This month, Lao literature marked a major milestone as Lao Canadian writer Souvankham Thammavongsa’s book Light won the CBC Bookie Award for Best Book of Canadian Poetry in 2013.
Award-winning writer Souvankham Thammavongsa was born in Nong Khai, Thailand, in 1978. Her third poetry collection, Light, was launched in Toronto on September 12th, ten years after the launch of her first book Small Arguments, also by Pedlar Press. Her second book of poetry, Found (Pedlar 2007), was made into a short film of the same name by filmmaker Paramita Nath and screened internationally. A resident of Ontario, Thammavongsa’s verse has been praised by poets such as Kevin Connolly, Anne Michaels, Dionne Brand and Michael Ondaatje. The New Quarterly readers named her Best Beloved Canadian Poet.
Light contains 42 original poems by Thammavongsa.
The Bookies, organized by the CBC, were first awarded in 2011 to celebrate the best in Canadian literature in the previous year, as chosen by the international reading public. This year, Thammavongsa’s Light received over 40% of the vote.
Bryan Thao Worra, the first Lao American poet to receive an NEA Fellowship in Literature, remarked “Souvankham’s outstanding victory can be seen not just as a personal victory, but a victory for our entire community. Her work represents the power and the joy of free expression. It is a vindication of exploration, of imagination and memory.”
The other books of poetry up for consideration this year included Hooking by Mary Dalton,1996 by Sara Peters, For as Far as the Eye Can See by Robert Melancon, trans. by Judith Cowan, and Need Machine by Andrew Faulkner.
Thammavongsa spoke with Little Laos on the Prairie about the award.
“I am happy for it but I also think how it doesn’t change anything,” she said. “I still have to wake up every morning, take out the garbage, clean the toilet, do the laundry and dishes. I still go to the office, the one I’ve gone to for the last thirteen years.”
When we asked if there were any immediate changes since the announcement came out, she replied,”I am amused by the invitations to join clubs that wanted nothing to do with me a few months ago or bitter and unfair comments from people I consider friends. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”
Thammavongsa was candid about her writing. “My book and my poems, some took twenty years to write, are still the same. Nothing has changed about them. Everything I could do for them has been set. They aren’t printed on billboard signs and displayed along the highway. I think about the descriptions of the other winning authors and their books—actual references to what they wrote and how long the description for my book is, about all the words that get used up before we land on my name and what I wrote. I think about that.”
She added, “I am happy for the nomination, to be alongside those poets, to have been chosen with them, but it isn’t a book review. Did I achieve what I set out to do and did I do this well and how did I do this? Those questions are still there.”
Thammavongsa noted the significance of the award and the role that her publisher, Pedlar Press, played in her success, graciously stating “The win gives the book some visibility, puts it on a platform that often belongs to bigger presses. I come from a press, Pedlar Press, where there is only one woman, Beth Follett, who does everything in the attic of her home in St. John’s, Newfoundland while others have agents and publicity teams and interns who tweet and six-figure advances. I think the win should be a celebration of her and what she does and has been doing for almost twenty years and that it should mobilize people to buy books.”
Ultimately, how did it feel for her?
“For me, I felt loved by family members and community members who called and emailed to say hi, to hear their excitement and who could do something for me and did,” Thammavongsa said. “That is the win for me. I get asked, is there a ceremony, do you get money, a trophy? No. And that, too, is the win for me.”
You can get a copy of Light through your bookstores or directly from the publisher’s catalog at: http://www.pedlarpress.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/05-Fall-2013.pdf