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Cambodian refugees working on Khmer textiles

WASHINGTON - The late Cambodian American writer Anthony Veasna So once reportedly described his work as "post-khmer genocide queer stoner fiction," a narrowly defined niche blown wide open by widespread critical acclaim for his collection of short stories, Afterparties.

So's book is hailed as an exciting and highly original work that captures what it is like to grow up in contemporary American society as a child of Cambodian refugees. Enthusiasm for So's work bridges seemingly dissimilar universes – literary critics who see its universal appeal and the Cambodian American community that sees family.

Uniting the two are So's vivid descriptions – full of humor and compassion – of families grappling with the traumas of surviving the murderous Khmer Rouge while navigating the cultural dislocation and socio-economic challenges of refugee resettlement.

Until now, most depictions of Cambodians in English-language writing and film have been memoirs, nonfiction books and a few well-known movies that focus on an older generation's stories of surviving the Khmer Rouge killing fields -- the "purification" of Cambodia that resulted in the deaths of at least 1.7 million people in a quest by Pol Pot to create an agrarian Marxist utopia in the 1970s.

As The New Yorker magazine observed, "Classics of immigrant storytelling can feel sparse and solemn. The stories in So's Afterparties fill the silence, spilling over with transgressive humor and exuberant language."

"He writes the voices of our Cambodian elders in a way that just feels so accurate," Monica Sok, a poet who was a friend of So's, told a recent panel discussion at Book Passage, a Bay Area bookstore. Sok said that as she read So's work, "I was always thinking like: 'Yeah, I do know an auntie like that, I know an auntie who thinks she knows how I should live my life."

Khmer rouge survivor Image source: wikimediawikimedia

'Immense promise'

The well-known American literary house Ecco launched Afterparties in early August, printing 100,000 copies after it reportedly signed a $300,000 deal for two books with So, who died in December 2020 of an accidental drug overdose at his home in San Francisco. Another book based on segments from an unfinished novel is expected in 2023.

The New Yorker, which first published some of his early stories, described So's death at 28 as "cutting short a literary career of extraordinary achievement and immense promise."

The headline of a glowing Washington Post review called Afterparties "a bittersweet testament to the late author's talents."

Alexander Torres, the writer who was So's partner for seven years, told VOA Khmer "the humor, the lightheartedness, the jokes, but also the really beautiful descriptions" are what made So's writing unique with a style that "combines humor with high art and with low art."

Younger perspective

So's writing captures the second generation's perspective on the effects of lingering trauma and other issues at the heart of the Cambodian American community, while touching on more universal contemporary themes such as the complexities of race, youth and sexuality.

As any Cambodian born to Khmer Rouge survivors can attest, the horror stories and traumas inflicted by the murderous 1970s regime are part of growing up.

So's sharp observations about his parents' coping mechanisms and the effects of their traumas on their children offer an unflinching look at the multigenerational impact of war and violence. Yet, he never overlooks the humor and absurdity this can create for an Americanized second generation. In one incident he describes a father shouting at a teen drinking iced water: "There were no ice cubes in the genocide!"

Afterparties contains nine short stories, including Somaly Serey, Serey Somaly, about the Buddhist belief in reincarnation set in an Alzheimer's and dementia unit. Generational Differences is about a 1989 shooting at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, a small California city that is home to one of the largest Cambodian communities in the U.S. Most of the victims were children of Southeast Asian descent. Five died. So's mother, who worked at the school, witnessed the violence.

So's book built on a reputation from work published in various outlets, including a 2018 story in n+1 magazine called Superking Son Scores Again, about a legendary badminton player turned grocery store owner who tries to relive his glory days.

Mark Krotov, the magazine's co-editor and publisher, told VOA Khmer that So's work would likely affect many young writers. "There is so much wisdom in it, there is so much adventure … so much risk-taking, so much beauty, so much intelligence, so much provocation. And all those things in combination suggest to me that this is the book that's going to be remembered," Krotov said in a recent phone interview.

N+1 magazine recently established an award called "Anthony Veasna So's Fiction Prize" in his honor. The first recipient is Trevor Shikaze, a writer for n+1 from Canada.

Cambodian celebrate genocide remembrance Image source: wikimediawikimedia

'Centering' Cambodian Americans

So's parents fled northwestern Cambodia's Battambang province and settled as refugees in Stockton, a river city in California's Central Valley. His father ran an auto repair shop and his mother worked as a civil servant. So was born in Stockton in 1992.Cambodian American intellectuals said So's fiction masterfully conveyed their experiences, family life and sense of community.

"Reading through Afterparties, it was so resonant, it was so refreshing, to see the Cambodian diaspora, which is not represented in literature – apart from the survival literature," said So's friend Sok.

"Anthony is really centering Cambodian people in America and the second generation as well, those who are born in this country and inheriting their parents' traumas, but also trying to find their own way in life," she added.

Sokunthary Svay, a Cambodian American writer and librettist from New York City, told VOA Khmer, "I think what makes his writing particularly important for our diaspora is that he would speak about experiences that a lot of us knew growing up here in the States."

So was from a large family, and all the children were high-achieving students. He graduated from Stanford University, where he enrolled for computer science and graduated with a degree in English, a switch that initially dismayed his family. He earned his MFA in fiction at Syracuse University.

According to his sister, Samantha Lamb, So loved television shows and movies and he discovered his talent while trying to write a script for a television show about a Cambodian American family based on his own life.

Lamb reacted to So's stories with recognition. "OK yes, yes, that is the story about my grandma's sister, that's the story about my aunt," Lamb told VOA Khmer. "This person represents this person in my family."

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia Image source: wikimediawikimedia

Processing genocide

Lamb said Khmer Rouge-era experiences are a recurrent theme in So's work, as "it is a big part of who we are and growing up my parents talked about it all the time."

In Duplex, a story published in The New Yorker, So wrote, "I had grown up hearing the stories of the genocide, worked to help build our new American identities, and mourned, alongside everyone else in my family, the gaps in our history that could never be recovered."

Lamb said her brother found a way to process this family history and turn it into a new, contemporary experience.

His work "tells the stories of the Cambodian genocide, but from a young person's perspective," Lamb said. "There hasn't really been any book or movie or TV show about Cambodians in the Western eyes, you know in the American eyes, that has been about just like who we are as Cambodian Americans now. So, I think that's what makes it more relatable to people."

According to Lamb, the family continues to struggle with So's death, although they are immensely proud to see his writing being so well received. His father sleeps in So's bed to console himself, while his mother is going to a therapist and their grandmother is claiming So may soon be reincarnated.

"I am pregnant right now,'' Lamb said, ''and it is a boy. … And especially my grandma has been like 'Oh! Anthony is coming back. He is being reincarnated.'" (VOA/RN)

Keywords: Cambodia, Diaspora, East Asia Pacific, Genocide, Khmer Rouge


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