When Souvankham Thammavongsa heard her name announced as the winner of the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize, the biggest literary award in Canada, she wondered whether she had imagined things, as a fiction writer often does.
It was a surreal moment to be accepting the prestigious literary prize at her Toronto home during the virtual award ceremony on Monday night for her short-story collection How to Pronounce Knife. But the joyous reaction of her friends and the artisan glass trophy delivered to her front door made it clear that her win, and the $100,000 that came along with it, was real.
“I’m so happy,” Thammavongsa said in an interview. “You write books and you just hope somebody reads it. But then to be celebrated in this way, it's something even a fiction writer can't make up.”
The Toronto-based author spoke with Perspectives about the prize, her family and friends’ reaction and how she plans to spend the $100,000.
Q: When you heard your name announced as the winner, what was the first thought that came to your mind?
A: I thought about whether or not it was real because I write fiction and I can make anything up in my mind. And I wondered if in that moment I only wished to hear my name, and that's why I heard my name. But then I looked around the room and I saw my friends’ reaction and I thought, “Oh, oh, that must be me.”
Q: Did you think it was possible you might win?
A: I always think awards, and these lovely things, happen to other people, not me. This is my fifth book but it's my first fiction book and I've been writing for 25 years. This book is the first time where many people in this country are coming across my name and reading what I'm writing.
Q: How did it feel receiving the award while seated on your couch in your living room?
A: It was kind of funny but also, I was so grateful. This year, [for] anybody who put out a book, it's been a heartbreaking and difficult year. Because, when you put out a book you should be able to go out and celebrate, to have a launch, and none of those things were possible this year. There's nothing else like what happened, where on primetime TV you’re celebrating books and writers of that country. Often primetime TV is for bad news or sports, and there we are celebrating books. It's been an incredible bright spot of joy.
Q: What is the feedback that you’ve gotten from friends, family, colleagues?
A: Just everybody being excited. I quietly have worked at my writing for 25 years. I don't know what people are reading out there, or if they're reading me at all. And just to see everybody from high school to university to the people I worked with that have nothing to do with literature, they have all come out to cheer and to be happy. I know this sounds dramatic, but I felt like I, myself, won an election or something.
Q: You had mentioned previously that you hadn’t told your parents about the Giller nomination. Now that you have won, have you told them?
A: My dad saw on Facebook, and he said congratulations. My brother sent me a text and he said he saw it on CBC. And my mom, she found out from her coworkers at work. I don't know, I just feel like when you pave a road or when you prepare tax returns and you finish a tax return, you don't call your parents and say, “I did my job,” you know? It's just, you do it quietly and humbly and you hope the thing that you made and brought into the world or finished and achieved, that the people who come to it have been moved by it, that it matters to them.
Q: Looking at the journey you and your family took, from leaving Laos and living in a refugee camp in Thailand where you were born before coming to Canada, they must be proud.
A: For sure. We don't see ourselves in literature or even in a book of facts, like history. Often when we talk about the Vietnam War, Laos is often just a footnote.
Q: Your short stories in this book delve into the immigrant experience, but in a more nuanced way. What do you hope readers take away from these stories?
A: Whenever we encounter stories of immigrants and refugees, they are often very sad and tragic. And, you know, rightly so. But that's a very narrow view of who we are and I wanted to show us in ways that were unexpected, like ungrateful, ferocious, angry, hilarious, fun, because we are those things too.
Q: What do you plan on doing with the prize money?
A: I am a person of practical matters. To me, this money means a down payment on my own home, you know, so that I could get a mortgage. I know that sounds awfully earnest. But that's what I want to do with it. Money like this doesn't come around to a writer like me often. And it means a lot to me because when I was 14, my family lived in a van for a few months, and I remember it being parked outside of a house and seeing a light in there. And I felt like there was so little difference between us, but for that light, and with this money I can own and have that light all to myself. And that's what I want.
Q: What kind of an impact to awards like these make for authors?
A: What I noticed in winning this prize is the press pay attention, they want to talk about your book. Public libraries tell people to take out your book from the library. Small independent bookstores feature your book in the front store window. That kind of energy is what a prize brings to your book. I mean, as a writer, you hope that kind of energy follows your book anyway. But when you win a prize like this, it's a guarantee that people will go out of their way to uplift and to make it possible for readers to find your book.
Q: How do you think this award will impact your life?
A: Not a lot of people understand the writing life. But what they do understand is the value of this prize and the money that comes with it, in all walks of life. Whether you're in the field of literature, whether you're in banking, that kind of money means something in the world. And it says that what I do is successful and that it matters.
Q: You have said that you try to write endings that leave the reader mad, that don’t wrap things up neatly but rather cruelly. This award win, for you, is quite the opposite of that, perhaps?
A: It feels like a happy ending and I don't know what to do with being happy, because it's so unfamiliar to me. And it's just really uncomfortable. For me, if I didn't win the Giller, it would make sense to me because I'm familiar with that feeling. But to win, I'm not familiar with that feeling, and I don't know what to do with it and it's a very strange place to be. All I hope in winning this is that my book will still be read 10, 20 years from now. And then when I put out a book whatever comes next readers will flock to it. That's what I'm hoping.
This interview has been edited and condensed.