“How vain, without the merit, is the name”: Proper Name Usage Invoking Asian Diaspora in Souvankham Thammavongsa’s How To Pronounce Knife

Essay by Aimee Koristka

Art by Amy Ng

Proper name usage—both in literature and in real life—creates a clear sense of identity for an individual, allowing for distinct separation from one person and another. They are the manner by which an individual is known. Hence, “[p]roper names can be considered as an interface between individuals and society … [a]t the same time, however, names can be considered as empty signifiers as they ‘wait’ to be filled in by a bearer” (Georgelou & Janša 1). Indeed, the importance of a person’s name in the formation of their identity cannot be overstated. It is for this reason that proper names are generally considered pre-requisites in character-centric narratives, as they place a character within the given societal framework. However, it is critical that the usage of proper names in literature is no longer considered obligatory, but rather further examined to identify how proper name utilization contributes to a narrative’s formation. In Souvankham Thammavongsa’s short story collection, How To Pronounce Knife, character names are not used in the common notion that they are a necessity, but rather selectively used in order to enhance the thematic resonance of the effect of Asian diaspora (1)—a central component of the entire collection.

In this paper, I analyze Thammavongsa’s usage of proper names in two stories from the collection (“Randy Travis” and “Chick-A-Chee!”) which exemplify how proper name usage can be used to reinforce narrative themes. Utilizing theories of naming as established by scholars Mladen Dolar and Barbara Dancygier, I demonstrate how Thammavongsa’s technique creates a feeling of displacement, subsequently emulating the experience of Asian diaspora and impelling the reader to not only empathize with the characters in the sense of understanding them, but sympathize with the characters in the sense of experiencing diaspora along with them. Through this shared identification, the characters in the stories are no longer perceived by the reader as passive recipients of sociopolitical and socioeconomic issues—a perspective compelled by the preconceived notion that the characters’ diasporic state prevents them from doing so—but rather active individuals with as much agency as the reader themself. I will begin by outlining theories of naming to frame the paper. Next, I will individually analyze the two stories, highlighting how their distinct name usage contributes to the overall story themes. To conclude, I will compare these methods, illustrating how Thammavongsa synthesizes these approaches to reproduce Asian diaspora.

Proper names are the necessary framework through which individuals communicate, as they signify a person in a single, agreed-upon term (Dolar 26). Generally, proper names are understood to belong to the individual that bears them, however, this belief disregards the purpose of naming in the first place. An individual—as they have the complete conception of themself—has no reason to have a proper name except for communicative purposes, meaning the proper name they bear is not for them. The purpose of proper names is to allow for a sense of objective communication (i.e., without relational descriptors dependent on the user) when referring to and communicating with others. The necessary simplicity of naming, therefore means that a name cannot fully encapsulate the nuances of the individual being described (31). “Naming is evoking a phantom, conjuring a ghost,” (32) philosopher Mladen Dolar writes, referencing how the intricacies of an individual are lost once they are described in the abstracted sense of their name. Because proper names can only conjure the idea of an individual for the purpose of coherent communication, proper names are ‘filled’ with meaning by the user rather than the actual individual in reference. Proper names are thus “a structural illusion” (31), serving to abstract an individual so that the user may distinguish and understand them in relation to the rest of the world. The creation of an individual’s identity, therefore, is strongly influenced by the manner in which their proper name’s meaning is filled by the user. The subjective experiences that the user brings to fill in an individual’s proper name shapes the abstraction of the individual’s identity and places them within social, political, and geographical structures. Because one’s expression of agency relies on their ability to exert power within their environment (OED), the extent to which their environment (i.e., societal structures) is willing to recognize their power (i.e., their identity) affects the degree to which they can assert authority. For this reason, proper names directly influence the manner in which an individual understands their reality; names “designate and enact cultural codes, social status and power regimes” (Georgelou & Janša 2). Consequently, the manner in which one’s proper name is (un)used by others informs oneself on their status within these social structures, consequently shaping their own subjective evaluation of their worth. As such, “[n]ames can also signal narrative options and play with the idea of character identity” (Dancygier 119), meaning that a name’s prevalence, or, lack thereof, in a literary text influences the extent to which the reader—who is an indirect user—is able to fill in the meaning of the character in relation to their understandings of social, political, and geographical structures. Although one’s agency could theoretically be asserted through personal usage of their own name, it is rare for one to continually refer to themselves in the third-person, therefore placing the ability to grant societal agency in the power of the user, rather than the holder. Evidently, proper names abstractify individuals in order to fit them within preconceived notions of societal structures, consequently influencing one’s own experience of their identity. While proper names create a hollow abstraction of an individual for communicative purposes, they are crucial in order for an individual to be acknowledged within larger society and are, therefore, an aspect of having full agency.

As readers apply their own understandings of the world to fulfill their abstracted idea of a proper name, what these names subsequently represent to the reader are, thus, symbolic of a specifically invoked perspective. Indeed, “[a] name … refers to a set of descriptions—geographical, historical, linguistic, demographic, etc.—but also to a set of some supposed real or imaginary properties” (Dolar 30). In the story “Randy Travis,” the proper name ‘Randy Travis’ is used twenty-two times (Thammavongsa 43–54) despite the man himself only physically appearing in the story once (51–52). Even in his singular appearance while performing at a concert attended by the narrator (a child of Laos immigrants who have recently moved to Canada) and the narrator’s mother (a Laos immigrant and Randy Travis fanatic), the narrator comments “we were so high up on the outer ring of the audience I could not tell if it really was Randy Travis onstage” (51). As the reader’s viewpoint for the entire story is from the perspective of the narrator, it is clear that the idea of ‘Randy Travis’ is abstractified beyond him being an actual individual; the usage of the proper name ‘Randy Travis’ in the story is, subsequently, filled by the narrator’s own experience with it. By beginning the story with the statement, “[t]he only thing my mother liked about the new country we were living in was its music” (43) and the fact that the rest of the story surrounds the narrator’s mother’s love for, specifically, Randy Travis’ music, it is evident that ‘Randy Travis’ is positioned as a feature of the country itself, rather than an actual man. With the prevalence of Randy Travis’ emblematic name in mind, the lack of established proper names for the narrator and the narrator’s family therefore represents their experience of identity dislocation, as their names are from Laos but are not used or integrated into Canada’s sociopolitical structures (Georgelou & Janša 2). Despite the story establishing that the narrator’s mother has a beginner’s understanding of English (44), she continues to listen and idolize Randy Travis, consequently imbibing the ideology of his stage persona because he represents a revered version of Canadian life. As such, the manner in which the narrator writes to Randy Travis—“You’re ugly. Go back home. Loser” (48)—demonstrates the narrator’s disdain for their geographical position and the influence it is having on their mother’s identity. Furthermore, the comment that the narrator’s father makes to the narrator’s mother when she signs a card to Randy Travis with only her name in Lao—“Randy Travis reads English. He’s gonna look at your name and see a doodle” (48)—highlights how the geographic location of the family removes the ability for their own name to be understood and, therefore, withdraws some of their own agency. Thus, Thammavongsa’s usage of the proper name ‘Randy Travis’ is not simply to invoke the idea of the individual, but rather the effect that geography has on the narrator’s family and their relationship to their own identity. As the narrator’s mother seeks to minimize her Laos identity in favor of a Canadian one, the validity of the narrator’s own identity is called into question. Evidently, the story uses the abstractified nature of proper names to symbolize societal structures in order to develop the theme of identity dislocation due to geographical displacement.

The purpose of name usage in “Randy Travis” is conspicuous as the characters directly engage with the proper name itself. However, as scholar Barbara Dancygier notes about name usage in literary texts, proper names can also be “used in … narrative[s] not only to refer, but also to participate in constructions which structure the emergent story itself” (121). In “Chick-A-Chee!”, rather than a single proper name symbolizing a particular societal structure, the selective usage of proper names interacts with the story’s construction and places the main characters in relation to socioeconomic hierarchies. The narrator, who is reflexively described in the past-perfect tense as a child, is never referred to by name in the text. Similarly, the family members of the narrator are not given names. Instead, the characters of the family are referred relationally to the narrator, using the familial titles “Mom,” “Dad,” and “my brother” throughout the narrative (Thammavongsa 75–82). Within the entire story, only the owners of the “first house … [with] windows as large as doors” that the children “chick-a-chee” (a derivation of the phrase “trick-or-treat”) (80) at, as well as the school lunch woman (82) are referred to by their proper names. Thus, the absence of proper names for the main characters of the narrative means the reader is required to create their abstract idea of these characters relative to the other proper names expressed in the narrative. Therefore, by analyzing the proper name usage of the other characters, the unnamed main characters can be filled with meaning. The three named characters—“Harold,” “Elaine,” (77) and “Missus Furman” (82)—are all described, at one point in the text, relative to their economic position. Harold and Elaine are the owners of a house in the “neighbourhood [the family] wished [they] could live in” (77), while “Missus Furman” is described by her occupation as the school lunch woman (82) which implicitly places her within the middle-class. Notably, Harold and Elaine, whose proper names are used the most and who are the most affluent characters, extend their names when speaking to the children (“Harooooold!”) (81). Thus, the proper names in the text are primed to be filled by the reader in terms of economic structure. Those who are socioeconomically higher than the narrator’s family are allowed to have their proper name established and, thus, allowed to have an individual identity within society. Those who are the absolute highest (e.g. Harold and Elaine) are even granted the ability to extend their proper names and, therefore, take up more structural space with their identities. In contrast, the only identifiers granted to the narrator and the narrator’s family are those used in relation to each other (i.e., their familial titles), signifying how their individual identities (i.e., their proper names) are not acknowledged within larger society—instead, homogenized within it—and are only observed when in a familial context. Thus, selective proper name usage in “Chick-A-Chee!” not only aids in further establishing the narrative’s socioeconomic theme, but also connects this theme to the characters’ conceptions of identity.

In “Randy Travis” and “Chick-a-Chee!” the naming techniques not only enhance the themes of the individual stories, but also contribute to the overall story-collection theme of the effect of Asian diaspora. In both stories, the lack of proper names for the narrator and the narrator’s family means that they are not allowed to be a part of the “structured illusion” (Dolar 31) and, therefore, are displaced from being “designate[d] and enact[ed within] cultural codes, social status and power regimes” (Georgelou & Janša 2). Thus, the unnamed characters do not have an “interface between … society” (1) and, as such, are displaced geographically, socioeconomically, and even from their own individual identity, which linguistically emulates the experience of Asian diaspora. Furthermore, the absence of proper names means that the reader is required to not only create images of the characters in relation to the other named characters, but also in relation to their own identity and their own experience with the given referential expressions (e.g., Mom, Dad). The usage of first-person perspective in both stories (Thammavongsa 43–54; 75–82), coupled with the distinct lack of proper names, prevents the reader from creating distinct, abstractified ideas of the characters and subsequently impels the reader to position themselves as the “I.” This then “prompt[s] the blend of reality and fiction, defined through cross-space participation and epistemic transparency, not identity” (Dancygier 136). This blend—between the character’s identity and the reader’s own—ensures that the impact of geographical dislocation and socioeconomic inequality directly affects the reader, meaning that instead of being empathetic for understanding the experiences of the character, the reader is sympathetic for their communal experience. As, in reality, all readers are distinct individuals with their own identity and agency, this identification ensures that the characters in How To Pronounce Knife are not depicted as homogenized individuals who are passive to the issues of Asian diaspora, but rather active individuals in their own right with identities as rich as the reader’s own. As shown, Thammavongsa not only represents the experience of Asian diaspora in her short-story collection, but is able to parallel the experience for the reader, as well.

Proper names—while often believed to be representative to the owner—are filled with meaning by the user and are, thus, an abstractified idea of an individual which greatly impacts the individual’s understanding of themselves in relation to societal structures, but also their understanding of their own identity. “Randy Travis” and “Chick-a-Chee!” both utilize the power of proper names in different ways to enhance their narrative’s overall thematic resonance. By utilizing these strategies in tandem with first-person narrative perspective and referential expressions, Thammavongsa compels the reader to fully identify with the story’s narrators, therefore creating a sympathetic experience of Asian diaspora and, consequently, a newfound sense of agency that allows the characters to be seen as active individuals with hopeful futures.

1 Although often referred to as “the Asian Diaspora” (and, thus, minimized to the single event in time in which an individual is dispersed from Asia), this paper defines ‘diaspora’ as “a form of consciousness that arises from the experience of migration and exile” (Amrith 57), therefore foregrounding the aspect of ‘diaspora’ that relates to an ongoing emotional process.

Works Cited

Amrith, Sunil. “The Making of Asian Diasporas, 1850–1930.” Migration and Diaspora in Modern Asia, Cambridge University Press, 2021, pp. 57–88, https://doi.org/10.1017/cbo9780511976346.006.

Dancygier, Barbara. “Referential Expressions and Narrative Spaces.” The Language of Stories: A Cognitive Approach, Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp. 117–138.

Dolar, Mladen. What’s in a Name? Aksioma – Institute For Contemporary Art, 2014. Georgelou, Konstantina, and Janez Janša. “What Names (Un)Do.” Performance Research, vol. 22, no. 5, 19 Dec. 2017, pp. 1–3. Taylor & Francis Online, doi.org/10.1080/13528165.2017.1383719, 10.1080/13528165.2017.1383719. Accessed 29 Sept. 2021.

Oxford University Press. “Agency, N.” Oxford English Dictionary, 2011, www.oed.com/view/Entry/3851?redirectedFrom=agency#eid.

Thammavongsa, Souvankham. “Chick-A-Chee!” How To Pronounce Knife. Penguin Random House, 2020, pp. 75-82.

———. “Randy Travis” How To Pronounce Knife. Penguin Random House, 2020, pp. 43-54.