Straight Outta Stockton

Afterparties by anthony veasna so. new york: ecco. 272 pages. $28.

The cover of Afterparties

THERE IS ONLY ONE literal afterparty in Afterparties, the debut story collection by Anthony Veasna So, who died last year at the age of twenty-eight. It appears about halfway into the book, as the organizing event of “We Would’ve Been Princes!”—though the event itself, as readers quickly learn, isn’t all that organized. The story opens right as a wedding party starts winding down and is broken into seven acts, each escalating in sloppy and somewhat digressive debauchery. As the afterparty grows more unruly, gathering a range of distantly related Cambodian cousins under one roof, so too does So’s narrative—spilling into plots and subplots, with pesky minor characters who bring the baggage of their own minor characters. The short story isn’t long enough; it overflows. Whereas other pieces by So fit the mold of more traditional storytelling, appearing in publications like the New Yorker and the Paris Review, “We Would’ve Been Princes!” seems to be the one he yearned most to tell.

It’s hard to say who, exactly, is the protagonist of “We Would’ve Been Princes!” Broadly, the story follows children of Cambodian refugees who drive with “FAMOUS SINGER” (as she’s called) to the afterparty at the rental house of “RICH MING” (as she’s called) in an effort to determine whether their parents’ second cousin Visith gave money, as he said he did, to the married couple, all while debating the aftereffects of the Khmer Rouge genocide, karmic retribution, Mariah Carey, and hard drugs. The ambiguous plurality of the story’s title hints at multiple time lines, multiple paths. So’s final act leaves us with our two brothers drunk on the front lawn at 3:45 am, “their asses chilled by the morning dew,” pondering their futures by referencing their parents’ traumatic past. “They imagined a future severed from their past mistakes,” goes the last line, “the history they inherited, a world in which—with no questions asked, no hesitation felt—they completed the simple actions they thought, discussed, and dreamed.” What begins as a celebratory and even triumphant story ends on this melancholy cliff-hanger, revealing the aftermath of the genocide that continues to underwrite their stories.

So was born in Stockton, California, in 1992 to Cambodian refugees who escaped the Khmer Rouge as teenagers before immigrating in 1981. While the collection is not exactly autobiographical, it draws explicitly (as So notes in the acknowledgments) from personal history, both his parents’ and his own. So’s father’s car-repair business, where So frequently worked as a kid, inspired “The Shop,” in which a struggling Cambodian American mechanic resorts to hosting a monk ceremony to improve his shop’s karma. So’s mother, who worked as a bilingual aide to Southeast Asian kids during the time of the 1989 Cleveland Elementary School massacre in Stockton, influenced the book’s final story, “Generational Differences,” told from the perspective of a Cambodian mother who, years later, reflects on the shooting as she brings her young son to school. In “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts,” So memorializes the unlikely prevalence of Cambodian-owned donut shops in California in an ode to a donut shop named after “Chuck”—a generically American name for a generically Cambodian American phenomenon. “I was obsessed with claiming this image as part of a Cambodian-American visual language,” So once recalled. “It felt like this urgent site of meaning that was distinctly Cambodian.” The city of Stockton itself forms the general backdrop to Afterparties, whose stories, read together, feel like an homage to one of the largest diasporic Cambodian communities. Like James Joyce’s Dubliners, So’s collection is a short-story cycle about an ethnic community intimately related not only by culture and history but also by place. If Afterparties has a protagonist, it’s not the direct victims of Pol Pot’s regime, but their Cambodian American children who inherit their trauma—the collateral damage to so much damage.

Anthony Veasna So, San Francisco, 2019. Chris Sackes
Anthony Veasna So, San Francisco, 2019. Chris Sackes

Afterparties is haunted by lateness, not only because it arrives after the premature death of its author, but also because it is a work of Cambodian American literature. “I very much feel that I come from a Cambodian-American world, not really an American one . . . so I find it important for my work to reflect that,” So said in a 2020 interview. In contrast to Asian American writing by those of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean descent (what So might refer to as “mainstream East Asians” in “The Shop”), Cambodian American writing is a relatively newer and more minor literature. (“We’re minorities within minorities,” goes So’s own self-description in his posthumous essay “Baby Yeah.”) There was a relative absence of Cambodian American communities until the late 1970s, following the genocide and the passage of the 1980 Refugee Act; there is now also a deficit of Cambodian writing and writers, because the Khmer Rouge annihilated Cambodian society by targeting its intellectuals and artists (libraries and schools were demolished, books burned, teachers murdered). The aftershocks of genocidal loss permeate the writing of the Cambodian diaspora, as the deliberate obliteration of their literature makes the work of contemporary writing both more necessary and difficult. For the children of Cambodian refugees, this work is even harder: How do you write the stories of those whose stories were systematically destroyed?

If So’s Cambodian parents form the historical consciousness of his plots, then canonical American writers like Whitman and Melville and Stein form the literary consciousness of his prose. Teetering on the edge of autofiction, “Human Development,” the only story in the collection not set in Stockton, is about a queer Cambodian American man named Anthony who cruises aimlessly for sex in San Francisco. The story takes Moby-Dick as its explicit intertext. “It was the first novel I’d ever read that didn’t care for resolutions,” reflects Anthony at one point. “It validated for me the experience of confusion, of exploring something as stupid and vast as a white whale, as an ocean.” And then, deflation: “Or, at least, it made me feel okay about the philosophy major I’d settled on after failing all my classes in chemistry, first, and then economics.” The joke, of course, is that there is actually very little human development in “Human Development.” In other stories, So seeks to insert his voice into an American epic tradition, bringing previously marginalized Cambodian American characters along with him. “Superking Son Scores Again” mythologizes the son of the Superking Grocery Store owner who’s also a badminton savant. The prose mimics the jaunty, repetitive locutions of Gertrude Stein’s epic The Making of Americans. Narrated in a first-person plural, the story is crowded with a sense of community. “There are stories of Superking Son you wouldn’t believe,” the collective narrator tells us. “Epic stories, stories that are downright implausible given the laws of physics, gravity, the limitations of the human body.”

So’s stories are addressed to a generation of Cambodian American kids who, like the cousins in “We Would’ve Been Princes!,” are “still learning what it means to be Cambodian.” Part of growing up in a specifically “Cambodian American world,” for second-generation Cambodian Americans, is never quite being able to tell which parts of it are Cambodian and which are American. “How does one know what is and is not Khmer?” reflects sixteen-year-old Tevy early in “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts.” Tevy is both “amazed and frustrated” at “her parents’ ability to intuit all aspects of being Khmer, or emphatically not being Khmer”—a binary mode of disambiguating between being a “real” or “fake” Khmer that collapses as So’s collection unfolds. What readers soon learn is that some things that are Khmer are also American (egg rolls, Buddhism), while some things that are American might also be Khmer (naming your kids after Hollywood stars). Other things associated with being typically American are revealed to be actually Khmer (California donut shops) or in fact neither American nor Khmer (the sounds of the Beatles).

So doesn’t try to write refugee history or trauma straight—to represent ethnic American minority experiences “authentically.” Instead, his collection takes the difficulty of representing contemporary Cambodian American culture and turns it into its premise. Scattered throughout Afterparties are references to knockoffs: knockoff commodities, knockoff brands, even knockoff Asians. When the gay Cambodian son in “The Shop” imagines a future where he might have to marry a woman, he compares it “to The Wedding Banquet, but this time starring off-brand Asians with dark skin.” Even within the context of Asian American culture, Cambodians are here represented as a kind of bad copy—a stereotype of the stereotype. Afterparties performs a virtuosic deconstruction of cultural tropes, showing us their historical plasticity and, sometimes, their emotional truth. For children of immigrants, stereotypes may be all we’ve ever known. “It’s hard enough for people like us,” a dismayed Cambodian mother tells her gay son. This, he admits, is “all very cliché, in that gay sob story kind of way, but I can’t explain it better than that. They are my immigrant parents.” It’s stereotypes all the way down, So seems to suggest, but some of them are ours.

Afterparties might also be described as a book filled with knockoff memories, many of them lost in the haze of pot smoke. The final story takes place three years before So’s birth and is told from his mother’s perspective. By explicitly framing his parents’ experiences as passed down, shot through with trauma, and twice removed through their fictionalization, So acknowledges that the perversion of history is often what makes it real for its inheritors. Fiction might be the privileged site of historical forgetting, where the descendants of genocide are allowed to make it new. Other people’s fucked-up stories about traumatic loss might be a gateway drug into imagining new worlds. Sometimes, they’re even fodder for punch lines.

Jane Hu is a Ph.D. candidate and writer living in Oakland.