“a work of singular creativity.”
Anthony Veasna So writes with the assurance of a very experienced writer, though this volume of stories is his first book. Each story is told from a different point of view, including one narrated by a group of young men and one by a mother who has seen many tragedies. The stories exhibit great variety not only in point of view but also in language.
Most of the stories are set in a small California city, in a landscape So depicts as soulless. His characters are almost all Khmer (Cambodian). The tragic history of genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge haunts the lives of the American-born characters. Their parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents are so preoccupied with survival that the lesser trials and challenges of their American-born descendants seem inconsequential to them.
The protagonists face the characteristic challenge of first-generation Americans: to define themselves and succeed in a new country while justifying their parents’ hard work, suffering, and sacrifice, both in Cambodia and in the United States. The sometimes obscene, sometimes highly expressive language of the young people reflects their desire to be cool while struggling with emotions they do not fully understand.
In the first story, “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts,” the unresolved tensions among a mother, her two daughters, and their remarried father are transferred onto a mysterious customer. One daughter tries to analyze him philosophically, while the other notices his resemblance to their handsome father. The mother is troubled both by the resemblance and her fear that the man has been sent to collect an unpaid loan. An unexpected, tragicomic ending addresses the role of men in Cambodian families and resolves many of the family’s fractures.
So vividly recreates the places where the characters make a living. He has a gift for describing tastes and smells, especially in the first two stories, the second of which is set in a food store. The son of its owner, “Superking Son,” “reeked of raw chicken, raw chicken feet, raw cow, raw cow tongue, . . . all jellied, cubed, and stored in buckets before it was thrown into everyone’s noodle soup on Sunday mornings.”
Each story builds tension to an often violent conclusion. The first conjoins violence and surreal comedy. The second describes a badminton match as if it were both battle and ballet:
“. . . whenever one of them jumped into the air for a smash, the other crouched to the floor and retrieved the thunderous strike, recovering quickly from the bruises piling up on his shins.”
For all the protagonists, finding or creating a sense of identity against the background of both a particularly featureless American place and a particularly tragic historical heritage requires negotiating everything from gender to sexuality to language. The fluidity of the narration echoes the fluidity of the characters’ identities as each struggles to address the past in order to move into the future.
One or two stories could have been condensed. “The Monks” is narrated by a character who is not particularly dramatic, though it reaches a surprising conclusion. The best stories in the volume, including “We Would’ve Been Princes!”, about a party after a wedding, address intergenerational tensions. The characters in that story are intriguing and dynamic from the moment they are introduced.
Though the book does not refer to the pandemic, it captures the anomie and underlying violence of American culture in 2021. One of the most compelling stories is the last one, “Generational Differences,” in which a mother responds to her son’s questions about the past. In this case, the tragedies experienced in Cambodia are compounded by a school shooting of Khmer children in California in 1989.
A humane imagination characterizes these nine stories. It is particularly tragic that the author, who expresses gratitude in the acknowledgments for the support of his parents, sister, lover, and numerous teachers and mentors, died of an overdose at age 28, eight months before the book’s publication. So’s death is a loss to our culture. His book is a work of singular creativity.