on Afterparties: Stories by Anthony Veasna So

Or, on “Where Shit Gets Common,” as the case may be, a line from Anthony Veasna So’s Afterparties that could be an equally befitting title to sum up the existential and insoluble deliberations posed through the nine stories in the collection. So’s debut, published posthumously, invites us to raise philosophical questions about the uncanny relational ties that link his characters. These wry and sensitive stories pulse with sharp investigations into the conditions of belonging within a community of Cambodian refugees and their children in California’s Central Valley, a community built on an enduring fortitude forged in the aftermath of war, genocide, and displacement. So’s book builds for us a working theory of refugee existence (with room for both its pre- and post- iterations) that describes the refugee’s fractured states of being and suggests methods for detailing a particular sort of queer movement through the world.

A key aspect of the refugee experience is the steady recalling and recommitting to one’s ongoing displacements, whereby one is marked by a teleologically impermanent state of lingering non-belonging. When applied to these stories, the state of being a refugee—for So—describes a queer manner of calling a place home. Where one condition meets the other is in the navigation of troubled but powerful positions that evolve outside normative patterns of belonging and relating. The stories that make up Afterparties offer a striking focus in spacetime and perspective, while honoring the multiplicity of survival knowledge to be found in this many-bodied community. These stories are brought together by a roving, open affectivity that utilizes humor as a resilient intelligence of the dispossessed. So pilots us across a well-wrought socio-scape that he renders as the site of a “Cambo” or Khmer American interior, a working-class immigrant hood, a locus that births incredibly forthright and cynical examinations of the human psyche after exile, the conditions of the refugee’s arrival and assimilation. In “Generational Differences,” one character, Ravy—a survivor of violence on multiple occasions—considers her own post-refugee reality through a somewhat bleak disposition: “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?” 

The collection’s progression brings some understanding of the fullness of what community really contains as well as the qualities that fundamentally define the concept. For So, “community” seems a neutral, nuanced, and composite reality of the attachments forged by ongoing and deeply interwoven kinship. In the shared community of these stories, intimacy is the most valuable commodity. The story “Human Development” further highlights ways that communal affection supplements survival. Our narrator, Anthony, manages a relationship with another Khmer gay man, Ben, who is developing an app: “Think of it as a digital interface that allows people of color, people with disabilities, people identifying as LGBTQ, to cruise for safe spaces,” spaces that accommodate “the whole of their lives.” As lovers, both men are searching for closeness and “critical nourishment [of the] soul.” United in their inquiry into whether or not they can belong to love, the tensions in Anthony and Ben’s relationship create questions about whatever logic there is to how we experience relating. What is the algorithm for forging connection? Can shared identity alone satisfy these musings of the soul? If not, is there meaning to be found in wandering away from oneself? As a balm for such uncertainty, Anthony’s post-refugee confession shows a personal investment in remaining unsettled: “I wanted to be indefinite, free to fuck off and be lost.”

Perhaps the queerest possible place to go after exile is home. One constant feat for the refugee is to remake home despite how far from its original one is cast. In the story “The Shop,” the son of a mechanic witnesses—and passively takes part in—the spiritual interventions by the Khmer community to try to save his family’s struggling auto repair shop. In the shared quarters of work and home, Toby reflects on his father’s sacrifices and discontents, on the obligation and interdependence that have been ingrained into the relationship between father and son. Toby’s thoughts often return to how the entire family and community have been marked by the painful history of the Khmer Rouge, which follows them even on new land, even a generation away. In this case of refugeeism, amongst displacement’s aftershocks is a recurring, soul-deep yearning that has been transmitted across generations. Toby, while driving and listening to an old, stuck CD of Khmer songs in his hand-me-down Accord, notes,

I barely understood the lyrics, aside from a few phrases in the choruses, but I knew the melodies, the voices, the weird mix of mournful, psychedelic tunes. When I tried articulating my feelings about home, my mind inevitably intertwined with what made me feel so comfortable. I’d lived with misunderstanding for so long, I’d stopped even viewing it as bad. It was just there, embedded in everything I loved.

Later on, Toby tries to deflect his mother’s probing questions about a boy he’s dating while they make naem chien in his childhood home, “egg rolls stirring up portals back to the homeland.” In the context of a community in which most resources are necessarily shared (spirituality, money, weed, food, sexual desires, rides around town), an enduring sense of “being Khmer” ensures that even aching nostalgia becomes part of the common cultural matrices. In this state of longing, the queerest place to go home to is to oneself, for contained in the selves of these characters are gateways into the greater Khmer community.

An evolving dialectic of communality sustains much of the undercurrents in these stories. So’s pluralist visualization and understanding of community—a notion that becomes increasingly conflictual—is highlighted through his use of plural pronouns across central stories. In “Maly, Maly, Maly,” “we” and “us” feature prominently as the vehicle through which readers might recognize the interwoven desires and aspirational affections present in the hearts of these characters. “We” is the conglomerate body through which intimacy flows. One character, Maly, when downloading with her cousin Ves and boyfriend Rithy about their current exclusion from her caretaker’s home, states in defeat,

An hour ago we became outcasts. . . . We’ve been exiled. . . . ’Cause every Ma has been a psycho since the genocide. It’s like, as long as they don’t overthrow a government and, you know, install a communist regime, they aren’t being total dicks. 

Furthermore, So’s explorations of Khmer experiences in California’s Central Valley and Bay Area implicate himself—subjective author—as part of this network. Here speaking through Ves (and through the eponymously named Anthony in the story “Human Development”), So’s characters become decidedly close to himself, acting as partial representatives. So avoids the typical sentimental trappings of the “making-it” narrative and actively cultivates the sense that many of the middle-class-aspirational survivors of intergenerational trauma know as remorse. Still waiting after survivor’s guilt is survivor’s resentment, then survivor’s exhaustion. Speaking from within and without the Cambo hood of this story, Ves confesses apathetically: “Here’s the part that seems like a revelation until it’s forgotten as life is lived, because nothing’s special about an adulthood spent in the asshole of California, which some government official deemed worthy of a bunch of PTSD’d-out refugees, farting out dreams like it’s success intolerant.”

This portion of California’s interior is a socio-scape populated by ubiquitous Mings, Mas, Pous, and Gongs. It’s home to the cousins looking out for each other with varying levels of effectiveness and consistency. It’s home to newborn babies bearing the reincarnated souls of dead relatives, as is the case for a young nurse named Serey in “Somaly Serey, Serey Somaly.” Serey bears the weight of caring for her elderly great-aunt, Ma Eng, while also coping with being the living host for the soul of Somaly, Ma Eng’s deceased niece. As Ma Eng nears her own death, Serey is overcome with recurring nightmares, distorted flashbacks of Somaly’s experience working the rice fields during the Khmer Rouge regime, pregnant and attempting to seek refuge at the nearest border:

Most mornings I now wake up gasping for air. I know these nightmares aren’t real. . . . Still I feel as though I’m being drowned by the past, by Somaly’s memories, her torrent of unresolved emotions, which burrow deeper inside my body with my every restless night.

The somatic memories of Somaly’s perturbed soul cause the reincarnation to feel closer to a haunting. What’s true across this and other stories is that—over time—the identities and wills of individuals become subsumed into a multibody for the sake of a more encompassing belonging, where more than one soul can attach to a singular frame of living desire. Where life, death, and rebirth move along a continuum. Where the consequences of many opportunities to live and die accrue across bodies, such that no entry or departure exists in a closed loop.

When survival instincts become common, the resulting phenomenon creates lives that are irreparably interlocked. So’s characters look out for one another with troubled tenderness and care, such as when a mother disrupts violence with a further act of violence in “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts.” When in “The Monks” two young men—a newly ordained monk and an army recruit mourning the death of his father—engage in an act of platonic sexual comradery, the fact of their coinciding desires acts only as additional communal glue, one more complication in the ties that bind. And thus, a few final questions: how, in spite of violent displacements, are survivors able to create such enduring kinship bonds? What more is possible beyond resilience? What can be dreamt up following exile? “What . . . do we do after?” For these characters persisting in the afterlives of genocidal violence and its resulting disruptions, the very fissures that tear through families serve to remix normative roles: business partnerships form between parent and child, sons deal drugs to their fathers, and “every Cambo in the hood had enjoyed the hookup” at “the nice Walmart” from somebody’s half-sister’s other half-brother.

Such is the basis of queer belonging, cynical yet cautiously hopeful as experienced in this community. So’s work is in relationship and conversation with the most astute of short story writers, with much to offer to Queer of Color critique and Asian American literature. Afterparties belongs in orbit with works such as Aimee Phan’s We Should Never Meet, Tony Tulathimutte’s Private Citizens, and Kamala Puligandla’s Zigzags. Weaving an intricate cosmos from one community’s queer and diasporic discontents, So is one of the fiercest ushers of a swelling wave of queer storytelling, a purveyor of its limitless possibilities.

 

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New York: Ecco, 2021. 272 pp. $28.00.

 

Chekwube O. Danladi is the author of Semiotics (University of Georgia Press, 2020), winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. She teaches in the Writing program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.