There’s an incandescent quality to Afterparties, Anthony Veasna So’s much-anticipated debut collection of short fiction. The nine stories here explode like fireworks, flashing between humor, dislocation, and an aura of collective longing that emerges most acutely in the generational push and pull of Stockton’s Cambodian American community. It’s a dynamic common to immigrant cultures but exacerbated in this case by the genocide—or “AUTOGENOCIDE,” as So refers to it—that devastated Cambodia under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.
“What is nuance in the face of all that we’ve experienced?” a mother asks her son, rhetorically, in the tellingly titled “Generational Differences.” “But for me, your mother, just remember that, for better or worse, we can be described as survivors. Okay? Know that we’ve always kept on living. What else could we have done?” That these are the book’s final sentences suggests something essential about So’s priorities, the questions he wants his work to raise. How do we honor the past while moving forward into the future? How do we not only survive but also thrive?
The tragedy is that, for all the soaring promise of these stories, So himself did not survive to see their publication. He died last December at the age of 28 in his San Francisco apartment, from a drug overdose. To read his work, then, requires a double vision: one eye on the writing that’s in front of us and the other (how could it be otherwise?) on the author’s abbreviated legacy. Reading Afterparties, I’m reminded of Breece D’J Pancake, whose 1983 book, The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, was published four years after his suicide at 26. But I also can’t help thinking about Maxine Hong Kingston, whose 1976 debut, The Woman Warrior, is set, in part, in Stockton and addresses not-unrelated issues of immigration and identity, albeit through a very different lens.
That’s rarefied company, but So’s book is so good in so many ways that it seems appropriate. Like Pancake, he is steeped in place, building narratives out of the tension between belonging somewhere and wanting to get away. “Man, I don’t know,…you already left for college, so why come back?” a character asks a young man with whom he’s sleeping in “The Shop.” “I thought you’d be living away somewhere with some dope job by now, dating guys who are good guys, you know? Guys who have hella dope jobs, too.” Like Kingston, So is looking for a balance between myth and daily life. “I understand how it feels to live with a past that defies logic,” he writes.
This past keeps emerging throughout Afterparties, animating narrative after narrative. In “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts,” a mother named Sothy and her two school-age daughters operate an all-night doughnut shop in a dicey part of downtown Stockton. “Since her divorce,” So tells us, “Sothy has worked through her days weighed down by the pressure of supporting her daughters without her ex-husband. Exhaustion grinds away at her bones. Her wrists rattle with carpal tunnel syndrome. And rest is not an option. If anything, it consumes more of her energy.” There it is, the awareness that rigor more than reason gets us through the day—a point So makes explicit when a customer who fascinates the family by coming in most evenings turns out to be just another abusive husband. “They can hardly believe they’ve wasted so much time wondering about him,” the author observes. “Yes, they think, we know this man. We’ve carried him our whole lives.”
So is brilliant at tracing the lines between desire and displacement, love and weariness. “Who cares about our family?” he writes in “Maly, Maly, Maly.” “What have they ever done but keep us alive only to make us feel like shit.” The protagonist, Maly, is a young woman hell-bent on avoiding a family ritual to welcome her reincarnated mother’s spirit as it inhabits her infant second cousin. For much of the story, Maly mocks the very idea of it, until, in the presence of the baby, she finds herself undone. “Is it weird I want my mom reborn as…my child?” she asks, revealing the conflict that consumes her heart. She may not believe in the traditions, but at the same time, she discovers, she still wants to find some consolation there.
So highlights this kind of back-and-forth by returning to Maly’s world in two subsequent stories: “The Monk,” in which her boyfriend, Rithy, commits himself to a week of mourning at a monastery before being shipped off with the armed forces, and “Somaly Serey, Serey Somaly,” narrated by Maly’s cousin, now an adult and working as a nurse “in the Alzheimer’s and dementia unit” of the local hospital. Among her patients is Ma Eng, the family elder who once oversaw the reincarnation ritual, now embarked upon her own passage out of life. These stories are only obliquely connected, but So finds texture in that approach. What he is revealing are all the ways that family is complicated: a collective entity, yes, but composed of individuals, each with their own experiences and beliefs. In the end, what are we left with? Just the need to care for one another, the notion that we are all connected, whether in the afterlife or more simply and directly, through the accident of birth.
Something similar might be said of the collection as a whole, which moves with the force of a novel in places, one story feeding into the next. This makes for a masterful bit of framing, in which Afterparties becomes more than the sum of its parts. For So, the build of the book, the structure of it, affirms its connections, the way each moment lingers beyond itself, and in so doing never really ends. “Even now,” one of his characters imagines, “…I look back on everything else that happened to us, and I think, how silly of me to see our pain as situated in time, confined to the past, contained within it.” Every instant, in other words, is contingent, which means that in some sense we live forever, while in another, we are barely here at all.•