An engaging collection of short stories
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.
Afterparties is the first and only book by Anthony Veasna So, who tragically passed away in December. I hadn’t read any of his short stories (many of which have been published elsewhere) before learning of this collection. As someone who is fascinated by California and an avid reader of fiction set in that state, I was intrigued by the alternative perspective this collection promised. I was not disappointed: Afterparties is an engaging, oft-endearing read.
Each story in Afterparties has, at its heart, certain shared characteristics, mores, and idiosyncrasies of the Cambodian diaspora. The author writes about the elder generations with warm, affection, and just a bit of weariness — the experiential touchstones from which so many refugees and immigrants fled (Khmer Rouge) pop up in conversation with some of the older characters in here, and the younger characters either humour them or roll their eyes.
Throughout her sixteen years of life, her parents’ ability to intuit all aspects of being Khmer, or emphatically not being Khmer, has always amazed and frustrated Tevy. She’d do something as simple as drink a glass of ice water, and her father, from across the room, would bellow, “There were no ice cubes in the genocide!” Then he’d lament, “How did my kids become so not Khmer?” before bursting into rueful laughter. Other times, she’d eat a piece of dried fish or scratch her scalp or walk with a certain gait, and her father would smile and say, “Now I know you are Khmer.”
Each of the various protagonists (some of whom are connected with those in different stories) is wrestling with familial and cultural expectations — for what they should be striving to become (professionally) and who they should be with. This was done particularly well in “The Shop”, in which the main character finds himself supporting his father in the family’s auto-shop — in part due to stasis, in part through a sense of filial obligation. The characters are also experiencing many of the same existential struggles of young Americans: relationships, careers, sexuality, and more.
So’s prose is excellent, and the stories are littered with plenty of great turns of phrase, descriptions, and observations. There were some observations or characterizations that popped up rather frequently, which gave the collection just a shade of a repetitive feel, but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the stories. For the main, though, the characters are very well-drawn; written with compassion, and sometimes also a bit of bite.
We looked at our beloved coach, an overgrown son prone to anxious, envious tantrums, who was fed up with his place and inheritance, who was perpetually made irritated, disgusted, paranoid, by his own being, and then we looked at each other. Right there in the gym, Superking Son screaming in our faces, we made the collective decision, silently, almost telepathically, that one, Superking Son was an asshole (a tragic one, but still an asshole); two, we had too many assholes in our shitty lives; and three, we didn’t have enough asswipes to deal.
If you’re looking for an interesting, very well-written collection of short stories offering an alternative perspective to what we typically find in this genre, then I’d definitely recommend Afterparties.