Rebecca CHISHOLM Clarkes'66 speaker shares stories on life, systems of power and writer’s craft
“I am someone who is not supposed to be a writer but I found my way there.” Sharing a series of childhood photos, tracing her birth in a Thai refugee camp in 1978 to her upbringing in Toronto, award-winning writer Souvankham Thammavongsa spoke to a packed theatre of DP1 and Grade 10 students on April 28.
“My parents didn’t exactly know what a writer was,” said Thammavongsa in a talk that was equally humorous and moving—and as sparse and exact as her prose. “I wanted to be one, but I couldn’t ask anyone around me. I grew up in a home without books. I always begged to have a photo taken with a bookshelf [if I saw one], like when you’re on vacation you take pictures of things you will never see again.”
Her message was clear as she talked about her personal and professional journey, and the role of art. She read from her short story collection, How to Pronounce Knife, winner of the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize. As an immigrant and child of non-English speaking parents, her stories never pity their characters or humiliate them for not knowing the language.
“Not belonging is something to value and not wanting to belong is an act of self-love and self-preservation,” she said. “It would have been easy to take readers into a refugee camp and I purposely didn’t do that. I wanted to make sure my characters are not the ‘sad quiet lumps’ that you [typically] read about [when reading about immigrants and refugees]. Never once are my characters ashamed because they don’t know English. It’s just a fact, the same way I don't know Italian.”
Her talk offered important messages to our Senior School students, says Jordan Small Diploma Programme Core Coordinator. “It reminds us of the place that language has within systems of power. Her deconstruction of the centralized place of the English language and reflection upon its role in othering are important reminders for our community. Having the opportunity to listen to stories from her life journey, and the role writing has played, exemplifies the pursuit of international mindedness in education.”
In a question and answer period at the end of the talk, Thammavongsa explained the difference between a great anecdote and a great story.
“Just because an event is real doesn’t mean it’s a great story,” she said. “We all have an uncle who can tell an anecdote that makes us laugh and then we move on. The challenge is to make it feel real to a reader who doesn’t have this experience. I had to learn how to do this.”
She also told of a humorous moment about her parents learning she’d won the Giller.
“I didn’t tell my parents; they saw it on the news. My parents are huge fans of CP24,” she said. “They saw me sitting on my couch, thanking my publisher. My father always gets English wrong, and he texted, ‘I’m very pound of you.’ I thought that worked because the moment did feel heavy and big. That is a word in close proximity; there’s a moment for another story.”
The Rebecca CHISHOLM Clarkes’66 speaker series was established to honour Mrs. Clarkes’ love of literature and creative writing. Her classmates, friends and family established the series in her memory, to bring a well-known writer to Branksome Hall each year. Branksome has previously hosted esteemed writers such as Tanya Talaga, Robyn Doolittle, Anne Michaels, Thomas King, Miriam Toews, Lawrence Hill and Heather O’Neill.
We wish to acknowledge this land on which Branksome operates. For thousands of years, it has been the traditional land of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississaugas of the Credit River. Today, this meeting place is still the home to many Indigenous peoples from across Turtle Island and we are grateful to have the opportunity to work and go to school on this land.