Writing in the Margins

Anthony Veasna So, “Afterparties,” and Representation

Upon Googling Anthony Veasna So, one fact shines above all else: he was a born storyteller. He captivated audiences through visual art, stand-up comedy, and, most notably, writing. Widely beloved even before the recent posthumous release of his debut short story collection Afterparties, So was a rising star—and he knew it. Not only was his literary voice distinct, so too was his identity. Though he knew it might make white readers uncomfortable, he did not shy away from incorporating his lived experiences as a queer Cambodian American in his work. Rather, his identity stood front and center for everyone to behold.

Much of So’s writing took inspiration from his family and community. In Stockton, California, So grew up in an ethnic enclave currently home to over 12,000 Cambodians. So’s parents were among thousands who fled Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge Genocide. As of 2010, there are 1,174,651 refugees from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam in the United States, making the Southeast Asian refugee population the largest American refugee population to date. 

Growing up, So's family recalled stories of their native country and the war, often telling jokes despite having experienced the trauma of genocide and resettling in the United States. He believed his family used humor “to claim ownership over [their] brutal history” (pdsoros.org). Consequently, So’s writing shared this intention. 

A passageway into the second-generation Cambodian American experience, Afterparties is eye-opening, heartbreaking, and funny all at once. The collection comprises a motley of characters, who, while being diverse in age, gender, and sexuality, are all Cambodian. Themes of the Khmer Rouge and refugee resettlement are not central in each story, but rather, exist in the undercurrent across the book. These are not deeply sad or solemn tellings of the immigrant struggle that are commonly shared in the media. So has captured the experiences of young Cambodians who aim to thrive, not just survive, while bearing the weight of their history.

Friend of So’s and fellow Cambodian American writer Monica Sok has spoken highly of the refreshing nature of his work, how it centered their community’s experiences apart from the usual “survival literature.” His characters feel familiar, whether you’ve grown up in this community or not. They’re quick-witted, funny, and flawed at the same time that they’re resilient. Familiar, too, are the settings within the book. These include blue-collared workplaces like doughnut shops and convenience stores, and farther-away worlds like academia. 

In an interview with Soft Punk Mag, So shared his interest in writing about systems, not people. He understood that all people have been shaped by the systems and institutions around us. For Southeast Asians, that includes the United States military, institutional racism, and poverty. Indeed, Southeast Asian communities have lower per capita incomes than the national average, meaning many of us have experienced inequities around labor, housing, education, and health. By refusing to skirt these issues, So’s stories feel all the more real.

So was one of a kind. Anyone who knew him could tell you so. Voices like his are essential to literature, especially considering the sheer whiteness of the book industry. In 2020, New York Times researchers found that, in their sample of 3,471 authors of widely-read books published between 1950-2018, a majority of these authors were white. This statistic correlates with the fact that the publishing industry is predominantly white.

“We guessed that most of the authors would be white, but we were shocked by the extent of the inequality once we analyzed the data. Of the 7,124 books for which we identified the author’s race, 95 percent were written by white people.

Author diversity at major publishing houses has increased in recent years, but white writers still dominate. Non-Hispanic white people account for 60 percent of the U.S. population; in 2018, they wrote 89 percent of the books in our sample.”

— Richard Jean So and Gus Wezerek, New York Times

Though I know So only as a writer, and only learned of his work after his passing in December 2020, after turning the final page of Afterparties, I felt a deep longing for more. More Southeast Asian American stories; more queer stories; more stories from the margins. There are indeed a number of renowned Southeast Asian American writers, including Ocean Vuong, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Monica Sok, Souvankham Thammavongsa, and Kao Kalia Yang. With time, I hope that the small section of my bookshelf dedicated to Southeast Asian literature continues to grow. I celebrate the trailblazers who are making great strides one chapter at a time. 

In addition to the aforementioned writers, below are several organizations dedicated to uplifting diverse voices in literature. Whether you’re a writer, reader, or both, there is likely a community out there for you to expand your literary horizons.

  • Laos in the House: Laos In The House brings together Lao American refugees in continuing their cultural legacy through storytelling and the arts.

  • Cambodian American Literary Arts Association: The Cambodian American Literary Arts Association (CALAA) empowers voices in the Cambodian diaspora through the literary arts. It is a resource in the preservation and enrichment of historical, social, spiritual, and cultural values for Cambodian communities around the world.

  • Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network: The Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network (DVAN) believes that the stories and creativity of a thriving Vietnamese diaspora can connect our global community. Our mission is to celebrate and foster diasporic Vietnamese literary voices.

  • Asian American Writers’ Workshop: The Asian American Writers’ Workshop (AAWW) is devoted to creating, publishing, developing and disseminating creative writing by Asian Americans, and to providing an alternative literary arts space at the intersection of migration, race, and social justice.

  • Kundiman: Kundiman is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to nurturing generations of writers and readers of Asian American literature.

  • Electric Literature: Electric Literature is a nonprofit digital publisher with the mission to make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. We are committed to publishing work that is intelligent and unpretentious, elevating new voices, and examining how literature and storytelling can help illuminate social justice issues and current events.

  • Lambda Literary: Lambda Literary nurtures and advocates for LGBTQ writers, elevating the impact of their words to create community, preserve our legacies, and affirm the value of our stories and our lives.

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