Souvankham Thammavongsa

Where Are They Now?
Souvankham Thammavongsa 

Souvankham Thammavongsa

Interview as told to Jackie Drew

How does a young woman who arrived in Canada barefoot in 1980 become a renowned poet, author, and a Giller Prize winner? This is the story of Souvankham Thammavongsa. Her friends at York Memorial called her Sue or Sou.


Souvankham’s parents came originally from Laos, a small country between Vietnam and Thailand. They built a raft out of bamboo to cross the Mekong River in order to reach the Nong Khai refugee camp in Thailand. This is where Sou was born.  She wasn’t given a birth certificate because those born in a refugee camp, are considered stateless.  Birth certificates are only given to someone who is a citizen and she belonged to no country.

A Canadian family, through a church program, sponsored Sou’s family. Sou has remained connected to these sponsors throughout her life. The Thammavongsa family arrived in Canada when it was snowing and her parents, who had never seen snow before, called it ice cubes. On their first day in Canada, the sponsor took off his fur hat to wrap around Sou’s bare feet and a longstanding friendship was born.

Sou’s family, like many, struggled to make a living. They worked long hours and among other things, started a sign making business. Now her father owns his own sign-making business, her mother works in a factory, bagging vegetables and her brother, also a popular former YMCI student, is a welder.


Because Sou’s parents worked a lot, and for a short time, the family lived in a van, Sou remembers York Memorial being a safe place for her.  She would come to school very early and sit in the hallway even before the lights came on.  She would sometimes sing and dance like a star in a Broadway play since no one else was around and she originally wanted to be an actor. Her fond recollections of teachers include Maxanne Ezer, who taught creative writing and Mr. Murchie who taught math.  Other memories include her many crushes, Jamaican beef patties on a bun from the convenience store, shepherd’s pie from the school cafeteria, the sports and after school clubs.

She felt lucky to be a member of such a diverse student population not being the only refugee or immigrant in the school.

Her experience at Memo allows her to write about characters who can make fun of the English language, characters who did not want to belong and would make fun of you for wanting to fit in, characters who insist on their own language and characters who are not embarrassed or humiliated about who they are or where their families came from, because as Sou says: “That was York Memorial”.


Sou’s original desire to become an actor led her to audition for Little Red Riding Hood when she was in grade two. She did not understand that she couldn’t change the script and had to follow what had been written. Apparently, she kicked the wolf every time she encountered him and therefore did not get the part. She decided then and there that she wanted to be the person who could change the story i.e., the writer!

Sou had grown up in a home without books and every time she saw a bookshelf, she would beg her parents to take a picture of her in front of it, just as we do “when we go on vacation and think we won’t ever see things like that again.”

Becoming a writer is precarious. It is not a carved-out path like becoming a doctor or a lawyer where you go to school, get good grades, go to university and then proceed to medical or law school followed by an internship. Sou held many jobs while writing books: in the research department of an investment advice publisher, counting bags of cash five levels below a big bank, and she prepared taxes. While holding these jobs, Sou was also a published writer, publishing four acclaimed poetry books. But poetry is not very well-known to readers, and she caught her big break, when she started writing fiction.

As Sou says: “having talent and working hard” does not necessarily mean that you will become a successful writer. It’s a difficult and competitive field that requires luck in addition to talent!

Souvankham Thammavongsa2



Sou combined a lot of talent and a little luck to become the successful and award-winning writer that she is today. She has written four poetry books.  Her first book, Small Arguments won a ReLit Award in 2004. Her second book, Found, was made into a short film. Her third book, Light, won the Trillium Book Award for Poetry in 2014.

How to Pronounce Knife


The short story collection How to Pronounce Knife, was the winner of the $100k Scotiabank Giller Prize, a New York Times Editors’ Choice and Time’s 100 Must-Read Books of 2020. Her stories have won an O. Henry award and appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, The Paris Review, The Atlantic and many other places.

In addition, How to Pronounce Knife was one of the ten most borrowed books from the public library in 2021.


Sou is now teaching creative writing at Massey College, at the University of Toronto. As Sue says, creative writing often falls under English literature.  She admits that one of her greatest challenges is to convince students and their parents that what they are learning is as valuable as computer engineering or economics etc. Sue admits honestly that one of the rewards she derives from teaching is that she gets to see that she still has a lot to learn. She encounters students who are brilliant and whom she would classify as having more talent than she has. As a teacher, she uses her knowledge and experience to draw attention to the writing talent of the student and to encourage them.  

Sue is still an impassioned writer. She confesses that it doesn’t take much to motivate or inspire her to write because she loves what she does. Her feelings and experiences contribute to her story content and ability to translate feelings into the written word. In her own words:

“I know what it’s like to be the best at something and to get passed over. I know what it’s like to have a name that means something beautiful in my language, but not to have the same meaning in another language.  I know what it’s like to stare at mould on the walls, to watch someone with a sadness they can’t see.  These are just ordinary experiences, something that happens to everyone.  But how do we make our experiences feel real to someone else?  We like the ‘real life’ stories behind the stories, but the truth is the real-life story is actually incredibly ordinary and anyone can tell it. What’s extraordinary is to take something so ‘undazzingly’ ordinary and to make it a story, to draw people up close from the buzz and noise of the world and to get to say “Listen…” and they actually do!

Now the girl who ran the poetry club in York Memorial is writing a novel, and working on a television series based on her book How to Pronounce Knife. We want to wish her every success with her new book and continued joy and achievement in her chosen career.