A sharp, vibrant debut collection about Cambodian Americans trying to carve out a new path in their adopted home.
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Drug & alcohol use
Why I love it
Jane Hu is a writer and critic living in Oakland.
The best way to recommend Anthony Veasna So’s Afterparties is to say that the book is so funny and vivid and alive that it’s possible to read it for long stretches without thinking of So’s own story. The son of Cambodian refugees who fled the Khmer Rouge, So died last year, from a drug overdose, at the age of 28. Given the historical circumstances surrounding So’s life—from parents who survived a genocidal regime to his own death amid a global pandemic—you’d think reading Afterparties might be kind of a bummer. But that isn’t the case. So’s book of short stories—which, yes, meditates on genocide and death—brims with surprising humor, buoyed by a knowing levity that some of the worst tragedies are impossible to represent straight.
Afterparties, which So described as a “stoner novel of ideas,” follows an ambling cast of young Cambodian Americans as they move in and out of their hometown of Stockton, California (where So was born). These characters are not the direct victims of the Khmer genocide, but their American-born children who inherit their memories, their stories, their trauma. On the cusp of adulthood, So’s characters also inhabit a more existential limbo—contemplating the future, while trying to mourn the past. What emerges is a collection of startlingly vibrant stories that merge the Cambodian history of a genocidal regime with the everyday American kid follies of getting high, falling in love, and not knowing quite what you’re doing.
Afterparties is a marvel—it’s everything I’ve ever wanted for the descendants of Asian American diaspora who are only just beginning to understand who we are. We’re so lucky to have it.
Seamlessly transitioning between the absurd and the tenderhearted, balancing acerbic humor with sharp emotional depth, Afterparties offers an expansive portrait of the lives of Cambodian-Americans. As the children of refugees carve out radical new paths for themselves in California, they shoulder the inherited weight of the Khmer Rouge genocide and grapple with the complexities of race, sexuality, friendship, and family.
A high school badminton coach and failing grocery store owner tries to relive his glory days by beating a rising star teenage player. Two drunken brothers attend a wedding afterparty and hatch a plan to expose their shady uncle’s snubbing of the bride and groom. A queer love affair sparks between an older tech entrepreneur trying to launch a “safe space” app and a disillusioned young teacher obsessed with Moby-Dick. And in the sweeping final story, a nine-year-old child learns that his mother survived a racist school shooter.