Little, Brown, 2020.
192 pages. $26.00.
A Prickly Stapled Spine
I was once told, “No one is going to publish anyone with a name like yours. They can’t even pronounce it!” I went to a bookstore to see for myself. There was no one with a name like mine. They were all easy to pronounce. At the time, along with two friends, we ran a zine called big boots. It was a zine for and by women of color. We refused to print on “white” paper and spent hours stapling our zine. We brought them to the Toronto Women’s Bookstore and asked if they would put our zine on inventory for the bold price of 50 cents. The woman behind the cash register was named Anjula Gogia. For any kind of business, 50 cents isn’t much of a profit. Actually, to be honest, it is not a profit at all. But we were encouraged, and there was our zine, its off-white paper and its prickly stapled spine. Soon after, the zine folded after four issues, but I got the thrill of seeing something I helped make inside a bookstore for sale. I wrote poems and eventually had enough to print and bind them into a small collection. I packed them in my school knapsack and asked to put them on inventory. No one told me my name was too hard to pronounce. No one told me they didn’t want to carry my book because it wasn’t selling. I knew it wasn’t selling. I never got a call to come pick up my commission. But I never stopped printing and binding my books. I decided everything for and about it. My subject matter, the quality of paper, the cover. I didn’t write to meet a waiting and receptive audience. I wrote to find one. A publisher noticed my books, the quality of the paper and the words inside, and offered to publish what would be my first poetry book. And that, too, was sold at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore. As independent bookstores often go, the Toronto Women’s Bookstore is no more, but the people who work there are still around, working in new bookstores around the city. It has been about twenty-five years, four poetry books later, and I would see Anjula Gogia again. This time behind the cash register at Another Story Bookshop. When we think of fiction debuts, we think of the young, and it is often the young. It is rare, though, to find a debut at forty-two. That’s a lot of life and a lot of time to open up to discourage and prove to you that it will never happen for you. And maybe life did open up that way, but it didn’t take from me the joy and awe and thrill of seeing my books in a bookstore, because my books were there. A few days ago, Anjula told me my story collection, How to Pronounce Knife, is the store’s bestseller, and brought me a brownie. The book has received a lot of love from fancy places like the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, Paris Review, and Vogue. There was even a picture of it in New York Magazine’s approval matrix, ranked as “Highbrow & Brilliant.” And Randy Travis asked about me on Twitter. But really, I knew what I was and what I could be when Anjula put my books on inventory and kept them there all these years. I am here because someone a long time ago said I could be and made it that way. A writer can write books any time, but to have this solid and steady and encouraging presence, is what we with the brilliance of our imagination cannot form and bring to make real. Real people and their love make us real. I am thankful to Anjula for seeing me as I am before I ever was.
Souvankham Thammavongsa’s first story collection is How to Pronounce Knife. Her stories have won an O. Henry Award and appeared in Harper’s, Paris Review, the Atlantic, and other places. Photo credit: Sarah Bodri.