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Kwantlen Park Secondary's Honours English / AP Literature 12 classes met renowned author and Giller Prize winner Souvankham Thammavongsa as part of a nationwide contest by First Book Canada. Teacher Fritzie Perez-Dingler said her students connected with Thammavongsa, relating over her background as an immigrant and admiring how she overcame her struggles growing up.
Meeting a renowned, highly acclaimed author doesn't happen every day, but it happened recently at a school in Surrey.
The Honours English/AP Literature 12 class at Kwantlen Park Secondary was selected as one of five classes across the country to speak with Souvankham Thammavongsa, the latest winner of the Giller Prize for her book, How to Pronounce Knife. The Giller Prize is a literary award worth $100,000 given to a Canadian author of a novel or short story collection in a juried competition, similar to the American Pulitzer Prize.
For teacher Fritzie Perez-Dingler, who entered her class into the nationwide contest, the opportunity to speak with a top-tier author made up for a rather limiting year for her class.
"Every year, I take my AP Lit course to Bard on the Beach and the Vancouver Writers Festival, but this year, I was at a complete loss because everything is shut down," she said. "I couldn't give them Bard or the writers festival, but we got something big."
Organized through First Book Canada, the presentation saw Thammavongsa share her story of being a Laotian refugee and overcoming her struggles, both as an immigrant and a writer determined to make it in her craft.
"She talked about her life and what led up to becoming the author who she is now and how she struggled for 25 years," said Perez-Dingler. "The majority of my kids are immigrants, and to see someone reach the peak of her profession having gone through what they relate to, it was very meaningful."
Perez-Dingler said she was caught by surprise when she heard her class had been selected, with the presentation scheduled for just a week later – rather abrupt for such an intensive course. Fortunately, she received signed copies of the book in time for her students and got them to prepare questions, in between reading Tolstoy, reviewing their textbook and writing narrative essays.
"It was a whirlwind," she said. "I had them all come up with questions for her based on what we read, and we chose the top five."
After the presentation, Perez-Dingler said her students were inspired by how they could relate to Thammavongsa, and that she rose from humble beginnings to being one of the top Canadian authors today.
"Her story is just amazing, she was so real," said Perez-Dingler. "She spoke to us, and second only to meeting her in person, this is it. You can't top it."