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Anthony Veasna So’s ‘Afterparties’ is a bittersweet testament to the late author’s talents

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After publishing stories in a constellation of outlets, such as the New Yorker and N+1, Anthony Veasna So was poised to be a new literary star. When he died, at age 28 in 2020, the tributes to his talents poured in. In one, critic Jane Hu asked, “How does one write an immigrant story when the story’s very premise was designed to be distorted?”

The answer can be found in “Afterparties,” So’s posthumously published short story collection with a deceptively simple narrative structure scaffolded by social commentary and humor. Equal parts absurd and empathetic, “Afterparties” probes the complex lives of California Cambodian Americans in a style So once described as “post-khmer genocide queer stoner fiction.” The stories are slightly linked, the reverb of kin apparent through pieces like “Maly, Maly, Maly,” about a friendship between a queer teen and his beautiful best friend Maly, and “Somaly Serey, Serey Somaly,” which follows a young nurse believed to be the reincarnation of Maly’s mother. Others focus on the nexus of identity and contemporary life. In “Human Development,” a recent Stanford grad grapples with the cultural responsibility of dating another Khmer man against the backdrop of Bay Area tech’s dubious conflation with social progress.

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So’s own parents escaped Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge genocide and eventually settled in Stockton, Calif., where So was born and raised. So explained his impetus for writing while a Soros Fellow:

“During the Khmer Rouge Regime, Pol Pot wanted to restart the country at year zero, so he incinerated entire libraries, and killed the teachers, artists, writers, and intellectuals first. Writers and artists have the power to cement history into our cultural fabric . . . I pursued the arts because I want to never forget my own history, and I want to do my part in making sure this history is never lost for others. I want to pave new futures for my people.”

So’s writing insists that ancestral haunting and millennial snark can exist simultaneously. Parts of “Afterparties” read like critical race theory (In “Human Development,” a young queer teacher muses about the preoccupation with ethnicity on the dating app Grindr: “Guys never read my profile anyway, and still dragged me into ethnicity guessing games all the time, as though our Grindr messages were a trivia night hosted at a previously hip bar.”) Others, like a text chain between friends. At a broey tech party in San Francisco, the main character of “Human Development” texts his twin sister, “this party’s in the gay capital of the world and straight incels are playing video games.”

He later expands upon his ambivalence about the Internet, describing an in-development equity app created by his older lover, Ben, as “something masquerading as objectively good, a solution to all our problems . . . Ben wanted technology to offer people a sense of fulfillment, to rush them to shore, secure everyone to land, and I wanted to be indefinite, free to . . . be lost.” Wise to the familiar 21st century tropes of technological skepticism and potential, it is hard not to label So a voice of his generation. His humor feels straight out of millennial media darlings like “Broad City,” “Insecure” or “Atlanta,” but his themes are decidedly deep, such as the impact of inherited trauma, how it gets lodged into the corners of how we love and work. And his subjects are often overlooked: Cambodian Americans in the Central Valley, glossed over for the metallic sparkle of San Francisco.

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Unlike authors of most contemporary cultural trauma narratives, So doesn’t linger in a diasporic longing, the need to excavate one’s family’s past, mining it for meaning in the present. Instead, he blends this second-generation need-to-know with insight and, as So’s former agent Rob McQuilkin put it, “survivor’s wit.” Of his use of humor, So once said, “As a kid, I heard traumatic stories of my family’s experience surviving the war/Pol Pot’s regime that somehow always landed on a joke, on some irreverent yet hopeful gesture to claim ownership over our brutal history.” It is this ability to make pain shape-shift into the hopeful and the hilarious that makes So’s work so compelling.

In “Generational Differences,” So flips the prevalent second-generation narrative, one often situated in lack, and writes from the perspective of what it feels like to receive that morbid curiosity. So’s character, a mother who survived the 1989 Cleveland Elementary School shooting, as So’s own mother did, states:

“When you think about my history, I don’t need you to see everything at once . . . But for me, your mother, just remember that, for better or worse, we can be described as survivors. Okay? Know that we’ve always kept on living. What else could we have done?”

So’s stories allow the past to well up into the present without force or preciousness. “Afterparties” insists on a prismatic understanding of Cambodian American diaspora through stories that burst with as much compassion as comedy, making us laugh just when we’re on the verge of crying.

Rosa Boshier is a writer and artist whose work has appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, the Guardian and Vice, among other publications.

Afterparties

By Anthony Veasna So

Ecco. 272 pp. $27.99

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