Ever since I joined Bookstagram, I’ve noticed a trend. Popular books will pop up on my feed for weeks at a time, their aesthetically crafted photos alongside multi-paragraph reviews by various readers.
Sometimes, these books are mediocre, at best. Other times, the Goodreads synopsis can’t even capture my attention for more than a few seconds. But every so often, there’s a book that truly does “live up to the hype” and deserves every staged photo and shoutout it gets. The late Anthony Veasna So’s Afterparties was one of them.
Let me preface this by chatting a bit about the author. As a gay Cambodian American man, he didn’t exactly fit the traditional expectations of his culture. He graduated from Stanford and completed an MFA in creative writing from Syracuse, before going on to fulfil various teaching positions. And of course, penning these wonderful short stories.
Afterparties is a collection of So’s best work. Many of the stories take place in his hometown of Stockton, California or the San Francisco Bay Area, and tackle salient (and more subtle) aspects of his culture.
The Cambodian genocide of the 1970s underscores the pain and intergenerational trauma many of his characters face, and he highlights the generational gap that occurs as a result of immigrant parents being at odds with their American-born children.
So also criticizes the idea of the American dream, that all who flee violence and threats to their existence don’t necessarily find abundant promise in their newer, safer lands.
As he says in one of the stories, most Cambodian Americans “… fixed cars, sold donuts or got on welfare.” His stories carry this overarching concept of class consciousness.
The first story, “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts” was first published by The New Yorker. It features an overworked mother and her two daughters during their graveyard shifts at a family donut shop.
A mysterious man begins coming to the shop for fritters after 12 A.M., but remains taciturn and unwilling to dig into his baked good, spawning the girls’ curiousity. The mother, muddled by a messy past including an unfaithful husband and unpaid debt, remains defensive.
When the true intentions behind the man’s visits to the store manifest, the reader is hit with a gasp-inducing twist.
One particular piece I liked was “Human Development”, in which the main character, Anthony, finds himself in an unlikely Grindr romance with a fellow Khmer man.
As their intimate entanglements deepen, Anthony must face the dissonance he feels over his simultaneous commitment to and distaste towards his lover. This story underscores the convoluted feelings about what it means to be Southeast Asian in America.
There was much to learn about Khmer culture in each story. So throws in Khmer words and provides insights into religious and traditional norms, which also help us understand where he is coming from. I liked that So took risks in terms of the ideas he shared, and also wasn’t afraid to throw in a little cringe factor here and there.
He tackles deep situations and historical events without sugarcoating, but balances out the seriousness with ample humor. I found myself LOL-ing many times throughout.
I also appreciated So’s writing style, which was succinct and conversational, easy to follow and eloquent. As I wrote in my last post, I’ve rekindled my appreciation of short stories, and this was an excellent read to continue that literary quest.
There’s a lot to be explored within shorter forms of fiction, and I think it takes a skilled approach to create a meaningful story within a confined framework. Perhaps we will see more short story collections like these, which bring to the forefront struggles that marginalized groups in society face.
Unfortunately, Anthony Veasna So passed away in December 2020, at the age of 28, due to an accidental drug overdose. His partner Alex Torres shares more about So and their relationship in this heartfelt Buzzfeed post. It’s sad that we won’t get to see So take off on his literary career — which would have been immensely lucrative, I’m sure — but he has left ripples of influence behind.