Any one of the different layers of alienation in Afterparties, the debut collection by Anthony Veasna So, could fill an entire volume of stories. Being South Asian in America. Being of a South Asian ethnicity that no one seems to understand. Being gay and a descendant of refugees living in a crime-ridden part of a bankrupt California city. That Afterparties manages to bring all of these experiences together in a cohesive array of knock-out stories is a testament to the late author’s talent.
So, who died in December 2020 at age 28, grew up in Stockton, California, a descendant of Cambodian immigrants. The horrors of the Cambodian Genocide of the late 1970s, during which nearly two million people died, linger in the background of his work. Survivors have settled in an unnamed city in the Central Valley that is almost certainly So’s hometown, where they open businesses, buy homes, and raise families. For the children of these survivors, the genocide is something they cannot fully comprehend, a ghost that occasionally surfaces in an off-color comment or someone’s brief recollection of a murdered relative. Yet they are unquestionably the heirs to its aftermath, pushed into a corner of the society they don’t want, misunderstood as “off-brand Asians with dark skin,” but unable to understand themselves at times.
The question of identity is central to each of these nine hard-hitting yet remarkably touching stories. In “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts,” a mother and her two daughters are puzzled by a man who appears in their shop each night, orders an apple fritter, and never eats it, at one point imagining him to be a hitman hired by the rich uncle who has never been repaid the loan he gave them to open their business. Their guessing game mirrors the experience of the older daughter Tevy, who is occasionally mistaken for Chinese because her teachers and fellow students don’t know any better. In “Human Development,” a high school teacher laments a similar guessing game, the one San Francisco’s gay men play with his ethnicity. Yet when he starts a relationship with an older Cambodian man, he quickly becomes distrustful of the man’s obsession with their shared culture. They turn the annoying questions asked by others on themselves. Among the young male characters of “The Store” and “The Monks,” lines of male sexuality are blurred and crossed; their casual encounters surrogates for unanswered questions about who one really is and where one belongs.
The settings of many of the stories are rough and gritty, drawing in elements reminiscent of the rural American South portrayed in David Armand’s fiction, as well as the “from there” urban ethos of the Houston neighborhoods in Bryan Washington’s short story collection Lot. Placed in “a valley of dust and pollen and California smog,” the city is riddled with abandoned stores and deserted parking lots, “alleys of heroin-induced comas,” spotty strip malls with video stores and nail salons. Large extended families are crammed into rundown duplexes. Crime, as well as drug and alcohol abuse, are ubiquitous. Its Khmer people do not thrive. They survive. “We’ve always kept on living,” the narrator of “The Shop” tells us. “What else could we have done?”
The meaning of survival in Afterparties is ambiguous. There is the stark reality of parents and grandparents having lived through the atrocities of Khmer Rouge, painful reminders of the horrors of the labor camps, the need for children in hiding to stay quiet so as not to call attention to themselves and risk being killed. But there are celebrations as well, mixing remnants of past tragedies with spiritual affirmation. In “Maly, Maly, Maly,” a family welcomes the birth of a baby who is believed to be the reincarnation of a teenaged girl’s mother, who committed suicide. In “The Monks,” a young man spends a week at a Buddhist wat (monastery) to honor the memory of the father who deserted his family. The characters of Afterparties take the good with the bad. They embrace traditions they do not necessarily understand or even want because it is part of who they are. Part of their survival, part of what they do.
So deftly weaves elements of Cambodian culture into his storytelling. The characters casually refer to each other as “Cambos” and integrate the Khmer language into everyday speak. Elders are called Mas and Gongs, Mings and Pous. Tradition shines through adverse moments, and despite intergenerational conflict, family and community values are magnified. In “The Shop,” an auto repair establishment’s business evaporates after a customer’s car is stolen and a bad Yelp review is published. Only Cambos patronize the shop anymore, populating its lobby with hundreds of Buddha statues and offering prayers for its survival. In desperation, an overly judgmental but well-meaning older Cambodian woman who spends all of her mornings at The Shop recruits a band of monks to “fix” the place. Yet, the owner’s son realizes that his father’s business is far from a failure. It has sustained their family over the years. It has provided jobs to a dozen men who could otherwise not support their families. It is a gathering place where survivors feel at home.
Each of these stories holds its own quite well, but the handful of linkages between them are cleverly placed and satisfying. An irresponsible, dope-smoking boyfriend in “Maly, Maly, Maly” becomes the young man who honors his father in “The Monks.” In “Somaly Serey, Serey Somaly,” the baby from “Maly, Maly, Maly” has grown up to be a nurse who tends to Maly’s dying grandmother in her final days. She is at once caregiver and in need of care herself, having borne the burden of many years of being the reincarnation of Maly’s mother, showing how the wounds of the genocide generation stay open.
The “after” of Afterparties is the legacy of the Khmer Rouge, hardly a light matter, but one So treats with both irreverence and humanity. The trauma of displacement and starting over is everpresent. But there is also overt materialism fueled by the fear of not having enough, a proneness to excess, and a one-upness exemplified by a wedding afterparty in “We Would’ve Been Princes.” More than anything else, there is a lost sense of self, a constant questioning of where one goes from here, having seen the worst life has to offer. These stories often end not with a tidy resolution but with a question. “But what,” The Shop owner’s son asks, “for every life Dad and I had lived and lost, will we do after?” Of course, they will keep living, trying to find the selves they want to be. The afterparty will take lifetimes before it ends.
By Anthony Veasna So
August 3, 2021