Review: 'Afterparties' Articulates the Hopes and Fears of Asian-Americans

by Lewis Whittington

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday August 19, 2021

At age 28, Anthony Veasma So, was on the brink of a major literary career a year ago. His stories were appearing in the New Yorker, and The Paris Review, and his first book, "Afterparties," and his second book deal auctioned for $300,000.

Tragically, Anthony So died of an accidental drug overdose in his apartment on Dec. 28, 2020. NYTs journalist Andrew LaVallee reported that So's boyfriend, Alex Torres, had acknowledged that he knew So used recreational drugs, but beyond that, there has been no explanation of the circumstances of the overdose.

It's hard to forget the sadness around the loss of a talented young author, who also was an educator and community activist. So's dialogue cycles bristle with drama, humor, and cultural significance.

Many of the stories are about second generation "Cambo" millennials with a vastly different world view than that of their relatives — the refugees who fled the genocidal regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge by escaping to the U.S., but still carry the trauma.

Even with such serious themes, So doesn't exclude his experiences as an unapologetic gay author. One story, "Maly, Maly, Maly," focuses on a gay man and a straight woman, both in pursuit of uncomplicated hook-ups, reveling in the graphic details and disappointments.

In "Human Development" a literature professor named Anthony attends a beer bash with his former frat brothers, who all work in corporate America. He isn't having a good time with this straight crowd and sits in a corner scrolling through Grindr dates. He hooks with an older Cambodian businessperson and ends up practically moving in with him. Meanwhile, he feels cast adrift, emotionally, and sexually, as he tries to prepare for his lesson plans, teaching American classics, including (what else) Moby Dick.

"Three Women in Chuck's Donuts" is about a Cambodian mom, a refugee from Cambodia who escaped the genocide, who runs an all-night donut shop with her teenage daughters. They clash over their expectations of each other to keep the business going, and when a familiar looking stranger keeps showing up in the middle of the night the daughters want to find out why.

"Superking Son Scores Again" is the macho morality tale of badminton legend Superking Son, who is now reduced to owning a rundown Cambo grocery and coaching a local team for an upcoming match. Son is challenged by a young badminton ace; inevitably, they end up vying for team loyalty and a grudge match at the net that settles more than one score.

One of the most intriguing stories is "The Monks," where a boyfriend of Maly's wants to explore a spiritual path of Buddhism and goes to a retreat. Expecting guidance, he rebels against the disciplines and housecleaning tasks he is ordered to do for the monks. Instead, he gets high with another young initiate, and they have a semi-tryst over a picture of Maly.

"Generational Difference" is the story of a Cambodian American mother answering the questions of her nine-year-old son about a gun tragedy where she teaches. The story is based on actual events that occurred in Stockton in 1989, where a racist shooter killed six elementary school children and injured thirty-two others.

With humor, pathos and tragedy, So articulates the hopes, fears and existential realities Asian-Americans face living in America, haunted by events of the past.

"Afterparties," by Anthony Veasna So, is available now in hardcover for $27.99 from HarperCollins

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.