Anthony Veasna So's debut story collection “Afterparties” contains multitudes, embodying both the author's Cambodian American heritage and his life-affirming worldview. The title alludes to the aftermath of war, the 1975 Khmer Rouge genocide — but also the idea of getting down with friends and family for a real celebration after some stuffy social event.
So died unexpectedly in December of 2020, but has left us with an indelible posse of "Cambos" from his hometown of Stockton, California. His people are philosophical, queer, angry, bossy, romantic, unfaithful, filial, and defiant survivors who consider the genocide "to be the source of all [their] problems and none of them."
Trained as a comic, So creates deadpan and intricate vignettes about the Cambodian American community that the uninitiated may find startling. His stories take place at family-owned businesses like an all-night donut shop ("Three Women of Chuck's Donuts"), a near-bankrupt car repair shop ("The Shop"), an AC-challenged Khmer grocery store reeking of pig blood "all jellied, cubed, and stored in buckets before [turning up in] everyone's noodle soup on Sunday mornings" ("Superking Son Scores Again"); or at communal events such as a joint birthday-reincarnation blowout ("Maly, Maly, Maly"), a clan wedding with a "butt-grabbing game of matrimony" ("We Would've Been Princes"), a sickbed vigil at a nursing home that turns into a time traveling ghost story ("Somaly Serey, Serey Somaly"), and a Buddhist retreat for youth that features a cross-eyed and muscular Buddha statue "look[ing] like a dumb jock" ("The Monks").
With his audacious embrace of otherness, it's no surprise that So invokes Herman Melville's “Moby Dick” in his fiction. Anthony, So's counterpart in "Human Development," defines the process of finding oneself as the will to reject Ahab's fatal quest and embrace "the profound calm of Ishmael's aimless wandering." The idea of freedom, as affirmed by So's characters, means the courage to explore endless detours. His "Three Women of Chuck's Donuts" — seen talking, fighting, and reading Wittgenstein behind the illuminated window of their bakery in the wee hours — is not a portrait of captive loneliness reminiscent of Edward Hopper's “Nighthawks,” but of feisty, hopeful women who learn to manage feckless men, while striving to grasp the complexities of their cultural identity. In the story, wise, 16-year-old Tevy pities an older male customer for his limited worldview. The man, who speaks Khmer, born and raised in Cambodia and a survivor of the genocide, only sees himself as Chinese because he has married an ethnic Chinese to further his bloodline instead of a Khmer woman.
In portraying lives subject to multiple perils and displacements, So treats the legacy of genocide with astute nuance — as if such trauma is both integral and incidental to his characters. Mental illness and suicide could be traced back to the genocide, or not. The term survivor is fraught with ambiguities. The women running Chuck's Donuts wonder if the risks associated with their 24/7 workplace — drive-by gang shootings, robberies, an imminent visit from a creditor with mob connections — make having survived the genocide seem like an afterthought.
And in "Generational Differences," a survivor of the Khmer Rouge has also witnessed the 1989 school shooting at Stockton's Cleveland Elementary, where she worked as a teacher's aide. As if to demystify evil, she shares with her now grown son harrowing details from both events, yet absolves him from the traumas of her past by reassuring him that he "[doesn't] need to see everything at once."
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But while there can be no sanctuary after a mass killing, belief in the Buddhist idea of reincarnation allows the dead to be reborn — "to live and die and live again," in So's words. At the same time, rebirth — analogous to resettlement in a new country — ensures survival, yet can trivialize the very idea of survival, since it means "an eternity of being exhausted, as everything, even the privilege of living, is exhausting when set on repeat."
Tragedy, set on an infinite loop, becomes fodder for comedy. A father thinks the genocide has provided him with the best training for the television series “Survivor.” Americanized descendants of survivors complain of being birthed simply to do pointless chores for their elders. But the young ones' repetitious tasks — running errands for their relatives, stocking smelly organ meat and spiky durians into ancient grocery refrigerators, or sacrificing precious study hours to help their fathers unload heavy, greasy auto equipment into the family's mechanic shop — deep down are loving efforts to help sustain the Cambodian American community in "this valley of dust and pollen and California smog."
The idea of renewal, through something as prosaic as doing chores, or as cosmic as reincarnation, or via bold realignment of iconic works in American literature, represents the vital core of So's fiction. As with his invocation of “Moby Dick,” So also revises F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous ending in “The Great Gatsby.” At the end of "Human Development," possibly the most meta story in “Afterparties,” So trades in Daisy's green light — "the orgiastic future" that eludes Gatsby —for the dense San Francisco fog, into which the fictional Anthony wades confidently, all the while contemplating the wondrous impossibility of his existence: Gay, young, Cambodian, with a body bearing the aftermath of war, genocide, and colonialism, yet entrusted to teach a new generation of Americans what it truly means to be human.
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