The arrival of Anthony Veasna So’s superb debut story collection, “Afterparties” (Ecco, 272 pp., ★★★½ out of four), is inevitably bittersweet. He died last December of a drug overdose at 28, just as excitement was building around his work.
So’s death marks the loss of a writer who savvily wrote about identity crises in immigrant families without lapsing into worn tropes about assimilation. His narrators are (like So) the descendents of Cambodian immigrants who grew up in California’s Central Valley. They didn’t personally witness the atrocities of Pol Pot’s genocidal '70s regime, but they live with their consequences. They strive to escape their parents’ and grandparents’ “concentration-camp surviving eyes,” but it’s a tough task.
One character, working in a nursing home, has been saddled with the family’s conviction that she carries the spirit of a dead relative, and she aches “to move through the world without half my energy drained by memories not even mine.” Another, the Khmer daughter of the owner of a doughnut shop, finds a disturbingly quiet late-night customer unsettles her understanding of her fractured family. A young man teaches “rich kids with fake Adderall prescriptions how to be ‘socially conscious’” but chafes at being “with a Cambodian guy just to be with a Cambodian guy.”
However fraught these situations are, though, So writes about them with irreverence and humor that matches the youthfulness of most of his characters. The story “Superking Son Scores Again” compresses a host of generational divides into a taut, funny story about a high school badminton team whose longtime coach is challenged by a young upstart. In “We Would’ve Been Princes!” a boozy wedding reception devolves as the young participants clash over how seriously to adhere to family and ethnic traditions.
Throughout, So’s characters are triangulating multiple selves – gay, young, Khmer, immigrant, Californian, Buddhist – and the stories’ tension comes from their struggle to easily settle into one that makes sense. The young narrator of “The Monks” is on a religious retreat following his father’s death and can’t sort out his loyalties to family or his girlfriend (or settle his libido). In the strongest story, “The Shop,” the son of a foundering mechanic sees the community’s support only as proof that things have gone wrong. When priests arrive to bless the place, a relative observes: “Monks coming – that happens when you fail.”
While So’s characters take various paths to find themselves, he never denies the core importance of their Khmer background. The closing story, “Generational Differences,” turns on a 1989 mass school shooting in Stockton, California, that killed four Khmer children, targeted by a man with anti-Asian sentiments. The narrator laments the event as a grim milestone in an ongoing search for safety: “What other choice was there but to escape to this valley of dust and pollen and California smog? Where else was there to go in the aftermath of genocide?”
More work by So is coming: In 2023, a second book will collect his nonfiction and parts of an unfinished novel. But “Afterparties” is a powerful, enduring statement in itself, evidence of how deft So was at revealing the layers of complexity within a single community.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Anthony Veasna So's posthumous 'Afterparties' a bittersweet triumph