I have never been his son. A shut door.
He says, Don’t call me Pap.
Aunties who hate the fact of you—
This disavowal of the son is a home
is the reason for the Diaspora
every little boy grows into poetry and feathers and how.
—Rajiv Mohabir, “Home: Prolepsis,” Antiman
In “Maly, Maly, Maly,” a short story which appears early in Anthony Veasna So’s painterly 2021 début collection Afterparties, two cousins, Maly and Ves, discover a copy of David Cronenberg’s 1983 science fiction body horror film Videodrome in their unreliable uncle’s Cambodian-American version of Blockbuster. Videodrome features a reclusive professor, Brian O’Blivion, who presages the mass psychological retraining of our current Instagram era. Each of Professor O’blivion’s lectures are pre-recorded; his public life is a YouTube channel. The professor opines: “The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore, whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television.”
Afterparties will remain a landmark of contemporary American immigrant literature—earlier this year, television rights were bought by Garret Basch’s new company Dive—partly because of the celestial, cinematic, social media frame So applies to a literary category at worse broached with disingenuous, comedic piousness. What I find most striking, however, is that a writer with roots in Southeast Asia can so slyly and precisely name, even if inadvertently, what I believe to be dynamics in many Guyanese-American families, dynamics illuminated in the works of Rajiv Mohabir, Gaiutra Bahadur, and Grace Aneiza Ali. Similar to these poets, journalists, and curators preoccupied with the afterlives of generational trauma, So explores immigrants who are often identified with roles they have not fully examined because they cannot—or refuse to—fully see the plots and stages and directors guiding their daily rehearsals. So’s messy heroes—avatars of Shakespeare’s Feste—on the other hand, are capable of hovering above the multiple films playing in their lives’ cinemas, ultimately enduring the jagged, alienating work of assuming protagonism in antagonism to both the memory of genocidal trauma their parents cannot shake and to an America frequently reductive and violent toward the complexities of Asian-American individuals.
A shellshocked tribe of characters in Afterparties turn back like Lot’s wife to the malignant spaces of their upbringings. In the collection’s penultimate story “Somaly Serey, Serey Somaly,” we meet Serey, Maly’s second cousin once removed, now working in the Alzheimer’s and dementia unit at Saint Joseph’s Elderly Care treating patients whose “minds are mushed into pulp.” Serey is just out of nursing school, presumably a few years older than Ves during the telling of his story decades earlier. In “Maly, Maly, Maly,” we learn the Cambodian community’s Buddhist elders ordained that Maly’s mother’s spirit—Somaly committed suicide when Maly was very young—reincarnated within (as?) Serey. The title of the story suggests Serey is constantly shifting between a role ritually imposed on her and the more mercurial phenomenon of being a person in the world beyond it—even in opposition to it. Habitually, egoic resistance, pressures, and limitations cause Serey not unlike Somaly to lose control. “Most mornings,” Serey writes. “I now wake up gasping for air. I know these nightmares aren’t real, that they’re only dreams, that they aren’t based on fact or anyone’s actual life. Still, I feel as though I’m being drowned by the past, by Somaly’s memories, her torrent of unresolved emotions, which burrow deeper inside my body with my every restless night.”
The imprints of Serey’s traumatic memories are somatic. Unseen, they guide her positions, her movements, her efforts. A barrel of a gun stares you down. Ten years later, Independence firecrackers, toxic stress. You’re stuck—hormonally. Chemically. Disease is dis-ease.
What I find most striking, however, is that a writer with roots in Southeast Asia can so slyly and precisely name, even if inadvertently, what I believe to be the dynamics in the Guyanese-American families
In “Maly, Maly, Maly,” Ves—with the critical distance of a bored, burned, apathetic nephew—describes Somaly as “an immigrant woman who just couldn’t beat her memories of the genocide, a single mom who looked to the next day, and the day after that, only to see more suffering.” By setting “Maly, Maly, Maly” near the beginning of the collection and “Somaly Serey, Serey Somaly” near its end, So provides two visions of how to navigate the afterlives of trauma which threaten—idiosyncratically, idiopathically—to lead an individual into silence, paralysis, or madness.
If the imprint of trauma is somatic, Afterlives represents the sonics of memory. How does the abstruse notion of “reincarnation” relate to the sense of sound? Serey’s constant attention to the memory of an imagined Somaly is akin to listening to a teacher’s lecture as a disrupter scratches his nails against the chalkboard. Serey is often confused by the sounds of a ghost and the sounds of a future self, however resilient, she fleetingly glimpses. Serey’s story, loose as it is, turns on her desire to return Somaly’s necklace to Maly so that she might “bear the burden of her mother.” Yet, each story in Afterparties suggests this transmission—the honest seeing and alchemical transmutation of this burden—must exist on the spiritual rather than material plane. Serey, Ves might assert, ought to reconsider not her memories, but how she remembers. While “Somaly Serey, Serey Somaly” is marked by an impressionistic dance between a character’s rehearsed memories and an anxiety-riddled present, Ves’ narration in “Maly, Maly, Maly” is marked by the pleasing calmness—even coldness, possibly callousness—of a screenwriter who does not abandon the complexities of his heritage but reframes them as occasions to refine the elemental arts of attention, breath, and seeing.
So’s heroes are searching for the right teachers, for the right tones, for their truest expressions. “I rise out of my twin bed,” Ves writes at the end of “Maly, Maly, Maly.” “[L]ook around my room, the sunlight from the window exposing the floating dust, like the phantom beam of a projector. And finally, I start packing.” Ves is on his way out of California’s Central Valley into the gated promise of a Los Angeles university. Queer, deeply observant, suspicious of sentimentalism, chiefly his own, his heart is bent on film studies, his head conditioned by the survival games of families left laughing—“but never without a sad look”—at history’s absurdities. Art, education, and social media, therefore, become avenues for first-generation immigrant characters like Ves to transcend the chaos of their families, of their memories. We intimate that Ves’ love for film is a quest—sometimes a desperate one—for a new position of observation he can momentarily possess, hedge, control. Ves’ early exposure to “[s]elf-loathing scumbags and narcissistic good guys and corrupt role models of both genders” creates a jumping-off point to imagine their opposites which might lead, platonically, to “something like happiness.”
When the camera pans out, the most benevolent vision offered by Afterparties is that trauma, potentially crystallized and held, can be reframed as a platform for empowerment. In “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts”—published in The New Yorker in February 2020—Tevy, a sixteen-year-old young woman betrayed by her father, bewildered by her mother, protective of her sister, enrolls in a philosophy course “Knowing” at a Stockton community college, concluding at such a tender age that reading Wittgenstein was “a compelling enough way to pass the dead hours” during the late nights she staffs the counter of her family’s declining business in full view of “the busted potential of this small city’s downtown.” And in “Human Development”—arguably the collection’s standout story—Anthony, a recent Stanford graduate, begins a triste with Ben, a Cambodian-American “online MBA grad and late bloomer who’d started living as openly gay in his late thirties.”
Ben, a dreamer thirsty for validation—and for venture capitalist funding—creates an app aimed at seeking intimate connections amongst people from marginalized communities. In a collection attuned to the subtle glories of queer shade, the narrator’s inner monologues are multiclausal, gymnastic. In response to Ben’s pitch, Anthony’s face remains as neutral as the mask in Grindr’s logo, the opus of his true emotions revealed to So’s readers. If Ves is, at heart, a film critic, Anthony is, at heart, an English professor. “The whole time he was speaking,” Anthony muses. “I’d done my best to project that I was taking him, and his idea, seriously…He just—and I tried, really I did, not to care—sounded like a clueless kid during his pitch…Buzzwords rolled off his tongue as naturally as a robot trying to act human—LGBTQ, people of color, safe space.”
We cannot take for granted the deftness, the lightness, the sheer fleet-footedness of So’s collection. In “Human Development,” the author pulls off a breathtaking feat of intertextuality: bridging the gap between Moby Dick and a short story about two queer, scattershot Cambodian-American Peripatetics hustling in a San Francisco of “tech catered lunches, tech laundry services, tech Wi-Fi commuter buses, tech holiday bonuses, tech personalized yoga sessions…” So’s genius is both subtle and muscular. He guides the reader to connect Ben’s overcompensatory tendencies to the “doomed nature of Ahab’s hunt for Moby Dick” and Anthony’s millennial ennui to “the profound calm of Ishmael’s aimless wandering, the difference between ‘having purpose’ like Ahab and finding ‘meaning’ like Ishmael.” Phrased less poetically, Anthony’s CV objective might read something like this: “to be indefinite, free to fuck off and be lost.” Not one line of “Human Development” feels forced.
Anthony teaches us that an upbringing which brings you face-to-face with the narratives and lessons of genocide coupled with a literary education at one of the finest universities in the world can inspire a character to master the art of speech for reasons So’s story submerges. Anthony’s allergy to lukewarmness (and to lazy language) leads him to bristle against Ben’s artificial intelligence constraints rooted in the super-generating categories forged in the crucible of American identity politics—from saccharine, maybe-wholesome agendas with not-fully-thought-out contexts or consequences. “I can’t be with a Cambodian guy just to be with a Cambodian guy,” Anthony informs Ben over a late breakfast of “brown rice and quinoa congee” in what is likely one of the collection’s most loudly discussed scenes. “Slowly, Ben’s face dropped at the words [Anthony spits] out, the words that rushed out of [him] in a single stream of sounds.” What if one doesn’t wish to be called “Cambodian” anymore? Does that alternative exist in America? Can it?
“We Would’ve Been Princes!” centers around two brothers—Marlon (as in Brando) and Bond (as in James)—who reveal how forced devotion to family can be tantamount to semi-conscious self-sabotage. Both brothers are sleuthing to discover during a wedding afterparty whether Visith, a distant blowhard uncle, snubbed the bride and groom by not paying his ang pav, a customary gift. Early in the story, however, it becomes clear that the brothers’ preoccupation has more to do with their roles in the family hierarchy. They are effectively concerned with the ethics of devotion.
What do we owe to the people who raised us? How do we pivot when we realize our parents are simultaneously trying their best and not trying hard enough? Marlon is a charismatic, recovering addict. Bond, a stunted painter working as a paralegal in San Francisco. At one point during the afterparty, Visith—a man who ensures his diamond-encrusted Rolex is clearly visible and whose mantra is “Losers have shame and winners don’t”—backs Marlon into a corner “the way Pous did when Marlon was young, when Marlon would be minding his goddamn business as he played with hand-me-down Hot Wheels, only to get yanked into some goading argument among the grown-ups to serve as a rhetorical pawn in their dialogue about morality or honor or whether King Sihanouk was worse than Pol Pot…” In “Princes,” So does far more than simply represent “Generational Differences”—the title of the collection’s final story. Writing the inner lives of split, scarred refugees with the defamiliarizing bubbliness of a Nineties sitcom, So encourages us to consider how our blind loyalty to family—to “the conveyor belt of nonsensical family issues”—can be graphed in terms of the expenditure and conservation of an individual’s limited time, concentration, and energy.
Afterparties casts a toughened gaze on patriarchal figures too exhausted to father, who, despite their best attempts, remain too rudderless to guide their children through America’s cultural mine fields and yellow brick roads. Nevertheless, So is not invested in using these mens’ experiences of trauma to justify their potentials to delay their children’s progress. In “Superking Son Scores Again”—published in n+1 in 2018—one of So’s griot narrators tells the story of a grocery store manager who acts as a coach for the neighborhood’s Cambodian boys’ badminton team. Superking Son—“a guy who carried so much emotional baggage” the team “almost felt obligated to tip him for his labor”—feels threatened by the arrival of Justin, who the narrator describes as “a college-bound city kid, this Mustang-driving badminton player…[who] might be too good for our team, our school, our community of Cambos.”
Superking Son is revered by the boys for his badminton technique—for “the arcs of his lobs, the gentle drifts of his drops, and the lines of his smashes”—as well as for taking over his father’s store, doing “right by his father’s life,” sustaining “his father’s hard work,” making sure “that poor refugee’s lifetime of suffering didn’t go to waste.” Still, Superking Son’s “pent-up refugee shit and the frustration of premature balding” prevent him from fairly executing his task as badminton coach with all its required discipline, dispassion, and rules. At times, the narrator observes Superking Son in “awe” of Justin’s talent, “analyzing Justin’s form and failing to find any faults.” At other times, the narrator catches “something darker, something seething, within his stares, some envy-fueled plot being calculated in his expression…”
So’s characters can be loosely grouped into two categories then: those who remain hermetically committed (shackled?) to their fathers’ stores (and stories) and those who frame the best response to their parents’ traumatic pasts, as well as to their own, in terms of the honest, unglamorous, day-to-day work of perfecting one’s individual badminton game with all its lobs, drops, and smashes not with intentions lukewarm (like Marlon’s and Bond’s) nor cold (like Serey’s), but white hot like Justin’s and, tellingly, like Superking Son’s in the generous present moment of a game, elder and younger “effortless in their technique, so in tune with their own and each other’s bodies, they appeared otherworldly, steered by a godlike puppeteer.”
Reaching this transcendent state, So’s characters demonstrate, entails a breed of strategic cruelty: So’s heroes valiantly fight a war against irrelevance. Irrelevance to what? To anything that does not serve the badminton game which another griot narrator in Zadie Smith’s 2013 novel-in-miniature “The Embassy of Cambodia”—centered on an immigrant in North London who discovers saudade while swimming—describes in terms of “its steady pattern, first gentle, then fast, first soft and high, then hard and low.” The decision to continue to play God’s badminton while your father is lost, while your mother is searching, while your brother is stewing, while your sister is hungry represents a process of spiritual re-balancing unassuming, unwitting, barely formed rebels must remain faithful behaves, in the long run, as some vague, utilitarian good. Justin, Ves, and Anthony are no less than Central Valley prophets, who—unlike their peers—can see that the badminton game continues to progress even as the world around them devolves into something lawless and disordered, “traces of manure, blown in from the asparagus farms surrounding us, our hometown, this shitty place of boring dudes always pissing green stink.”
Afterparties casts a toughened gaze on patriarchal figures too exhausted to father, who, despite their best attempts, remain too rudderless to guide their children through America’s cultural mine fields and yellow brick roads.
What does it mean for our Justins and our Veses and our Anthonys to run away from a shit show? How do So’s characters wrestle control? “Standing on the bare ground,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in “Nature” in 1836, “[M]y head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” Never did I imagine I would write a conclusion connecting Emerson’s formulation of an eye which is absorbent rather than reflective to Cronenberg’s techno-surrealism to a collection by a young Cambodian-American writer whose skill, authenticity, and commitment to a truthful line are enough to cause a hot tear to fall down one’s cheek. But good art—great art—encourages these sorts of synchronicities; indeed, it demands them.
What ends up being displayed on the retinas of So’s characters? (Of Mohabir’s?). Who is directing their movies? Is their chaos of spirit the effect of split attention to too many directors directing too many movies, their lives fifty web pages concurrently left open on their computer screens? So’s characters are plagued by wrong listening, by wrong seeing. Their salvation—and our own—is Emersonian, O’Blivionesque. So’s stories suggest these characters—many entering, then dancing around Buddhist philosophies—ought to become ideal observers of each film playing in their fields of vision, curating and fiercely protecting an inner state (neutral, stoic, disidentified) which can permit them to not be washed away by the generational trauma their parents store within their very cells, to not be distracted by America’s great vaudeville acts reducing entire histories and lineages to box office hits, TikTok dances, and whatever that was Donald Trump kept on tweeting.
Ves, for one, transforms into a silent witness. “Surrounded by visions of Maly,” he reflects. “I regret that I won’t remember each of her lives, but I will keep this: standing here in the Videodrome, watching my cousin grow into the same mother across all her reincarnated selves, and I wonder about my kteuy-ness, how it fits into the equation before me, and doesn’t.”
Stephen Narain is a writer and teacher based in Orlando, Florida, the winner of 2020’s Bristol Short Story Prize. He was raised in the Bahamas by Guyanese parents, has an MFA in Fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and has won the Small Axe Fiction Prize and the Alice Yard Prize for Art Writing.