Author Note: Souvankham Thammavongsa

Souvankham Thammavongsa

Souvankham ThammavongsaSouvankham Thammavongsa is the author of the story “Mani Pedi,” featured in Issue 30 of The Puritan. The story follows a tomato can boxer who has to leave the sport or inevitably suffer brain trauma. After drifting through several menial jobs, his sister recruits him for her nail salon. As his sister tells Raymond, “… they didn’t leave Laos, a bombed out country, in a war no one ever heard of, on a raft made of bamboo to have him scooping out ice cream or frying cabbages with old grease oil.”

Thammavongsa read part of “Mani Pedi” at The Puritan’s Black Friday launch party this past Friday at Toronto’s Monarch Tavern. The winners of the Thomas Morton Memorial Prize for Literary Excellence were announced (see The Puritan for details), short stories were read, and then there was dancing. The Puritan sends out its thanks to all the readers and listeners who came out to Black Friday.

Here, Souvankham Thammavongsa tells The Town Crier a little bit about the writing of “Mani Pedi.”

Town Crier: Do you have any interesting factoids you’d like to share about yourself and/or the story?

Souvankham Thammavongsa: Mitch Chuvalo was my high school History teacher. I went to York Memorial, which is on the corner of Keele Street and Eglinton West in Toronto. Mitch Chuvalo is George Chuvalo’s son.

Town Crier: What was the story influenced by?

Souvankham Thammavongsa: A few things:

My brother. He wanted to start a sign-making business like my father. He was going to call it “Chick-A-Dee Signs” and the slogan was going to be: “We do signs! Cheap! Cheap!” It was something my father said at the shop whenever someone came in the door. At first it was,“We do signs!” but then people would ask him“Cheap? Cheap?” and so after a while my father started to say “We do signs! Cheap! Cheap!” to get to the point. My brother’s slogan for his business was something that always stuck with me. My brother became a welder and it was just too good to not be in the world somewhere.

I was reading a New York Times report on nail salons. It was about the women who work there and why they stay. The kinds of health problems workers had and the chemicals and conditions they were exposed to.

There’s also watching Manny Pacquiao fight. He looks like my father. It’s too close. I can’t stand to watch a man with my father’s face get punched in the face.

I thought it would be fun to write a female character and have her not worry about being nice and kind. A woman who didn’t believe in the power of true love, but to give that to a man to believe. I also wanted to get you to love her too, as she is. It was fun to write her dialogue.

Town Crier: Tell us the best thing you’ve read lately.

Souvankham Thammavongsa: “One Arm,” by Tennessee Williams. It’s about a boxer who loses an arm and still has to use his body to make money by becoming a prostitute.

Souvankham Thammavongsa’s story “How to Pronounce Knife” was shortlisted for the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

Author Note: Anna Leventhal

Anna Leventhal

Anna Leventhal wrote the story “L’Horloge” for the Summer Supplement, “À la prochaine fois”: 1995 and Literature in Post-Referendum Quebec” in The Puritan Issue 30. The story is set in a retirement home in Laval in the 21st century.

Anna LeventhalI wasn’t sure at first how to approach writing about the ’95 referendum. I was a teenager in Manitoba at the time and don’t have any personal experience of it to speak from; I could have put myself in the shoes of someone who did, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to write about the repercussions of the referendum (and separatism in general) in terms of Quebec national identity today, and what that means, if anything.

I decided the best way to do that was to write as an outsider. My previous stories set in Montreal were insiderish, to a certain extent. Even though the characters were a mix of Quebecois and from elsewhere, there was a general feeling of insularity, maybe even cliquishness—a sense that everyone belonged in some way to a broad, shaggy, but still cohesive civic structure, even as they often felt estranged or alienated from it. There was a shared vocabulary or set of touchstones that were maybe obscure enough that they felt like they came from, if not an “authentic” Montrealer (whatever that means) then at least from a fairly successful sleeper agent. For this newer piece, I took a bit of distance and used a narrator whose perspective is that of another kind of person who’s a big part of the “Montreal experience”: an anglophone emigre who stops here for a bit on her way to somewhere else. For a lot of people, especially young anglophones, Montreal is a kind of Neverland, a sandbox they play around in for a while until they mature and get on with their lives. And it’s a place that’s so thick with myth, so brimming with the ideals and expectations of generations of people with very different backgrounds, it can be hard to figure out what it really is. Of course, the Neverland thing is part of the mythology too.

Anyway, the narrator of this story is one of those people who kind of knows she’s just passing through, and she’s sifting through layers of other people’s identities and their ideas of what Quebec is, and their expectations of it, their demands and pleas and resignations. To me that’s what the referendum is about: your expectations of what a place can be, your highest hopes and brightest ideals, which are always bound in some way to your fears and darker impulses.

The Horloge residence itself is inspired by a trip I took to Laval. The building is a real place, though I never went in, only had it pointed out to me from a car window. I liked the idea of writing a Montreal story that mainly takes place in Laval. It’s very un-Richler, un-Roy, un-O’Neill. It’s not gritty or urban or diverse or picturesquely desiccated. It’s not even actually Montreal. I also wanted to capture those situations that are both too intimate and somewhat alien, where you don’t quite have enough information to figure out what’s going on; all you have is inference, conjecture, and half-caulked guesses. A care home in Laval seemed as good a place as any to do that.

Originally from Winnipeg, Anna Leventhal lives in Montreal and writes fiction and nonfiction. Her first book of short stories, Sweet Affliction, was published by Invisible Publishing in spring of 2014, and is available in bookstores across Canada, and online. You can follow her on Twitter at @annalevz.