Anthony Veasna So’s Portraits of Diaspora

Anthony Veasna So’s Portraits of Diaspora

Very Recent History

The sprawling stories of Anthony Veasna So.


Near the end of “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts,” the first story in Anthony Veasna So’s posthumous collection Afterparties, something unexpectedly violent happens at a doughnut shop. It’s not a murder, exactly, but there is blood. “Help me clean this up,” Sothy, the shop owner, instructs her two daughters, who are helping run the store through the late-night shift. “Customers can’t see blood so close to the donuts.” The moment is emblematic of So’s short fiction: There’s one generation, then another, rebounding off each other in a crackle of humor on the heels of a moment of absurd yet totally reasonable violence. And all of it is embedded in a distinctly Cambodian American immigrant experience, which is so closely bound to the texture and structure of the stories that it’s impossible to extricate it from this background.

Before the blood in the doughnut shop, “dissolving into pink suds of soap” as the women mop it up, we encounter the remembered bloodshed of millions: Sothy, the mother in “Chuck’s Donuts,” survived the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s. Her two daughters, Tevy and Kayley, were born in the United States. Separated by a generation from their mother’s traumas, Tevy and Kayley nonetheless retain a painful awareness of their family’s displacement, which is coupled with an uneasy understanding of their own place in the world. Tevy, a high school student who is enrolled in a class at the local community college, is writing a paper called “On Whether Being Khmer Means You Understand Khmer People.” Her motivation to seek an academic understanding of her cultural identity speaks to the kind of mobility that’s available to her generation—it’s inextricably tied to her background even as it takes her away from it. Tevy’s reasoning is that taking a college course will look good on college applications. “Maybe it would even win her a fancy scholarship, allow her to escape this depressed city,” she thinks.

The themes of Khmer shared culture and belonging, articulated or not, are central to the book. So integrates Cambodian culture into his stories with a nonchalant verve, leaving transliterated Khmer unitalicized, unconcerned with decoding the honorifics of various family members for an English-speaking audience. Complex family and social dynamics play across the page in zippy dialogue and chatty, indirect speech. In one story, which follows an ill-fated wedding and reception, the characters have stereotyped names like “Fun Cousin” and “Privileged Failure”—the joy of it, of course, is that the characters escape their types.

So’s characters are refugees and the children of refugees, scraping together an existence in central California. They’re not particularly noble; instead, they just want what they want. In “The Monks,” a young deadbeat hoping to honor his father’s death goes to stay at the wat—the local Buddhist temple—but all he really wants is to have sex with his hot girlfriend, whose bikini photo he’s smuggled in with him. In “Superking Son Scores Again,” a badminton superstar turned grocery store owner attempts to defend his legacy when he’s challenged to a match by an upstart teen. The result, narrated in the first person plural by an audience of neighborhood boys, is both comedic and tragic. Superking Son’s prowess is upheld in a series of “incredible smashes,” but his life’s tragic smallness is also brought to light. “What we remember was this: the shock of witnessing Superking Son’s inflated ego spurting all over the gym. Our bodies settling into pity.”

Afterparties’ stories are sprawling, at times bewildering for their many narrative digressions, and consistently very funny, shot through with the kind of black humor that’s also saturated with grief. There’s a constant whiplash that happens in the text, the characters’ attention drawn repeatedly to the knowledge of what they, or their parents, have survived. Of Superking Son, the badminton star, we are told: “He could smash a birdie so hard, make it fly so fast, we swore that when the birdie zipped by it shattered the force field suffocating us, the one composed of our parents’ unreasonable expectations, their paranoia that our world could crumble at a moment’s notice and send us back to where we started, starving and poor and subject to a genocidal dictator.” It’s the parents’ paranoia, but it becomes the sons’, too—they live under its auspices.

But then, with an adolescent’s attention span, the narrative whips around again. So continues: “Word has it that when Superking Son was young, he was an even better player, with a full head of hair.” It’s recent history, but it’s still history. The survivors are now balding and have kids and auto shops. Alternately depressed and spooked by the claustrophobia of their parents’ generation, So’s second-generation narrators crave freedom, casual sex, and college, leveling up in the world and out of their hometowns. They don’t struggle with their otherness in the way of an after-school special; their cultural trauma hovers at the edge of every page, but their problems are those of any young adult.

In “The Shop,” So introduces us to a recent college grad, back home and helping out in his dad’s auto repair shop. The shop is floundering, mostly because his dad keeps hiring his Cambodian friends. When the college grad isn’t working at the shop, he hooks up with Paul, a half-Italian, half-Mexican guy who was cool when they were both younger. Now Paul works at AT&T and is closeted and cheating on his Filipina girlfriend, Meryl.

As the romance develops, we track its different elements—part utilitarian, part clandestine, part genuine—in moments between hook-ups, made intimate by their strangeness: “His nose was huge but well proportioned,” So’s college grad recalls. “Sometimes I closed my eyes and used his nose to apply pressure to my closed eye sockets. It was weird but satisfying, like my eyeballs were getting massaged. If Paul wasn’t into it, he never said anything to stop me.” Moments like these—crystalline, pitch-perfect, odd—make So’s stories feel alive and present. They’re meandering, too, just the way life is. In “The Shop,” a car gets lost, Paul considers coming out, the monks come to bless the shop with good vibes, and the narrator has a poignant realization about the nature of his parents’ sacrifice for him. His new awareness might be what connects the story to a lineage of other immigrant stories, but in the end, the shop’s fate is still uncertain. There’s no neat resolution. Instead, we’re left haunted by the shape left open by sacrifice. “But what will we do after?” the narrator wonders. What happens to a people after survival? How do you keep going on when suddenly the worst possible scenario is past? The questions linger.

The stories of Afterparties have frequently been described as new. In a recent posthumous profile of So in New York magazine, his editor, Helen Atsma, said: “I sadly had not read fiction set in a Cambodian American community before.” She continued, “As an editor, what’s always exciting is feeling like you’re reading something new and alive and invigorating.” New voices, new writers, new stories—it sounds like the same marketing that accompanies every fêted debut, and often about a world that’s not so much new as previously ignored by white, mainstream literary publishing.

But So’s project of depicting the Cambodian American community, certainly new in that context, also feels new in another way. Because So is writing about very recent history, he’s telling stories about a history that has not completely come to an end. If anything, it’s just beginning. The Khmer Rouge genocide began in 1975, largely targeting ethnic minorities, and continued for nearly four bloody years. Hundreds of thousands of Cham Muslims and Chinese or Vietnamese Cambodians were killed or otherwise disappeared: The genocide’s nearly 2 million victims also included those who weren’t directly killed but died of illness, exhaustion, or starvation. In the decade following the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, the United States admitted nearly 150,000 Cambodian refugees. As is common among refugees, families joined other families where they were settled; communities became bigger communities. One such community arose in Stockton, Calif. Now, just 42 years after the end of the genocide, its aftereffects are still being played out, in lives and in the stories about them. And you can walk into a bookstore—any bookstore—and pick up a collection of stories by a Cambodian American, born stateside, whose parents survived the genocide. Considering how raw and painful this history is, it is no simple task to depict it sensitively and honestly and with the pain and loss at the center of it and while living among many who were its immediate survivors.

There’s also another sense in which Afterparties feels like part of an ongoing, unfinished story. So, who died last year at the age of 28, would have been at the vanguard of a generation of Southeast Asian American writers who are just now coming of age and developing their own body of literature. What this body of literature looks like—what it is flourishing into—is developing in real time as the children of immigrants and refugees grapple with topics different from the ones that preoccupied their parents. It’s a new genre of writing, evolving with every text. For years, for example, English-language literature about Vietnam was really just literature about the Vietnam War, which in turn was a genre largely dominated by white men. More recently, writers like Ocean Vuong have redefined what a Vietnamese diasporic literature can look like. It’s not that it didn’t exist—it has, bolstered by writers like Lan Cao and Monique Truong—but the diaspora itself is still so young. So’s story collection signals the beginning of a new wave of literature. His portrait of a Cambodian American community is one of the first.

Is it enough to be the first? It’s enough to be true. Reading Afterparties, I’m struck by how dense it is, how steeped its pages are in Southeast Asian culture, which permeates the text the way incense scents every room in a house—not just the altar room, where the ancestors are supposed to live. “Maly, Maly, Maly” and “Somaly Serey, Serey Somaly” are two stories that deal with the concept of dead family members reincarnating as living ones and explores how the desire for reincarnation—more than reincarnation itself, ever impossible to prove—forms a bond between generations. It represents filial duty, literalized as physical care. Nurse Serey dedicates her work to helping dementia patients, including a distant relative who claims to recognize her as someone else. Maly resents but is also drawn to her second cousin’s daughter, said to be the reincarnation of Maly’s mother, who died by suicide. The burden carried by the living, inherent in a family, bequeathed to a mother or daughter, goes on even after death. In So’s world, you’re always holding on to someone else’s failures, their rage and their grief, not only because they belonged to your parents or grandparents but because they are also yours. That’s what it means to be in a family and, in many ways, to be part of a community.

When someone dies young, we think of their potential as limitless. Their life is like some models of the universe: cone-shaped, endlessly expanding. In an essay published posthumously in n+1, So wrote poignantly of grief both personal and, one might think, cultural: “How do you escape? Perhaps by spinning so hard into the truth that you collapse.” Afterparties is one manifestation of that truth; a portrait of a community, a mood, a feeling, an interconnected chorus of refugee experience. That community is getting older and younger at the same time—older as its elders age; younger as new voices come to join them. Anthony So has already captured something essential about the Cambodian American experience, which is by necessity a youthful one. That will inevitably change. It is literature’s loss to have been deprived of a voice—bitterly funny, exuberantly sad—who would have loved to tell us about it.

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