awards circuit had its upsides.
In recent years, Giller finalists have embarked on a cross-country reading tour ahead of the ceremony. But Thammavongsa said staying at home gave her some space to process the experience.
“One of the lovely things was that I got to hold on a little bit longer to the quiet,” she said. “I really appreciated that.”
Giller executive director Elana Rabinovitch said organizers spent months working to preserve the event’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 while dressed to the nines, including Peter Mansbridge, David Suzuki and Ali Hassan.
Rabinovitch said shifting the proceedings online has lowered the costs of hosting the Giller. In light of those savings, prize organizers are donating $25,000 each to the Indigenous Voices Awards and Diaspora Dialogues, an initiative to support diverse writers.
As booksellers, publishers and writers have taken a financial hit during the COVID-19 crisis, Rabinovitch believes events like the Giller show how Canadian literature continues to thrive through these tough times.
“I think it’s more important than ever to pay attention to literature right now,” Rabinovitch said in an interview ahead of the ceremony. “The interiority we’re all experiencing has sent a lot of people back to books.”
Thammavongsa 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 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.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 9, 2020.