Anthony Veasna So’s first collection of stories Afterparty contains multitudes, embodying both the author’s Cambodian American heritage and his life-affirming worldview. The title alludes to the aftermath of the war, the 1975 Khmer Rouge genocide – but also the idea of getting together with friends and family for a real party after a stifling social event.
So passed away suddenly in December 2020, but left us an indelible troupe of “Cambos” from her hometown of Stockton, California. Its people are philosophical, queer, angry, authoritarian, romantic, infidel, filial and provocative survivors who see genocide “as the source of everything. [their] problems and none of them. “
Trained as a comic, So creates impassive and intricate vignettes about the Cambodian American community that the uninitiated may find surprising. Her stories take place in family businesses like an all-night donut shop (“Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts”), a near-bankrupt auto repair shop (“The Shop”), a Khmer grocery store contested by AC who stinks of pig. blood “while jelly, cubed and stored in buckets before [turning up in] everyone’s noodle soup on Sunday mornings “(” Superking Son Scores Again “); or at joint events such as a joint anniversary-reincarnation (” Maly, Maly, Maly “), a clan wedding with a “gripping marriage game” (“We would have been princes”), a sickbed vigil in a nursing home that turns into a story of time-traveling ghosts (“Somaly Serey, Serey Somaly”), and a Buddhist retreat for young people that features a muscular Buddha statue “look[ing] like an idiot “(” The monks “).
With its daring embrace of otherness, it is no surprise that So invokes the Moby dick in his fiction. Anthony, So’s counterpart in “Human Development”, defines the process of self-discovery as the willingness to reject Ahab’s fatal quest and embrace “the deep calm of Ishmael’s aimless wandering.” The idea of freedom, as affirmed by the characters in So, signifies the courage to explore endless detours. His “Three Women from Chuck’s Donuts” – seen talking, fighting and reading Wittgenstein behind the lighted window of their bakery in the early hours of the morning – is not a portrait of captive loneliness reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s. Nightjars, but courageous and hopeful women learning to deal with inept men, while struggling to grasp the intricacies of their cultural identity. In the story, wise 16-year-old Tevy pities an older male client for his limited view of the world. The man, who speaks Khmer, born and raised in Cambodia and a survivor of the genocide, only considers himself Chinese because he married an ethnic Chinese to strengthen his lineage instead of a Khmer woman.
By depicting lives subjected to multiple perils and displacements, So treats the legacy of the genocide with artful nuances – as if such trauma were both integral and incidental to its characters. Mental illness and suicide may or may not be attributed to genocide. The term survivor is full of ambiguities. The women who run Chuck’s Donuts wonder if the risks associated with their 24/7 workplace – gang drive-through shootings, robberies, an impending visit from a creditor with Mafia connections – make the fact to have survived the genocide seems like an afterthought.
And in “Generational Differences”, a Khmer Rouge survivor also witnessed the 1989 school shooting at Stockton’s Cleveland Elementary, where she worked as a teaching assistant. As if to demystify the evil, she shares heartbreaking details of the two events with her now adult son, but absolves him of the traumas of his past by reassuring him that he “[doesn’t] need to see everything at the same time. “
But while there can be no sanctuary after a massacre, belief in the Buddhist idea of reincarnation allows the dead to be reborn – “to live and die and to relive,” in the words of So. At the same time, rebirth – analogous to resettlement in a new country – ensures survival, but can trivialize the very idea of survival, since it means “an eternity of exhaustion, for everything, even the privilege of living, is exhausting when set. endlessly.”
Tragedy, put on an infinite loop, becomes food for comedy. Father thinks genocide gave him the best training for the TV series Survivor. Americanized descendants of survivors complain that they were born simply to do unnecessary chores for their elders. But the repetitive chores of young people – shopping for loved ones, storing smelly organ meats and thorny durians in old grocery store refrigerators, or sacrificing precious hours of study to help their fathers unload heavy automotive equipment and greasy in the family’s machine shop – are at the bottom of loving efforts to help support the Cambodian American community in “this valley of California dust, pollen and smog.”
The idea of renewal, through something as prosaic as doing chores, or as cosmic as reincarnation, or through a daring realignment of iconic works of American literature, represents the vital core of John’s fiction. So. As for his invocation of Moby dick, Thus also revises the famous ending of F. Scott Fitzgerald in Gatsby the magnificent. At the end of “Human Development”, perhaps the most meta story of After parties, So we swap the green light from Daisy – “the orgiastic future” that escapes Gatsby – for the dense fog of San Francisco, in which the fictional Anthony flounders with confidence, while contemplating the marvelous impossibility of his existence: Gay, young , Cambodian, with a body bearing the scars of war, genocide and colonialism, but tasked with teaching a new generation of Americans what it really means to be human.