I spotted Anthony Veasna So’s short story collection, Afterparties, on Twitter quite some time ago and was delighted when a copy dropped through my letterbox. Just as Souvankham Thammavongsa’s wonderful collection, How to Pronounce Knife, explored the experiences of the Laotian diaspora through its second generation, So’s is about young Cambodian-Americans whose parents and grandparents fled genocide and war.
Forty years ago our parents survived Pol Pot, and now, what the holy fuck are we even doing? Obsessing over wedding favors? Wasting hundreds of dollars on getting our hair done?
Afterparties comprises nine stories, all reasonably lengthy. As ever, I’ll pick out a few favourites beginning with Three Women in Chuck’s Donuts which sees two sisters helping their mother on the nightshift, puzzled by the man who orders an apple fritter but never eats it. The dramatic climax reminds all three of the burden of male irresponsibility they’ve been shouldering. In The Monks, two young men, one a novice, the other spending a week at temple to ensure his father’s soul will be reborn, have chosen very different ways to deal with the weight of parental expectation while the wedding afterparty in We Would’ve Been Princes! exposes stark divisions between those whose parents have become rich and those who haven’t. The darkest of the stories, Somaly Serey, Serey Somaly sees a carer whose demented great-aunt is cursed with reliving the genocide, convinced that her grandniece is a relative who took her own life. More hopeful, in Human Development a Stanford graduate, disillusioned and cynical, hooks up with a fellow Cambodian-American who’s his anthesis in outlook, beginning an affair which leaves him energised and optimistic.
‘Raped by the media,’ she says, and kills the rest of the joint. ‘Would we even know English without Judge Judy?‘
So’s stories crackle with energy and humour despite the sober themes they explore. His writing feels heartfelt, capturing an authenticity of experience, marked by flashes of tenderness. Most are set in the California Valley neighbourhood where extended families engage in rivalries but loyalty is strong; where genocide is never far from the older generation’s minds throwing a long shadow over their descendants; where the wealth earnt through parents’ hard work leaves their children burdened by high expectations and sometimes self-destructive. This younger generation is both Cambodian and American, conflicted by their identity and what it means, no doubt feelings they have in common with many immigrants’ children, complicated by the legacy of both genocide and war.
Impossible to read this strikingly accomplished collection, which begins with a touching dedication to his partner, without a sadness at the knowledge of So’s death last year at the age of twenty-eight. Such a sad loss, not least to the literary world.
Grove Press UK: London 9781611856514 256 pages Hardback