‘Afterparties’ is a stunning collection of a writer whose death overshadowed his debut



Anthony Veasna So died of an overdose at the age of 28, eight months before his first short story collection, “Afterparty, would be published. Bought by Ecco for $ 300,000 following an eight-house auction, So’s two-pound deal was a sure sign that the literary world had high expectations for the queer, Cambodian-American refugee son who has already been published by The New Yorker and N + 1 before completing his MFA. In the months leading up to the book’s release, there have been as many articles mourning the young author’s life as there have been genuine reviews of the collection. The profusion of coverage is enough to make anyone (or at least a nonconformist like me) a little skeptical. But less than a dozen pages in “Afterparties” I understood why so many of them had a magnetic attraction to So’s life stories in the Cambodian enclaves of Stockton, 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 at the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of fiction, the voice of ‘a single person, the author “confident” in us “, writes the French critic Roland Barthes in his essay” The death of the author “. Barthes, as a proponent of the new critique, argued that it was limited to a text relying on the identity of an author as the main tool of interpretation, and that the real work of creating meaning is ultimately carried out by the reader, rather than conferred by the author. If this theory of interpretation has ever reigned outside university classrooms, “The Death of the Author” is now completely dead. Nowadays, it is simply assumed that a literary debut will be an autofiction. It has become de rigueur to question an author’s background on his biographical good faith even before a book can be opened, and when good faith is 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 browsing “Afterparties” in search of allusions to So’s life. I track down names that keep coming back – Somaly, Serey, Ravy – and associate them with their biographical counterparts, So’s relatives. I’m assuming Anthony’s fictitious educational scholarship, the Frank Chin Diversity scholarship, is similar to Anthony’s actual educational scholarship, the PD Soros scholarship for new Americans. I check Google and am happy to find it’s true: you can really order a burrito full of fries at Adalberto’s in Stockton. To try to understand a life marked by such extraordinary talent and such extraordinary tragedy, I read the “Afterparties” as if they could provide answers.

Each story features a Cambodian American family trying to forge their American dream in “the valley of California dust, pollen and smog”. Many of the characters are business owners or related to them. Businesses are struggling; Chuck’s Donuts doesn’t see many customers after Stockton becomes the focal point of the foreclosure crisis, SuperKing Grocery is losing customers after a Costco opens on the street, and March Lane Brake and Tune suffers from frequent mistakes employees who create an unsustainable financial burden on the store owner. In the rare event that businesses escape financial precariousness and thrive, the characters are always uncomfortable. “Give Cambos a bunch of money,” one remarked, “and they’ll always think a coup is happening for us. “

None of the stories in “Afterparties” directly relate to the near genocide that So’s family survived during the Khmer Rouge regime, but genocide hangs over these stories like a specter. An entire community of “refugees with PTSD” is raising a new generation, and the gulf between their values ​​and experiences is still being negotiated. In “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts”, a teenage girl drinks a glass of water and her father says: “There were no ice cubes during the genocide! A young gay college graduate works in his father’s mechanical business at “The Shop,” and a local grandmother who gets involved is planning her wedding to a Cambodian princess. With So’s unflinching treatment, the younger generation faces hereditary trauma and embarks on an uncertain future that often confuses their parents.

A truly gifted writer doesn’t have to waste pages trying to convince you that the world he has created is real. They immerse you in it, and you believe them. In this world, an uneaten apple donut becomes a tabula rasa for Khmer identity, a bald supermarket boy becomes the epitome of athletic prowess, and a drunken plan to expose the cheapness of a distant uncle at a wedding party is a step towards healing. He lovingly documents his community of “off-brand, dark-skinned Asians,” investing mundane moments in life with extraordinary magic. While reading, you may need to take a break every now and then to admire his talent, his supernatural ability to map out a story that hits every note. By reading his stories, you live them and, at best, you forget who wrote them and why. In Barthes’ words, So simply becomes a “writer”.

Anthony Veasna So, Ecco, 272 pages, $ 27.99

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