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Author Anthony Veasna So immortalized Cambodian California

On the shelf

After parties

By Anthony Veasna So
Ecco: 272 pages, $28

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Like many of the characters in his debut short story collection”After partiesAnthony Veasna So had a love-hate relationship with California Central Valley.

The So children brought burning summer hanging out for days in air-conditioned malls, babysitting little nephews, and driving around Stockton eating yogurt and burritos, as Samantha Lamb, So’s older sister, recalled. Most days, however, they worked in their father’s auto repair shop, the inspiration for So’s story”The store.”

Their parents had fled Cambodian genocide as teenagers before arriving in the US in the early 1980s. “What Stockton gave [them] was the ability to learn and grow,” Lamb said. “It was cheap to live in Stockton, so they could realize their American Dream there.”

But the diverse city of more than 300,000 people along the San Joaquin River, home to one of the largest Cambodian Communities in the countryside, was too small for her brother’s talents. “Anthony was always destined to get bigger,” Lamb said. “It was very clear that he was really, really, really smart…and that he was going to do big things.”

So died in December of an accidental drug overdose. He was 28.

Nine months later, the highly anticipated “Afterparties” follows Cambodian Americans living primarily in the Central Valley (regarded as the “a-hole of California” by one of So’s characters)—and deals with (among other things) reincarnation, the inherited trauma of the Khmer Rouge era, strangeness and the intricacies of the family.

The unexpected death of the author devastated his colleagues and mentors, who felt they were witnessing the beginning of an illustrious career. Mary Karr, George Saunders and Brit Bennett were among the esteemed writers who praised the book early on. Roxane Gay, professor and author of “bad feminist‘, selected ‘Afterparties’ for her monthly Audacious Book Club. And in tribute to So, the n+1 literary magazine has created the $5,000 Anthony Veasna So Fiction Prize.

Though his life was short, So left behind both a courageous creative work and a monument to his milieu. The author, also a visual artist who often used collages, constructed his stories straight from life, immortalizing a family, a city and a community underrepresented in fiction.

Author Anthony Veasna So and the jacket of his highly anticipated story collection, "After parties."

Author Anthony Veasna So and the jacket of his highly anticipated story collection, ‘Afterparties’, due out in August.

(Ecco Press; Chris Sackes/AP)

His stories also help open a new window on a culture on the periphery of American consciousness, said: Khatharya Umi, associate professor at UC Berkeley and the coordinator of the Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies program.

“Work like [“Afterparties”] shine a light on experiences that were not central to the Asian-American story,” she said of a new generation of writers. “They divert the popular imaginary into these untold stories, into these experiences that remain largely invisible. To borrow the words from Helen Zia: those who are ‘missing from history’.”

Each of the nine short stories in “Afterparties” is based on So’s real-life family, Lamb said. “Three Wives from Chuck’s Donuts”, which first appeared in 2020 in the New Yorker, was inspired by their “deadbeat” uncle and their late, hard-working aunt, who co-owned a 1950s Americana eatery called Chubby’s Diner. ‘We Would’ve Been Princes!’, about family tensions that erupt during an epic drunken wedding, sprang from Lamb’s chaotic two-day marriage. “Generational Differences” is about a mother who escaped both the Killing Fields and the Cleveland Elementary School shooting in 1989. Zo and Lamb’s mother, Ravy, a retired claims representative for the Social Security Administration, survived both horrors.

Alex Torres, So’s partner, recalls how many of the stories converged in their San Francisco home—sometimes with So doing a thorough cleaning of their apartment before getting to work on his beanbag chair or their “horribly stained” white couch while drinking caffeine. , and then go to the gym.

“It was always a very painful process to watch him review,” Torres said with a laugh. “He was very much a perfectionist. … Every drop mattered in his painting, and he thought the same about writing.”

Torres was more than a passive observer of his partner’s creative process. “I would kill all bad stories right away,” he said. He also helped line edits, read and reread stories, and inspired characters and quotes — like in “We Would’ve Been Princes!”, when Bond (based on Torres) grabs a joint from his brother Marlon (that’s So) and says: “You don’t deserve this, and you shouldn’t have it.”

“I literally said that to him,” Torres recalls.

Although the stories come from personal experience, they cover a lot of ground. When Helen Atsma, vice president and editor-in-chief of Ecco Press, first read So’s work, she was impressed by his ability to write from so many perspectives without telling the same story twice.

“I think that was very important for him, to explore the scope of humanity in a shared context,” she said, referring to the genocidal history that links the stories together. “Humour was very important to him. He wanted people to laugh. And I think this is a collection that is not just about survival, but also about living and grasping it.”

Growing up, Lamb learned that Cambodians dealt with the genocide in two ways: they didn’t talk about it, or “every moment was a lesson from the genocide,” she said.

So his parents were definitely among the talkers. His father, Sienghay, spoke of burying his own father after he died of dysentery the day before Vietnamese troops overthrew Pol Pot’s regime. Ravy told stories about her father, a wealthy rice factory owner whose guts were cut out in a mango field. “Those are the kinds of stories we were told as kids,” Lamb said.

Author Anthony Veasna So with his mother, Ravy So.

Anthony Veasna So with his mother, Ravy So. Many of his stories draw on his upbringing among Cambodian refugees.

(Samantha Lam)

In “The store”, a father tells his extrapolated children about durian, the famous tart fruit: “All you can eat, you should eat. Do you think every meal we had during the Khmer Rouge smelled?’ To which one of his sons responds, “Ba, you have to stop using genocide to win arguments.”

Wherever So went, he carried these stories with him. After graduating from high school as a salutator, he went to Stanford to study computer science, but eventually studied art and literature. He later worked as a teacher and applied for Syracuse’s MFA program.

Jonathan Dee, a professor from Syracuse, plucked So’s application from the pile and stumbled upon “Maly, Maly, Maly,” about two cousins ​​waiting to “celebrate the rebirth” of Maly’s “dead mother’s spirit in the body of [their] the second cousin’s baby.” Much of the story takes place in a video store in Stockton.

“You just knew you heard a voice you hadn’t heard before,” Dee said.

While in Syracuse in 2018, So raided n+1’s office to introduce himself to Mark Krotov, the publisher. The outlet eventually published “Superking Son scores again‘ – the most ‘Stockton’ story So had ever written, he once said, about the defining elements of his childhood: “badminton, Cambo supermarkets, inherited trauma, pursuing your passions while your whole world is under siege.” It won the Joyce Carol Oates Prize in Fiction.

“‘Superking Son Scores Again’ is Anthony at his best, Anthony,” said Rob McQuilkin, So’s literary agent. “It’s like all eight cylinders, just powering a runway of manic brilliance.”

McQuilkin took So on as a client after reading the piece. In a two-book deal, he sold “Afterparties” and a planned novel to Ecco Press for $300,000. So he called home and told his mom about the deal. “Mom, don’t drop the baby!” he shouted, as Dee remembered.

At the time of his death, So was working on a novel titled “Straight Thru Cambotown.” Ecco will instead publish chapters of the work, alongside some nonfiction, in a book slated for 2023, McQuilkin said.

As the publication of “Afterparties” neared, So’s friends and family shared bittersweet emotions.

“It’s such a loss to those of us who knew him personally and to people who care about the future of American literature,” Dee said, “but I hope that will be recognized and then brushed aside, because a great book is a really valuable book.” legacy.”