The stories in Anthony Veasna So’s debut collection, Afterparties (272 pages; Ecco), are stories of humor and wit, of loud-mouths and bad-mouthers, of queer kids and chain-smoking monks and parties and sex, sometimes all squashed together in a few whirlwind pages. They are also stories of genocide and diaspora, of making ends meet and meeting ends. It’s a tight line to walk—the balance of the sometimes tragic with the often comical—but for So, who died in 2020 at the age of 28, it seemed second nature.
“I think humor is a particularly important tool in immigrant literature and stories, or [for] anyone who is marginalized,” So wrote during an Instagram takeover for the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship. He described humor as stemming from incongruence—“the joke’s punchline subverts the set up”—and he explained how humor is a tool for marginalized people to show the incongruence between those who have power and those who do not.
In Afterparties, So’s stories and characters are born from incongruence. Of the nine stories in the collection, all but one occur in California’s smothering Central Valley, documenting the experiences of second generation Cambodian-Americans, their parents refugees of the Khmer Rouge genocide. There is, therefore, the incongruence of displacement—Cambodians displaced from their homes, trying to form new ones in a country that is indifferent at best and hostile at worst. And there are other, smaller incongruences that make these stories tick, like the man in “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts” who makes a habit of arriving to the titular donut shop late at night, buying an apple fritter, and staring out the window rather than eating his food; or the son in “The Monks” who spends a week at the local wat to ensure his dad’s spirit passes into the next life, despite the man being a “dipshit” who abandoned him as a child.
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So’s voice shines through in each of these stories, distinct and fully realized. His style is loose and conversational, like the stories were first shared aloud between drunk friends or close family, only to later be transcribed. Within one paragraph, So will introduce a character as “an artist lost in the politics of normal, assimilated life” and go on to describe how “he reeked of raw chicken, raw chicken feet, raw cow, raw cow tongue, raw fish, raw squid, raw crab, raw pig, raw pig intestine, and raw—like really raw—pig blood, all jellied, cubed, and stored in buckets before it was thrown into everyone’s noodle soup on Sunday mornings.” It’s a memorable introduction and a mark of So’s relationship to his characters: they are described without pretension but with care, always in precise detail. The same wealth of empathy is afforded to the deadbeat dads as to the tirelessly working ones. So doesn’t let his characters off the hook, and he doesn’t put them on a pedestal, either; everyone gets a fair shake.
On the rare occasions So veers from his conversational style into something more ornate, the results are startling for their contrast. In “Human Development,” the narrator mirrors the author: both are named Anthony, are queer, are Cambodian-American and Stanford graduates. The Anthony of the story is blunt, describing his job as teaching “rich kids with fake Adderall prescriptions how to be ‘socially conscious’ at a private school in Marin,” and describing sex with sentences like, “I felt like bottoming. And didn’t feel like being a hypocrite by letting a white predator colonize my rectum.” Yet, in the final pages, the tone shifts. After a transcendent sexual experience, Anthony feels euphoric and hopeful, envisioning a better world. He takes the train through San Francisco, marveling at the fog as it rolls across the city, thinking: “Here I was! Living in a district that echoed a dead San Francisco. Gay, Cambodian, and not even twenty-six, carrying in my body the aftermath of war, genocide, colonialism.” This ending, as with any excellent short story, reshapes what preceded it. The emphasis is no longer on Anthony’s bad job, his stale relationship—neither of those issues are resolved. Instead, So reaches for more abstract, more universal themes of identity and connection.
Often, those are the two themes that Afterparties returns to. The stories are brimming with siblings, pous, bas, mas, and mings, all of them woven together in tight-knit family and community trees, bound by shared histories of trauma and tragedy after fleeing the Khmer Rouge.
Nowhere is this more apparent than “Generational Differences” (originally published in Issue 120), the final story of the collection. The story is told from the perspective of a mother, Ravy, writing to her son, describing her experiences witnessing the 1989 Stockton schoolyard shooting. As with “Human Development,” this story mirrors So’s experiences: his mother is named Ravy and was working at Cleveland Elementary School the day the shooting occurred. As the story closes, Ravy tells her son that he doesn’t need “to see everything at once,” or remember all of the tragedies she has experienced. She says: “But for me, your mother, just remember that, for better or worse, we can be described as survivors.”
It’s a word that comes up frequently in Afterparties—survivors. So’s characters are probing at the same questions: what does it mean to be the children of survivors? Who is Cambodian in the aftermath of diaspora? Where is our place in America? These are questions without true answers, a fact Ravy sees even if the younger characters in the collection often don’t. It’s only fitting that as Afterparties ends, So—writing through his mother’s eyes—comes to see this, too.