Anthony Veasna So’s Afterparties
(Harper Collins, 2021)
Anthony Veasna So’s highly anticipated debut story collection Afterparties is an engaging, funny, and often loving portrait of the Khmer and Khmer American community in and around Stockton, California. Although set mainly in the present, the stories of necessity flash back to moments in Cambodia in the late 1970s, in order to ground the experiences of those who escaped the genocide under Pol Pot and fled to the United States. As one would expect, the shadow of these atrocities hangs over the entire work: concentration camps, forced labor, and mass executions loom in the background of each tale and surface directly to haunt the memories and dreams of both the waning Ma Eng and her grandniece Serey in “Somaly Serey, Serey Somaly.” To So’s credit, however, he steers clear of reducing the complexity of his characters and their world to either the trauma of those events or the challenges of surviving them. Ravy, an elementary ESL teacher in “Generational Differences,” has been marked by this past but not overdetermined by it; as she explains, “those years were never the sole explanation of everything … I’ve always considered the genocide to be the source of all our problems and none of them.” In fact, Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge, and the horrors they unleashed serve more often than not as punchlines in the delightfully caustic humor that permeates the work. In “The Shop,” a father scolds his son: “Anything you can eat, you should be eating. You think every meal we had during Khmer Rouge was smelling right?” In “Maly, Maly, Maly,” a young woman rails against her elders: “every Ma has been psycho since the genocide. It’s like, as long as they don’t overthrow a government and, you know, instill a Communist regime, they aren’t being total dicks.” So, like several of his characters, belongs to the “.0009 percent of America [that] is a gay Khmer man,” and is equally unsentimental in his treatment of queerness, eschewing the clichés of a “gay sob story” not only for unvarnished representations of gay desire, relationships, and sex but also the contradictory ways homosexuality can be regarded by other Cambodians. For instance, after Toby informs Doctor Heng’s wife that he is gay in “The Shop,” she counsels him to marry a rich girl from Cambodia for her parents’ money in any event and then to divorce her after she gains US citizenship: “Then your life will be established. You can be as gay as you want after your life is established. That is the plan.”
Doctor Heng’s wife is a local busybody, a pest full of schemes to get ahead, and one of the stories’ most memorable characters. She also has at least one crucial trait in common with others. She does not have a proper name, but rather is referred to by her position within the Cambodian American community: she is married to the successful Doctor Heng, about whom she brags ad nauseum, hence how she is identified by others. Likewise, Superking Son, Cha Quai Factory Son, and Angkor Noodles Lady are named for their respective places of business in “Superking Son Scores Again”; “The Monks,” set in a Buddhist monastery, features Monks A through D, and “We Would’ve Been Princes!” highlights the role played by each character in a wedding celebration—BRIDE, GROOM, FAMOUS SINGER, LOCAL ACCOUNTANT, FUN COUSIN, TRADITIONAL CLOTHING LADY, PRIVILEGED FAILURE—rather than their particular names and identities. So’s stylistic choice in this regard is telling. By repeatedly underscoring the communal position or status of his characters, he reminds us that their importance is anchored in the shared, overlapping worlds of the community of which they are members, and not merely as isolated (Western) individuals.
Consequently, the tales in Afterparties find their center and greatest strength in the interconnected, multigenerational lives that Khmer refugees and their descendants have fashioned for themselves in northern California, and which So portrays as a sprawling extended family of Mas and Gongs, Mings, Ohms, Pous, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, and every possible degree of cousin. Eight of the nine stories are set in Stockton (“Human Development” takes place in San Francisco) and introduce us to a wide and varied cast of characters. We meet an abandoned mother and two daughters fascinated by a strange customer while working the graveyard shift at the 24-hour donut shop in “Three Women at Chuck’s Donuts,” we see the local “Magic Johnson of badminton” cum grocery store clerk do epic battle on the hard courts with an upwardly mobile high school student in “Superking Son Scores Again,” we prepare for a reincarnation ceremony, get stoned, and watch a porno with two college-aged cousins in “Maly, Maly, Maly,” attend a Buddhist purification ritual for a failing auto-repair store while having a fling with a closeted crush in “The Shop,” spend 10 days in a wat completing a bon for a recently deceased, drug-addicted father in “The Monks,” scheme to unmask a deadbeat uncle at a raucous wedding afterparty in “We Would’ve Been Princes!”, witness a matriarch’s final moments at the nursing home while her grandniece attempts to exorcise the tormented soul reincarnated in her at birth in “Somaly Serey, Serey Somaly,” and hear an account of the anti-Asian Cleveland Elementary School shooting of 1989 by one of its survivors to her son in “Generational Differences.” Along the way, there are apple fritters, egg rolls, bootlegged Thai soap operas, overworked parents, jokes about genocide, “brown-kid swagger,” Grindr hookups, burritos stuffed with French fries, fried rice with lobster sauce, traditional Cambodian dishes reconstructed for keto and paleo palettes, an army of tiny Buddha statues, a safe space app, a small ocean of Hennessey, a few joints, and an invigorating threesome. Taken together the stories have a roomy and expansive feel, and are often as lively as the web of social relations they relate.
The world into which So invites us is not without its problems, of course. After the financial crisis, Stockton “declared bankruptcy and became the foreclosure capital of America,” the recession forcing its citizens into “paralysis.” It is the kind of blighted US city where teenagers hang out in “abandoned parking lots,” a “mall that did so badly Old Navy closed down,” or the “Costco food court,” and which is alternately described as “our hometown, this shitty place with boring dudes,” a city where everything is “lame and uninspired,” and “the asshole of California.” Daily life in such an environment can be very hard, especially for the working class. Sothy, who runs Chuck’s Donuts, is “weighed down by the pressure of supporting her daughters without her ex-husband. Exhaustion grinds away at her bones.” The Cambodian grocery store that Superking Son has taken over from his father “disgusts” him, and he eventually runs it into the ground, while Mr. Chey only seems to continue at his flailing car-repair business in order to provide a better life for his two sons. One of Serey’s patients at the nursing home shits on her during her rounds, and she returns to her parents’ place later that evening, living with them rather than on her own so she can save enough money to put them into a good home, when the time comes. In addition to the drudgery, there are the “suffocating … unreasonable expectations” of success held over the younger generations, whose own struggles and difficulties appear inconsequential compared to surviving a genocide. As Doctor Heng’s wife puts it: “My generation came here with nothing. We escaped the Communists. So what are boys like you doing?” What it means to survive and succeed are major themes throughout the work, but they take on a somewhat more pointed valence for the male narrators and characters in “The Shop,” “We Would’ve Been Princes!”, and “Human Development,” who—judging themselves by the standards of success championed by Doctor Heng’s wife and others—fear they are coming up short.
Born and raised in the cultural soils of California and America, the younger generations are also concerned about their “Khmer-ness,” which is different from their forebears. Whereas “her parents’ ability to intuit all aspects of being Khmer, or emphatically not being Khmer, has always amazed and frustrated” 16-year-old Tevy, she only has questions: “What does it mean to be Khmer, anyway? How does one know what is and is not Khmer? Have most people always known, deep down, that they’re Khmer? Are there feelings that Khmer people experience that others don’t?” Aimless college-grad Toby Chey explains to his mother that “Cambos like us retained our Camboness mostly through our food,” but he also expresses a perplexity similar to Tevy’s regarding his mother’s CD of old Khmer songs, albeit more pleasant: “I barely understood the lyrics, aside from a few phrases in the choruses, but I knew the melodies, the voices, the weird mix of mournful, psychedelic tones. When I tried articulating my feelings about home, my mind inevitably returned to these songs, the way the incomprehensible intertwined with what made me feel so comfortable.” Toby attempts to embrace the shifting constellations of his Cambodian American identity, as does Maly: “Would we even know English without Judge Judy?” Whereas Monica, the LOCAL ACCOUNTANT and BRIDE’s maid of honor, unleashes a tirade on the softening tendencies of wealth and comfort: “Being rich has fucked with people’s heads. Forty years ago our parents survived Pol Pot, and now, what the holy fuck are we even doing … Like, do you think our parents had ‘anxieties’ when they lived through the genocide? No, they were worried about fucking surviving.”
Far from trying to reconcile these conflicting stances, So allows the varying perspectives to play themselves out from different angles and positions throughout the collection. The upshot is clear: there is no official view, no one way of thinking or feeling that is quintessentially Cambodian or Cambodian American. Instead, So prefers to excavate the messiness of lived experience within this community as far as he sees it, rather than to construct a monolith out of it. Given the dehumanizing stereotypes and waves of anti-Asian hate and violence that have swept across the US during the pandemic, this is an important intervention in its own right. Unfortunately, like the stories themselves, it is also tinged with sorrow and loss, due to So’s unexpected and widely reported death in December 2020. Although not without its shortcomings, Afterparties demonstrates that So was clearly a young writer of promise, and there are plans to publish his remaining essays along with an unfinished novel in the coming year. Beyond those works, however, one suspects many of his readers will be left wanting precisely what they cannot have: more.