Anthony Veasna So died of a drug overdose at age 28, eight months before his debut collection of short stories, “Afterparties,” would be published. Bought by Ecco for $300,000 following an eight-house auction, So’s two-book deal was a sure sign that the literary world had high expectations for the queer, Cambodian American son of refugees who has already been published by The New Yorker and N+1 before finishing his MFA. In the months leading up the book’s release, there have been as many articles mourning the young author’s life as there have been actual reviews of the collection. The profusion of coverage is enough to make anyone (or at least a contrarian like me) a bit skeptical. But less than a dozen pages into “Afterparties,” I understood why so many had a magnetic attraction to So’s stories of life in Stockton’s Cambodian enclaves, and why so many are captivated by the author himself.
“The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author ‘confiding’ in us,” wrote French critic Roland Barthes in his essay “The Death of the Author.” Barthes, as a proponent of New Criticism, argued that it was limiting to a text to rely on an author’s identity as the primary tool of interpretation, and that the real work of meaning-making is ultimately done by the reader, rather than conferred by the author. If this theory of interpretation ever reigned outside of university classrooms, “The Death of the Author” is thoroughly dead now. These days, it is just presumed that a literary debut will be autofiction. It has become de rigueur to interrogate an author’s background for their biographical bona fides before a book can even be cracked open, and when the bona fides are not there, the author is in trouble.
As conservative as I find this mode of analysis, especially in its contemporary incarnation which has been so amplified by identity politics, I find myself scouring “Afterparties” for allusions to So’s life. I track names that recur — Somaly, Serey, Ravy — and match them to their biographical counterparts, So’s relatives. I speculate whether fictional Anthony’s teaching fellowship, the Frank Chin Fellowship for Diversity, is similar to real Anthony’s teaching fellowship, the PD Soros Fellowship for New Americans. I consult Google and am pleased to discover that it’s true: You really can order a burrito filled with french fries at Adalberto’s in Stockton. In an attempt to understand a life marked by such extraordinary talent and such extraordinary tragedy, I read through “Afterparties” as if it could provide answers.
Each story features a Cambodian American family attempting to forge their American dream in “the valley of dust and pollen and California smog.” Many of the characters are business owners, or related to them. The businesses struggle; Chuck’s Donuts doesn’t see many customers after Stockton becomes the axis of the foreclosure crisis, SuperKing Grocery loses customers after a Costco opens down the street, and March Lane Brake and Tune suffers from frequent employee mistakes that create an untenable financial burden for the shop’s owner. In the rare cases when businesses escape financial precarity and prosper, the characters are still uneasy. “Give a bunch of Cambos money,” one remarks, “and they’re still gonna believe a coup d’etat’s coming for us.”
None of the stories in “Afterparties” are directly about the near-genocide So’s family survived during the Khmer Rouge regime, but genocide hangs over these stories like a specter. An entire community of “PTSD’d-out refugees” raises a new generation, and the chasm between their values and experiences is always being negotiated. In “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts,” a teenager drinks a glass of water and her father pronounces, “There were no ice cubes in the genocide!” A gay recent college graduate works at his father’s mechanic business in “The Shop,” and a meddling local grandmother plots his green-card marriage to a Cambodian princess. With So’s deadpan treatment, the younger generation contends with inherited trauma and embarks on uncertain futures that often confound their parents.
A truly gifted writer doesn’t have to waste any pages trying to convince you that the world he created is real. They drop you into it, and you believe them. In this world, an uneaten apple fritter becomes a tabula rasa for Khmer identity, a balding supermarket boy becomes the epitome of athletic prowess, and a drunken plan to expose a distant uncle’s cheapness at a wedding party is a step toward healing. So lovingly documents his community of “off-brand Asians with dark skin,” investing mundane moments of lived life with an extraordinary magic. While reading, you might have to occasionally pause to admire his talent, his supernatural capacity to map a story that hits every note. As you read his stories, you live them, and at their best, you forget who wrote them and why. In the words of Barthes, So becomes merely a “scriptor.”