A Rising Star’s Career Was Cut Short. His Impact Is Just Beginning.
A Rising Star’s Career Was Cut Short. His Impact Is Just Beginning.
Anthony Veasna So died before the release of his first book, “Afterparties,” but his loved ones, mentors and newfound fans are making it a particularly significant debut.
Anthony Veasna So died in December, before the release of his first book, “Afterparties.” His editor, Helen Atsma, saw in him “an explosive new literary talent.”Credit…Alex Torres
Growing up in Stockton, Calif., in what she described as a “very, very, very, very, very loud” Cambodian American family, Samantha Lamb remembers Christmas gatherings during which her younger brother, Anthony Veasna So, quietly sat at his computer while cousins, aunts, uncles and other relatives played games and talked over one another.
“It can be perceived as him receding into the background,” she said in a video interview last week, “but actually, he was taking notes on us, writing his next piece.”
Lamb can see her family members in virtually all of the young, old, immigrant, Americanized, queer, straight, hard-working, irresponsible, male and female Khmer American characters who appear in “Afterparties,” So’s collection of nine short stories, which Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins, will release on Aug. 3. The debut collection sold at auction as part of a two-book, $300,000 deal, according to So’s agent, Rob McQuilkin.
Alex Torres, So’s partner, sees himself in the book, too, since he was there with So in their San Francisco apartment through all of the brainstorming, writing and revising (“You wrote these stories with me,” So wrote to Torres in the acknowledgments).
“It feels like this is like our child in some way,” Torres said in a video interview.
But the release of “Afterparties” is an unusual one, because So died at age 28 in his home on Dec. 8 from a drug overdose. His unexpected death, whose cause has not previously been reported, shook members of the literary community, especially Asian American and queer writers, who were eager to read his book and see a promising young author’s career take off.
It isn’t clear which substances were involved. According to Torres, So had been up late working on the final edits to his book, and that morning, when his alarm sounded, Torres noticed that So didn’t move. “That was when I called 911. And I just kind of knew,” he said.
Torres said So had been an occasional recreational drug user since they met while undergraduates at Stanford, but he didn’t always know when or what his partner was taking.
So’s death is particularly confounding because it occurred just as his star was rising. It also came during a year in which overdose deaths climbed in the United States, up nearly 30 percent compared with 2019, according to preliminary data released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Afterparties” is now poised for the kind of buzzy release rare for debut collections. Ecco announced a first printing of 100,000 copies, far more than what is typical for a book of short stories. Early champions include Brit Bennett, George Saunders and Bryan Washington, as well as Mary Karr, Dana Spiotta and Jonathan Dee, all three of whom taught So at the master’s of fine arts creative-writing program at Syracuse. The book was selected by the writer Roxane Gay for her monthly book club, and has appeared in the summer reading recommendations of Vanity Fair, BuzzFeed, The Wall Street Journal, Time and Men’s Journal. The literary journal n+1, one of the first major outlets to publish So’s work, earlier this year created the Anthony Veasna So Fiction Prize, a $5,000 award, in his honor.
“Afterparties,” Anthony Veasna So’s debut book, is out on Aug. 3.Credit…Ecco, via Associated Press
“Afterparties” will not be the last the world hears from So. The second of his two-book deal with Ecco was originally planned to be a novel, “Straight Thru Cambotown,” which So was in the process of writing.
Instead, a second book, tentatively titled “Songs on Endless Repeat” and slated for release in the first half of 2023, will include chapters from the novel as well as nonfiction by So, including a personal essay, “Duplex,” that The New Yorker published earlier this month.
The stories in “Afterparties” are set in California, and while many of the characters have lived nowhere else, the Khmer Rouge genocide casts an unmistakable shadow — sometimes to convey how trauma can be passed down from generation to generation, other times for darkly comedic effect. In “Generational Differences,” a mother who survived Pol Pot’s reign is unnerved by her 9-year-old’s “endless curiosity with the regime, the camps, the genocide. Every little detail you would demand to know, as if understanding that part of my life would explain the entirety of yours.” In “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts,” also previously published in The New Yorker, a father yells, “There were no ice cubes in the genocide!” when his teenage daughter drinks a glass of water.
That dichotomy, too, is familiar to So’s sister Lamb. Among Cambodian Americans, the genocide is either a forbidden and repressed topic of conversation, she said, “or they’re like my family, and every single freaking moment they get is like, ‘That wouldn’t have been in the genocide.'”
So was born and raised in Stockton, the driven, high-achieving son of his mother, Ravy, who worked for the Social Security Administration, and his father, Sienghay, the owner of an auto repair shop. He was the salutatorian of his high school class (a sore subject, his sister said, since So thought he missed the top spot on a technicality), and entered Stanford intending to major in computer science. But he failed his classes during his first year, shocking his family, according to Lamb. It was around this time that he came out to his family and was diagnosed as bipolar.
He switched his academic focus to art and literature, becoming engrossed with artists such as Diane Arbus and Mark Rothko (one of his and Torres’s favorite works at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was the landscape painting “Valley Streets,” by Wayne Thiebaud) and briefly trying out stand-up comedy. After graduating, he enrolled in Syracuse’s M.F.A. program, during which time he took a bus to New York City and, on a Friday afternoon in 2018 that has already become part of Anthony Veasna So lore, walked into the offices of n+1 and introduced himself to its publisher, Mark Krotov.
Charmed, Krotov spoke with him for two hours. “I love writers and I love weirdos and I love the idea of somebody just wandering into our office and making a connection that way,” he said in a phone interview.
A day later, So sent Krotov several of his stories, and n+1 published “Superking Son Scores Again,” about a former badminton star now running a dingy grocery store, in its next issue. Krotov praised the style and specificity of So’s writing.
“You can find stories with real structural audacity that play with form, and you can find stories that offer a very intricate and thorough account of a place or a community,” he said, “but that combination of formal adventurousness and this feel for the texture and the sounds and the smells of day-to-day life — I find that quite rare.”
McQuilkin, the literary agent, contacted Krotov after reading the story, asking for an introduction. After he and So met and McQuilkin signed him on, they successfully submitted “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts” to The New Yorker, and began meeting with publishers.
Helen Atsma, Ecco’s vice president and editorial director, saw in So “an explosive new literary talent,” she said in a video interview.
“It’s rare to find someone who was doing something new,” she added. “The community that Anthony was writing about has been underrepresented in fiction.” Atsma said So was interested in “subverting tropes that he had seen in fiction about immigrant communities previously, and he wanted to turn some of that on its head. This whole community is haunted by genocide, and yet you’re also laughing out loud when you’re reading some of these stories.”
The coming publication of “Afterparties” and its follow-up book is bittersweet for the loved ones So left behind.
So’s second book, tentatively titled “Songs on Endless Repeat” and slated for release in 2023, will include chapters from an unfinished novel as well as nonfiction writing.Credit…Alex Torres
Torres, who was a college freshman when he began dating So, finds consolation in the writing of someone so close that it sometimes seemed as if they shared thoughts. “Anthony was the first person I ever met in my life that I felt like really got me,” he said. Since they were both between 5-foot-9 and 5-foot-10 and wore the same size shoe (9), they sometimes shared clothes, and Torres still wears So’s Doc Martens.
Lamb said at one point: “I don’t want to be doing this interview with you, because he should be here doing this interview with you. He should be.”
Their father has been sleeping in So’s bed, Lamb said, and because she became pregnant in February, the month So would have turned 29, her mother has suggested that her baby is So’s reincarnation. The idea is not an unusual one in Khmer communities, but it unsettles Lamb; she, like her brother, is not religious, but at the same time, she said, “I’m kind of haunted by it.”
So’s writing encapsulates such complicated feelings. In one of his stories, “Somaly Serey, Serey Somaly,” a young nurse is haunted by something she has been told her entire life: that she is the reincarnation of a relative who killed herself after escaping the genocide. “Part of me wonders if the new generation should be allowed some freedom from the dreams of the dead,” she thinks. “But I’m also tired and don’t see any other path. I need the dreams to stop. For once, I will preserve the self I want.”