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BookBrowse Reviews Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So

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Afterparties

by Anthony Veasna So

Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So X
Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2021, 272 pages

    Paperback:
    Jun 2022, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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The children of Cambodian immigrants to the United States contend with inherited trauma and existential dead ends.

Between 1975 and 1979, nearly a quarter of the population of Cambodia (close to two million people) was killed in the genocide orchestrated by the communist party Khmer Rouge under the leadership of party secretary Pol Pot. Around 158,000 Cambodians came to the United States as refugees from 1975-1994, with many settling in Long Beach or Stockton, California (see Beyond the Book). Anthony Veasna So's parents were two such refugees and So grew up in Stockton. The stories in his debut collection Afterparties read like compartments in the interior of the author's mind, these characters people he has known and been, loved and been loved by.

In "Three Women of Chuck's Donuts," a woman named Sothy ("she's never met a Chuck in her life; she simply thought the name American enough to draw customers") runs a donut shop, with her two young daughters — Kayley and Tevy — spending most of their time after school helping out. The story is set just after the 2008 economic crisis and their sole customer, night after night, is a man who orders a single apple fritter and sits for hours staring blankly out the window. As the women of Chuck's Donuts observe this nightly ritual, the story of their pasts unfolds through their triad of internal monologues, culminating in an abrupt but necessary act of violence that brings the desperation under the surface of the story screaming into the forefront.

"Human Development" is the collection's standout, a carefully constructed renunciation of the trope of the model minority. The narrator, Anthony, is a Stanford graduate who teaches "rich kids with fake Adderall prescriptions" at a private high school about diversity. This year, he has abandoned his usual curriculum featuring lessons about microaggressions and sexual consent in favor of teaching the class Moby Dick, which he believes will be more effective in helping the students learn "about being decent humans." Anthony meets a man named Ben on a dating app, and the two become sexually and romantically involved, in that order. But as their relationship advances into actual intimacy, Anthony finds himself repelled by Ben's cheery disposition, his ambition and, most importantly, his enthusiastic embracing of his Cambodian heritage and identity. Anthony is tired of being the embodiment of the bright future of Cambodian Americans. In his words, he wants to be "free to fuck off and be lost." This story adroitly considers the repercussions of the pressures put upon young people of color to conform to high standards of respectability, to work harder and behave better than their white peers so they can elevate the race. Anthony tries to sabotage his relationship with Ben because Ben is a reminder of everything he was meant to achieve and become before he chose to "fuck off and be lost."

Afterparties ends with a fraught story of survival that considers the way tragedy can be appropriated by outsiders who try to center themselves in a loss that is not theirs. A Cambodian woman tells her young son about the shooting at Cleveland Elementary School in 1989 (a real-life event), where she is a teacher. Her story comes in response to his questions about a photograph he has found, which features the singer Michael Jackson surrounded by Cambodian children. Jackson visited the school shortly after the shooting, but did he come to bring comfort to a distraught community, or was his visit a convenient photo-op for publicity? Years later, the narrator mentions the shooting to one of her white colleagues, who was only a child in 1989 and not present on the day it happened. The other teacher responds by stating, "You know, I still think about all those lost little lives," and looking up at the sky, "at heaven, at a cosmic realm that was irrelevant to the parents of those children." Moments later, she is crying. This is not her tragedy, nor is it Michael Jackson's. Neither were there to witness the carnage. Neither knew the victims or their families. Neither have their own children that resemble those whose bodies littered the playground that day. As she watches her colleague in disbelief, the narrator remarks, "I wanted her to stop filtering the world through her own tears."

Anthony Veasna So died in December 2020 at the age of 28, eight months before the publication of Afterparties. On the one hand, it is impossible not to mourn the enormous loss of potential in terms of the other books So might have written. On the other, one gets the sense that this collection is a perfect distillation of that potential, that there is a unique synchronicity between the author's brain and what's on the page. It's okay to be sad that the party is over, but don't forget to be thankful you were invited.

Reviewed by Lisa Butts

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in August 2021, and has been updated for the June 2022 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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Read-Alikes

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