Beth Follett: What is the most important thing you try to teach students when you attend academic classes?
Souvankham Thammavongsa: That, hell, I’m not supposed to be there and we all kind of know it. They will spend three or five years there, and a face like mine, a name like mine, doesn’t appear on their syllabi. I think about the instructor a lot. Are they trying to fill something that is missing, do they know the work, do they care? Am I here just for show? To fill up some time? For ridicule? There is nothing worse than walking into a room full of students and have to spend the whole class explaining who you are and what you do. The students are open or closed or uninterested if their instructor is that way. Sometimes that is what I walk into, that uninterest, and I try my best to change that. I’ve been given an opportunity, a platform, and I might as well use it even if it isn’t open to me. I always tell myself, somewhere in that room is someone who will one day run a newspaper or magazine, become a literary critic, a writer of some kind, a publisher, someone who could end up in a position that will change my life and writing. I assume that person is sitting there and I talk to them. They already are someone, they just don’t know it yet. If there isn’t uninterest, I am amazed I get a chance to be there. I know I don’t sound like anything in the university so it’s easier to hear me. Also, what a wonderful chance for both me and them, to be able to ask each other questions! And to be alive together! It's a risk for the instructor too. Whatever they say about me to the students is on them.
Follett: What is your opinion of literary criticism?
Thammavongsa: It’s like that scene in Good Will Hunting where Robin Williams tells Matt Damon that he’s just some kid who doesn’t know a fucking thing. He’s probably read everything about Michelangelo but has he been to the Sistine Chapel? Has he ever stood there and looked up at that painting? Does he know what it smells like in there? You can read and sound like you know things but that doesn’t mean you know them or the writer in particular. I think a good critic is someone who can situate you in the writing that came before you, can assess what you are trying to do and whether or not you’ve achieved that. Someone who knows things besides literature, like art, music, linguistics, respect. A small part of literary criticism is the review.
- Souvankham Thammavongsa, in interview with her Pedlar Press publisher, Beth Follett, over at Open Book Toronto. You can read the whole thing here.