The presence of the author is so vivid in Afterparties, Anthony Veasna So’s collection of stories, he seems to be at your elbow as you read. The intimacy both enlists and unsettles; So died in December of a drug overdose at the age of twenty-eight. Although youth isn’t generally an advantage for fiction writers (except possibly where publicity and book advances are concerned), people who can write accomplished and interesting fiction at twenty-five are likely to have something to offer at that point in their lives that might not be available to them at fifty, no matter how greatly and in what ways time may amplify their powers.
The personality that animates Afterparties is unmistakably youthful, and the stories themselves are mainly built around conditions of youth—vexed and tender relationships with parents, awkward romances, nebulous worries about the future. But from his vantage on the evanescent bridge to maturity, So is puzzling out some big questions, ones that might be exigent from different vantages at any age.
The stories are great fun to read—brimming over with life and energy and comic insight and deep feeling. They aren’t “linked” in the usual sense of a sustained narrative or frequently recurring characters—though a few characters show up in more than one—but a dense core of common material radiates throughout. They are all set among Cambodian-Americans, primarily refugees to California’s Central Valley, and their American children. The older generation consists largely of people who survived the murderous regime of Pol Pot. The younger generation has been born into safety.
The terms “genocide” and “auto-genocide,” which are used in this book and elsewhere to refer to the staggering mass murders committed by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, are somewhat confusing; “auto-genocide” is patently self-canceling, but “genocide” isn’t perfectly accurate, either. The Khmer Rouge did indeed torture and murder ethnic minorities within Cambodia, but although the meticulous records apparently kept by the party were destroyed, an unthinkable number who starved or were killed were, like the perpetrators of the atrocities, Khmer. As in most other political mass murders, the victims were opposition figures or people thought to be dissidents, the educated, professionals, intellectuals—in other words, you, probably—and city dwellers. In any event, between 1975 and 1979 possibly more than two million people were murdered in this cataclysm. The only actual after-party in the book takes place in “We Would’ve Been Princes!,” a wonderful story of family mayhem following a wedding, but the book’s title reverberates with associations of the generational and historical relationship between the lives of the Cambodians who fled and the lives of their children.
A few wealthy aunties and uncles who got their money out of Cambodia when they emigrated glitter in the margins of Afterparties, but most of the older characters, like most refugees and immigrants, have had a hard struggle to make ends meet and to provide for their children what they ardently hope will be a better life in their new, not especially welcoming host country.
In its broad outlines, the dilemma for the children is familiar, consciously or unconsciously, to so many of us in this nation uneasily peopled with violently disadvantaged indigenous groups and the descendants of migrants, refugees, and slaves: How can a child hope to compensate for the hardships endured by his parents or merit the sacrifices made to ensure his success—especially if that particular child doesn’t want to achieve what’s defined by the parents as success? How is a child to reconcile her parents’ goal of assimilation with their fear that their embattled culture will vanish? Or conversely, how is a child to balance her parents’ fear of assimilation against the possibility of being marginalized as an outsider? How can one gratify, without annihilating oneself in the process, the conflicting needs of one’s parents both to remember and to forget the nightmare they escaped? Is ethnicity a defining element of one’s being? An inherent element? And what exactly constitutes ethnicity? Language? Customs? Nationality? Food? History? Is there such a thing as one’s “own” life?
So’s parents, Ravy and Sienghay So—whom he thanks with ardent admiration in the book’s acknowledgments—were refugees from the Khmer Rouge. They settled in Stockton, California, where So was born, and despite the ebullience of the stories and their humor, they are all situated in the difficult terrain of these questions.
“Maly, Maly, Maly” takes place one summer afternoon in the life of Maly and Ves, the great-niece and great-nephew, respectively, of Ma Eng. They feel the passionate, dramatic solidarity peculiar to teenage friendships, and Ves, who narrates the story, persuasively depicts Maly as thrillingly outrageous and entertaining, insatiably needy, and gallantly powering on by sheer bravado. He envies her show of insouciance and her appeal, specifically to boys he finds attractive himself. In a bitter moment, he cites stock characters from gong siams, Thai soap operas “dubbed into Khmer and burned onto wholesale discs from Costco”: he is the kteuy, the vicariously gratified “faggy best friend” of the poor girl who invariably lands the prince, of whose royal family she is invariably a distant, dispossessed member.
Maly has been brought up by Ma Eng, the sister of her maternal grandmother, who died fleeing the Khmer Rouge. Maly’s mother made it to safety in the US, only to become, in Ves’s words, “an immigrant woman who just couldn’t beat her memories of the genocide” and killed herself.
Both kids have recently graduated from high school, and soon Ves will be going away to a university, while Maly will continue to live with Ma Eng and go to a community college. This afternoon Ma Eng and the other adults are laboriously preparing for a big family ceremony; the monks are coming, because a child has been born—a rather distant cousin of Ves and Maly—who is believed to be the reincarnation of Maly’s mother, Somaly.
The two teenagers are irritable: How seriously can they take all this? The day is scorching hot, the town is intolerably boring, and Maly wanders off briefly to have sex with her boyfriend. When she returns, she and Ves get stoned and mull over the metaphorical culture critique conveyed by some vaguely pornographic movie Ves recalls. They go to their uncle’s video store and proceed to watch, at Maly’s urging, a very literal-minded pornographic movie, both of them lost in their own thoughts until Maly jumps up, announcing her intention to go home and encounter the infant who just might be her mother.
It isn’t until the end of the story (or after the end) that one grasps the magnitude and harshness of the undiscussed class gulf that’s splitting open in front of the two cousins/friends: Ves will soon be credentialed, mobile, and possibly deracinated; Maly will be staying put, enacting the life she’s destined for.
That’s quite a lot (and there’s plenty more to it) to fit gracefully into a twenty-two-page story. And other stories are similarly both dense and graceful; a great deal of unpredictable and complicated incident flows along with ease, and there’s ample space for reflection.
So’s father has run an enduring car repair shop, but the fictional garage in the story “The Shop” is failing. Toby, the story’s narrator, has just received that weighty passport, a fancy college degree, and is helping his father in the shop (or so goes Toby’s thinking until he realizes that it’s the shop that has been helping him out) and biding his time while he tries to figure out how to proceed in his life. Toby describes his father as “one of those guys who smiled and laughed constantly, but never without a sad look in his eyes”:
Dad was a real softie for his fellow Cambo men. He had hired as many friends as he could…and let them get away with anything. It was a beautiful enterprise, no matter how flawed, the way Dad sustained so many people, a whole ecosystem, both in terms of providing a service to the neighborhood and also providing twelve Cambo men with jobs.
Unfortunately, one of the feckless employees forgets to remove the keys from the ignition of a truck he’s fixed, and the truck is stolen. Toby prepares to drive around looking for the vehicle, and the serenely bossy neighborhood fixture always referred to as “Doctor Heng’s wife” announces that she’ll join him:
“My hot flashes are bad, bad, bad,” Doctor Heng’s wife said, fanning herself with my expired registration sheet. “When you marry a girl, make sure her mother is not having a bad menopause…. Everything gets handed down.”
“I’m gay,” I told her…. “We’re looking for a 2005 Toyota Tundra truck…. It’s like a muddy gold.”
“Yes, I know,” she responded, though she for sure hadn’t known…. “Stupid! Listen to me. I am being serious, like I am always being…. Why are boys so dense? Gay boys should be less dense than other boys, no? So how come you are not? Marry a girl because that is what you should do. I am not saying you cannot be gay. How hard is it to be normal and gay? This is the plan. You will marry a girl from Cambodia, a nice girl, a girl from a good family, a rich family, a princess from a rich family…. And after five years, when the girl succeeds the citizenship test, you can divorce her and get joint custody of the children.”
Ridiculous as it is, this proposal of Doctor Heng’s wife has piqued Toby’s latent ambivalence, and later he muses about his nice closeted boyfriend, Paul, who is half Mexican and half Italian but qualifies as Cambodian because he actually likes durian (a fruit whose potent and singular odor is a deterrent to many):
I imagined our lives together, our buying a house close to my parents, shopping at a Cambo grocery store every week. We would be an openly gay couple in the community, a radical symbol of love for the youth, for anyone who ever thought they had to quit their home, their family, their lives, just to be themselves.
Sex and sexuality are complicating factors everywhere, but here “home”—in addition to being implicitly heterosexual in character—is a dusty little town where the sympathy of one’s father for his ill-equipped fellow refugees, people “who’d picked rice with him, for twelve hours a day, in the concentration camps,” has dealt his own livelihood a mortal blow.
So’s narrators and protagonists have a propensity to take a position, reverse themselves, alter the reversal, and so on; one has the impression that the author is hoping one of them will come up with some unassailably stable position. What So writes, obviously, is very much fiction, vigorously using fiction’s unruly means of inquiry, such as intuition, imagination, uncertainty, and a fascination with the oddness of individual personalities. But he also seems to assume that his reader is perfectly poised within the current tsunami of public and scholarly discourse—all the more fractious, anguished, and head-spinning for being long overdue—concerning race, ethnicity, sexuality, justice, and identity.
And perhaps it’s because I rather often find myself at sea, disoriented by sudden shifts in severe, but possibly ephemeral, orthodoxies, that I tended to most enjoy and admire the more mischievous of the stories, particularly “Human Development,” which concerns the value of hesitation and confusion in a world that has little patience for ambiguity and an enthusiasm for simplifying clichés. The story opens at a party in San Francisco, where the narrator, Anthony, three years out of Stanford, is ranting with fury and drunken conviction about “the math prodigy from our freshman dorm who had been…a white predator of Asian women.”
Within moments he’s on Grindr, blocking a guy who, he realizes, happens to be right across from him looking at his phone. The guy is attractive, and Anthony regrets his haste, but tells himself that he doesn’t “feel like being a hypocrite by letting a white predator colonize my rectum.”
He painstakingly sifts through the “white-on-white-on-white-on-white” Grindr profiles. “Hey, I’m also Khmer!” someone named Ben replies. “Can’t believe I found you on this app. You know only .0009 percent of America is a gay Khmer man.”
Ben lives in an apartment complex of “permanent newness.” He’s twenty years older than Anthony, kind, considerate, hardworking, easygoing, and handsome. He’s from Anthony’s general neighborhood (the wrong valley, Central) but, after caring for his mother for years, has recently gotten an MBA online and is starry-eyed about the right valley, Silicon—the shine of its technological potentialities and its preponderance of regal, flesh-and-blood venture capitalists.
Anthony, just getting by on his earnings as the “Frank Chin Endowed Teaching Fellow for Diversity” at a private high school, lacks the “tech catered lunches, tech laundry services, tech Wi-Fi commuter buses, tech holiday bonuses, [and] tech personalized yoga sessions” of his Stanford peers, but what Ben lacks is any sense of irony. He cooks wholesome Cambodian food for Anthony and is decent through and through. So it’s hardly surprising that as the hookup develops into a real affair, Anthony takes up on the side with Jake, the white guy he blocked on Grindr at the party.
Ben is developing a new app:
Imagine filtering through profiles of people who share similar identifying factors with you…using the technology of Grindr, Scruff, Growlr, for building a new community, a new future. My app seeks to forge pathways between individuals and safe spaces…as a digital interface that allows people of color, people with disabilities, people identifying as LGBTQ, to cruise for safe spaces—spaces not specifically for sex, but for the whole of their lives.
Meanwhile, Anthony is designing the curriculum for a class he’ll be teaching:
My plan was to abandon the glib lessons on microaggressions, the cringey videos of teenagers role-playing scenes of consent, the PowerPoints that neutered “big” political issues into handy vocabulary terms—everything that was deemed by the social learning department, which was hilariously Caucasian, as “fundamental yet appropriate.”
Really, it occurs to him, his students will learn “more about being decent humans by reading Moby-Dick”: “I wanted my students to understand…the difference between having ‘purpose,’ like Ahab, and finding ‘meaning,’ like Ishmael. I thought my students should learn the best ways to be lost.”
Ben is capable of saying things—for example, after one of his excellent homemade Cambodian meals: “Doesn’t it feel good to eat what we’re supposed to be eating?”—that throw one into despair about any possibility of human communication, or even human thought. It’s a remarkable feat of So’s to keep both characters returning to the near side of satire, to enable us always to respond to the real, complex feeling between them, and to ensure that our enjoyment of their relationship doesn’t come at Ben’s expense.
The words “survival” and “trauma” have been, to put it politely, devalued in recent years. In Afterparties, some form of the word “survival” comes up often, and the concept of “trauma” is never absent, but they refer to matters of life and death.
When I was growing up (a long time ago), the historical catastrophes that my family survived—pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, an attempted extermination across Europe—were never, at least in my experience, discussed and rarely even alluded to in front of the children by Jews of my parents’ generation, and my experience seems to have been a common one. I also know a startling number of people who did not discover until adulthood that they were Jewish, or—more accurately—would be considered Jewish by others (even though in some cases their appearance or demeanor could have enabled a child on the street to inform them).
My generation lived in the poisonous vapor that succeeded the murders, and we were profoundly influenced by the experiences of our grandparents, whether we had been told about those experiences or not. And I have always speculated that the diffuse unease created by the sense of something hidden, something that had a bearing on our lives and that necessitated certain kinds of behavior from us, was at least as hard to bear as the truth would have been.
In light of this particular difference between So’s portrait of Cambodian refugees in America and my experience of Jewish refugees in America, it occurred to me that one thing that goes conspicuously unaired in Afterparties is the role that the United States has had in Cambodia.
The cruelty of US immigration policies during World War II and the period preceding it consigned innumerable Jews to their deaths, and yet the eventual military participation of the US in the war helped to ensure the defeat of fascism. But if members of my generation remember nothing else of the US involvement in Cambodia during the 1970s, we remember the indelible images of the students who were shot at Kent State University in 1970 by the Ohio National Guard during a peace rally.
What those students were protesting was the horrifying bombing of Cambodia secretly orchestrated by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in 1969, when it became clear that the US, the most militarily powerful country in the history of the world, was losing its protracted war against the tiny Communist entity of North Vietnam. Many of us considered the Vietnam War to be nothing other than a grisly demonstration to the whole world of the United States’ will to prevail at any cost, and the assault on Cambodia to be a bit of ancillary theater intended to underscore for our enemies our government’s capacity for limitless ruthlessness in the pursuit of its objectives.
It’s easy to understand that the Cambodian refugees in the US might have hated their country’s own limitlessly ruthless Communist Party more than they hated the limitlessly ruthless anti-Communist invaders from the US. And it’s easy to understand that refugees anywhere feel constrained by a debt of gratitude to the country that has received them, as well as a sensation of fragility—of having been received on sufferance. Nevertheless, the US is estimated to have indiscriminately dropped 2.5 to 3 million bombs on Cambodia, destabilizing (to use a shocking euphemism) the country and essentially enabling the rise of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge.
One has to wonder whether, if So had continued to focus on the community that inhabits Afterparties, he would have had more to tell us, from a greater distance, about its relationship to its new home. But who can guess where his considerable talent might have taken him. “Generational Differences,” the final story in Afterparties, seems to suggest (among many other things) that we can’t help reflexively ranking the legitimacy of mourning—who gets to feel it for whom and under what circumstances. And if that is true, then a reader’s sorrow over So’s premature death might receive a low ranking from So himself. But there are things that can be fished out of the silent dark and made manifest to us by only one writer or another, and—I think I’m speaking for other readers as well—losing a writer as promising as he was is no small thing for us at all.