“What is remembering other than revitalizing a corpse that will return to its grave? The memory always reaches a limit. Final frames of a reel that fade into depressing blankness. The more history you have with the deceased, the more endings you will suffer through … How do you escape? Perhaps by spinning so hard into the truth that you collapse.”
—Anthony Veasna So, “Baby Yeah”
How do we measure a life?
Before he passed away in December 2020, the late Anthony Veasna So was already a success, by any of our society’s standard metrics. A native of Stockton, CA, So held bachelor’s degrees in both English Literature and Art Practice from Stanford, as well as an MFA in Fiction from Syracuse University and recognition from several prestigious writing awards and fellowships. While still an MFA candidate, his story “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts” was published in The New Yorker in February 2020, when he was only twenty-seven years old. His debut story collection Afterparties, released on August 3, 2021, was the object of a bidding war between numerous publishing houses, ultimately won out by Ecco, who reportedly offered So a mid-six-figure deal for two volumes. By any of our society’s standard metrics, Anthony Veasna So was already a successful writer.
Beyond his preliminary accomplishments, everyone seems to agree that So’s talent and ambition were to catapult him to literary fame. Literary Hub described the late author as an “explosive literary talent.” The headline of his New York Times obituary denoted him an “author on the brink of stardom.” A profile of the late writer appeared on Vulture the day before the release of Afterparties with the deckhead “Anthony Veasna So Knew He Was a Star.” The critical consensus seems to assert not only that Anthony Veasna So was special, but that the few writings that survive him would have been just the beginning—faint glimmers of a promising literary future now extinguished by his premature death.
Evaluations of So’s promised brilliance have been intrinsically tied to his youth. He wasn’t merely a young writer, we are led to believe, but a young writer whose promise and talent were inversely proportional to his age. In her review of Afterparties, for example, Deborah Eisenberg of The New York Review of Books wrote, “Although youth isn’t generally an advantage for fiction writers…people who can write accomplished and interesting fiction at twenty-five are likely to have something to offer at that point in their lives that might not be available to them at fifty, no matter how greatly and in what ways time may amplify their powers.” Not only was So a promising writer, but his prodigiously composed early output offers his readers a unique lens into his talent, the more mature fruits of which we will unfortunately never know.
Aside from perhaps his parents and his partner, no one has expressed more praise for So’s writing or sadness over his loss than the editors and writers of n+1, a New York-based magazine of literature, culture, and politics. In February 2021, the magazine published a collection of remembrances, wherein n+1’s publisher Mark Krotov, an early advocate of So’s, is said to have described the late author as “charming, going to be famous, feels like the future of fiction.” So beloved was the late author’s work at n+1 that its editors decided to create an annual literary prize named for the late author in addition to their pre-existing Writer’s Fellowship, which Krotov has indicated would have likely gone to So, despite his youth. He said to Literary Hub, “[Creating a new literary prize] would be a way we could keep him in front of mind as long as the magazine is around.” N+1 is on a mission—an endless one—to keep So’s memory alive, both as a writer and as a person.
If you’re anything like me—skeptical of overeffusive reverence, particularly when as unanimous as this all seems to be—all this praise probably has you wondering one thing: who the hell was this guy? How on earth can we approach reading the work of someone whose legacy seems already to have been determined before his first book was even released? Will we take the critics’ word for it, letting the hype train predetermine our love for a story collection before we even have a chance to read it? Or will our skepticism get the best of us, having us write off the posthumous debut as a casualty of the literary internet’s tendency to hype everything up? Was he even that good anyway?
Before I had read the book, I was already inclined to think he was. Fittingly (and purely by accident), my first introduction to Anthony Veasna So came in March 2021 through n+1, when I decided on a whim to purchase a subscription. The magazine had just published his essay “Baby Yeah,” named after a minor song by the Stockton-based indie rock band Pavement. Reportedly finished just before his death, the piece chronicles So’s close friendship with and grief over the suicide of another student in his MFA program. Though all the outlets I’ve read report So’s cause of death to be a purely accidental drug overdose, I found—and still find—it notable that the author’s final literary output was an essay about loss and grief. What better way to guide his friends coping with his own oncoming death, however unplanned it may have been, than an essay about death? On the other hand, maybe the piece, as beautiful as it is, was little more than an extra twist of the knife, salt in the wound. But who am I to say? I didn’t know the man.
What I will say is this: “Baby Yeah” is one of the best essays I’ve ever read. It may genuinely be one of my favorite pieces of literature ever, up there with the final pages of Joyce’s “The Dead,” the last page of Anna Karenina, or any other text that manages to synthesize lyrical writing and keen observation into a few key human truths. Since my first readthrough of the essay, I have returned to the n+1 website every couple weeks to read it again, enough times that my browser auto-fills the essay’s address whenever I type the characters “n+.” Sometimes I just re-read select sections, either at random or by choice, but most of the time I start from the beginning and continue until I’ve come barreling to the end, which never fails to make me exhale in wonderment. When I first read the essay’s devastating conclusion, wherein So addresses his late friend directly, trying to express all the retroactive possibilities his suicide has nullified, I thought to myself, I need to get this guy’s book as soon as it comes out.
I did buy a copy of Afterparties just after its release in mid-August, but I didn’t touch it until weeks later, long after the new semester had already begun. Even after my powerful and continuing experience with “Baby Yeah,” Afterparties’ near-unanimous adulation made me wary of the book’s potential quality. Was this short story collection really the stuff of legend all the critics seemed to think it was, two-hundred and fifty six pages worth of fictional “Baby Yeah”s, awaiting me like a buffet of all my favorite foods? Or was it merely just a
strong debut, or—even worse—a mediocre one whose extensive praise was more a product of the critical projection over So’s potential and relational grief over his passing?
I was joyfully relieved when I finished the “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts,” the collection’s first story and the same one with which So made his New Yorker debut less than a year before his death. It’s an excellent story, a tightly constructed tale that balances deft social observation, raw political awareness, and a keen portrayal of twisted family dynamics, all with crisply creative prose. Each of the eight stories in Afterparties that follow the first moved me more than the previous, all of them distinct in their flavor and tone yet united by a consistent and mature voice that manages to balance humor and darkness, pain and joy. They’re serious stories that don’t take themselves too seriously, creative pursuits that don’t get bogged down in an excessive striving for literary acclaim. Perhaps in the truest test of a piece of art’s authenticity, reading Afterparties gave me the feeling that I was genuinely getting to know Anthony Veasna So, even close to a year after his death.
Far from being hacky or clichéd, the stories in Afterparties are their own thing, and they’re wonderful. That said, I’m not sure I get what Mark Krotov meant when he called Anthony Veasna So “the future of fiction.” Sure, the prose is exciting, but hardly revolutionary. The stories are distinct, but I wouldn’t call them wildly experimental. Reading Afterparties amidst the mountains of acclaim for both the book and the author more generally, I wondered, then, what else people like Krotov or So’s partner Alex Torres saw in So, those who knew him personally and witnessed his creative process more closely than anyone else has or ever will. Finishing Afterparties with all that adulation in mind, I didn’t think of the stories quite as highly as I had expected to, but I can see how someone who knew him more intimately could extrapolate transcendent greatness from the explosive talent on display between the collection’s covers.
One thing about So’s stories is surely revolutionary, particularly within the context of the publishing industry: the way Afterparties centers and highlights the stories of Cambodian Americans. If the first thing you learn about So from reading the reviews of Afterparties is that he was a rising star, a genius gone too soon (see above), the second thing you learn is that he was a Cambodian American. A son of immigrants who escaped the genocidal regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, So grew up in Stockton, California among a community of Cambodian immigrants with life stories similar to those of his parents. The headline of a review in the Los Angeles Times reads, “Before rising literary star Anthony Veasna So died, he immortalized Cambodian California.” Of course, Anthony Veasna So was not the first Cambodian American to write stories about their community, but So’s centering of their experience has finally drawn such literary efforts’ long forestalled acclaim. Furthermore, Anthony Veasna So’s queerness allowed him to bring a more distinctive perspective to certain aspects of the Cambodian American community in relation to his thinking about his racial and ethnic identity through the lens of his sexuality, or vice-versa.
On one hand, this critical focus is far from disingenuous: every single story in Afterparties features Cambodian American characters, many of whom have life experiences inspired by those of him and his family. Indeed, Anthony Veasna So makes “the Cambodian American” a central aspect of his fiction, tackling head on the implications of genocide, colonialism, immigration, and belonging. Professor Khatharya Um of UC Berkeley has stated that So’s stories “shine light on experiences that have not been part of the Asian American narrative,” highlighting a community that has been widely marginalized within the American consciousness.
On the other hand, So’s slotting in as one author who represents an entire population seems like enormous pressure on the legacy of an author who died at 28. So’s stories are not mere trauma porn intended to placate the white literary gaze. His stories breathe pain and sadness at times, but so too do they embody humor and joy and love. I hope that So does not go down in history written off only as “the Cambodian American writer,” where all attention is paid to his identity and none is given to the vivacious content of his work, which may be rooted in his, his family, and his community’s life experiences but nonetheless transcends any kind of stereotypes or clichés to broach nothing less than the rawest stuff of life itself.
So what will be the legacy of Anthony Veasna So? Chronicler of the Cambodian immigrant experience? Late proof that there can and should be space for queer Asian American writers within the publishing industry? Or, as he wrote about himself, a “misunderstood prophet” who “rejected obvious and reductive politics” and “ordinary pursuits” in favor of “timeless works infused with nihilistic joy and dissenting imaginations.”
Perhaps it doesn’t matter. “So long lives this and this gives life to thee,” wrote Shakespeare: maybe the only thing that matters is that, despite his early departure from this world, he left us something, a handful of stories and essays, little gems in a world of so much sadness and pain. Instead of speculating on So’s unknowable future, let’s celebrate the way his writing survives him, keeping him alive in the eternal present of good fiction. Now put this essay down and go buy Afterparties. I’ll be ready to talk about it once I reread “Baby Yeah.”