They’d had to begin all over again, as if the life they had before didn’t count.
In these stories Souvankham Thammavongsa allows the reader into the painful and sometimes humorous lives of immigrants. In some situations it is better to tell no one where you’re from, what language you speak so you are not judged. It is in rebirth that the future lies, and for children of immigrants there are often humiliations they don’t quite comprehend yet innately understand they must try to protect their parents from. My attention was grabbed from the first story where a little girl comes home with a note pinned to her chest (how well I remember the importance of such notes when I was a kid), notes that for this child have no meaning for the mother and lead to misunderstandings. Bigger humiliation visits this child when she brings home a book to read for practice and the parents attempt to help her understand a word. There is tender pride sometimes in misunderstandings. I couldn’t help but feel a connection with my father’s own youth when reading about the little girl in the first story. The memories he has of how it felt to be on the outside, trying to understand the American way of life, it is so much more than language but that is by far the hardest obstacle. She had my heart!
In Paris, Red is stuck in the chicken plant thinking about the shapes of women’s noses, and ‘the things that could make you happy’, but such happiness is available only to those who make enough money to attain it. Certainly a chicken plucker never could! In her town, there isn’t much a woman can do beyond chickens or shaking their own tail feathers, so to speak. This story is an exploration on what is beauty, dependent on where you are, naturally.
Age has its hungers in Slingshot, as a much older woman proves wrinkles aren’t in one’s heart, only the face. In another tale a mother has a runaway fantasy about a celebrity that causes her daughter and husband to lose their glimmer, she suffers from the disease of hopeless devotion in one form or another. A husband in The School Bus Driver finds his wife’s boss a little too helpful and present in their marriage. Disbelieving “people form this kind of friendship in this country,” he isn’t just a jealous man nor a fool! In Mani Pedi, former boxer Raymond used to knock people out in the ring but now works at a nail salon, realizing he ‘wasn’t the only person who’d ever lost the place he saw for himself in the world’. It isn’t only Raymond who is warned to keep his dreams small. In many stories there is an ache for more. There are young children driving through a neighborhood with their parents wishing to live in the bigger homes that come into view, unfamiliar with the strange customs, like trick- or-treating yet game to try to join in the door to door fun. In a heavy tale a mother impresses upon her daughter that she feels lucky earning money picking worms having been born in a peasant family who had no money for educating their children. It is through these slimy creatures and her ability to fill cups with many squirmers that she can hope for a better future for her daughter. Characters try to make their own place in the world, like Mr. Vong with his print shop, priding himself on the reputation of his deft skills with wedding invitations made in the Lao language. A keen eye, too, he has in the success or failure of relationships, but how will that play out in his own family?
Every story made the characters vulnerable, it is a visit in the lives immigrants make for themselves and often with next to nothing. There is beauty and heartbreak, shame, struggle, humor, love and resentment too. Beautifully written. Yes, read it!
Publication Date: April 21, 2020
Little, Brown and Company