by Anthony Vesna So
Stockton, California, in the Central Valley of the Golden State, is home to one of the country’s largest populations of Cambodian Americans, with tens of thousands of refugees fleeing genocide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1990. Cambodian migrants settled in the San Joaquin Valley, whose delta and soft, warm skies felt like home. Cambodian donut shops, grocery stores, Buddhist temples and pharmacies are now in the valley, bridging generations and serving as a rich landscape for the imagination. Anthony Vesna So, whose posthumously published “AfterParties” collects short stories about cambo life in Stockton.
“AfterParties” is an illuminating portrait of a deeply personal, distinctly funny, agile, intrusive aunty, sweaty, bored teen and the plaintive quest for survival that connects them. Its nine stories depict hidden history, a world of past and present longings, and a culture that has grown out of historical trauma. It’s a testament to the budding talent of So, who died of a drug overdose in December just 10 months after selling “The Afterparty” and an unfinished novel. The collection lives on as an homage to Stockton of So Youth, the sleek donut store and spirited auto shops where questions about identity, tragedy, and belonging come to life.
“Who cares about our family?” College-bound Ves revels in “Maly, Maly, Maly”. “Let us not participate in the foolish delusion of old people who wish their lives had gone the other way.” Wes and his cousin Mali spend the days escaping relatives (“every mother has been a psycho since the massacre”) at a reincarnation ceremony for their dead mother, a lifetime of sadness, anger, and adolescence. Wrapping up in a brisk, sweaty afternoon. As they wander through their uncle’s closed video store, they hover over their family responsibilities, the atrocities that bind them to their lineage and the future they hope to claim for themselves. “Are we too Know English without Judge Judy? The gardener asks. “Looks like it’s the only way we survived,” responds Wes. The story is one of the collection’s strongest, with So’s distinctive voice capturing in high definition the complex emotions associated with new beginnings, leaving home and clearing a path for the future, even as this one connects with the past.
In “Superking Son Scores Again”, a group of aspiring badminton players idolize their coach (“Our Shuttlecock King. He Will Always Be”), a Stockton grocer and local hero. But over the course of the story they see him lost to legend, becoming a spoiled version of himself as he tries to glorify court one last time before the pressures of adulthood become unbearable. But his pain is too much for his teenage peers, who eventually see him in a different light: “We saw our beloved coach, an overgrown son plagued by anxious, jealous tantrums, fed up with his place and heritage. Was, who was irritated, disgusted, mad at our own being, and then we looked at each other.”
The tussle of immigrant selfishness, the pain of war, family burdens and the long shadow of loss are all prominent themes in So’s work; And many second generation readers will easily recognize their stories in their words. But while the past colors the characters’ experiences, So’s vibrant writing is unmistakably rooted in the present. Electric, alive and transportable, “AfterParties” is a glimpse of a world rarely seen in literature, and a genius gone too soon.