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'Afterparties' Is A Bittersweet Triumph For A Fresh Voice Silenced Too Soon

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. This week marks the publication of one of the most awaited literary debuts of the year. But its 28-year-old author, Anthony Veasna So, died unexpectedly last December. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan says these nine stories, mostly about first-generation Cambodian Americans navigating differences with their parents' generation of education, sexuality and possibility are a bittersweet triumph.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: It's impossible to talk about "Afterparties," the much-heralded short story collection by Anthony Veasna So, without first talking about its backstory. So died this past December of a drug overdose. He was only 28. Most readers who pick up this collection will already know about So's death. And yet I'm guessing that, like me, a fair number of those readers will be in denial as they're reading these short stories. His voice is so alive - smart, flip, funny, rude, sexually explicit and compassionate. Come on. It doesn't make sense that upon its introduction to the larger literary world, such a fresh voice has already been stilled.

That freshness is derived not only from So's style as a writer but from the nuanced perspective of his ultra intersectional identity. So was a queer first-generation Cambodian American who graduated from Stanford and the MFA program at Syracuse University. He grew up in Stockton, Calif., where his working-class parents, along with many other Cambodian refugees, settled after fleeing the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge.

Almost all of the nine stories in "Afterparties" are set in Stockton, a place we're told that some U.S. government official deemed worthy of a bunch of PTSD'd-out refugees. That's the teenage narrator of a story called "Maly, Maly, Maly." He's a young gay man who can't wait to escape this landscape of Dollar Tree stores and cheap sushi joints. But Toby (ph), the slightly older gay narrator of another story called "The Shop," has a more wistful view. In fact, Toby has gone home to Stockton after graduating college in the Midwest to work at his father's auto shop. There, most of the men are like his father, survivors of the killing fields. Here's Toby's view of the place. (Reading) Truth be told, I could have lived like this forever, days at the shop being lulled by the sounds of rusty machinery, deadbolts being bolted and unbolted, Dad and his guys making fun of American dieting for being less effective than the Khmer Rouge diet of boiled grass. All I needed was the occasional hookup.

Throughout his collection, So dramatizes the push-pull of being first-generation. His characters vacillate between a loyalty to the class and culture they grew up in and a yearning to ditch the weight of all that horrific Cambo history by moving away and maybe picking up a degree or two, as of course So himself did. His characters in the most memorable stories are one of a kind. In "Three Women Of Chucks Donuts," a story evocative of Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks," two young sisters work in their mothers 24-hour doughnut shop and speculate on the silent man who comes in every night and doesn't eat his apple fritter. In "Superking Son Scores Again," a badminton coach who works in his parent's crummy Super King grocery store is driven mad with jealousy of his star player.

But to my mind, it's the story with the ironically vague title "Human Development" that hints at So's greater reach on the topic of identity that his future work might have achieved. "Human Development" is narrated by a character named Anthony, three years out of Stanford and, unlike his techie friends, making chump change. Anthony is teaching at a private high school in Marin on a two-year contract as the Frank Chin Endowed Teaching Fellow for Diversity. When we meet him, he's rereading "Moby Dick" in preparation for teaching it. Here's a snippet of a beautiful passage where Anthony reflects on "Moby Dick." (Reading) It was the first novel I'd ever read that didn't care for resolutions. It validated for me the experience of confusion, of exploring something as stupid and vast as a white whale, as an ocean. I wanted my students to understand the doomed nature of Ahab's hunt for Moby Dick, the profound calm of Ishmael's aimless wandering, the difference between having purpose like Ahab and finding meaning like Ishmael. I thought my students should learn the best ways to be lost.

Anthony subsequently hooks up with an older man named Ben. Ben is yet another Bay Area techie, and he seems thrilled to be with Anthony, especially because the two of them are Cambodian American. Ben is working on an app that, as he proudly says, will allow people of color, people with disabilities, people identifying as LGBTQ to cruise for safe spaces, spaces not specifically for sex but for the whole of their lives. What's at odds here are the attitudes towards identity of Anthony, who's not particularly wrapped up in being Cambodian American but thinks of himself as more of a skeptical, free-floating intellectual like Ishmael, and Ben who's like Ahab, fixating on the consummation of a clarifying goal.

Here, So embraces uncertainty and undermines several potent markers of identity, ethnicity, sexual orientation and the diversity industry itself. It's heartbreaking that we won't see So's continued exploration of these themes. Instead, like Anthony reading "Moby Dick," we too must be satisfied to live without resolutions.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Afterparties" by Anthony Veasna So. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, collaborating with Stephen Sondheim on three musicals, my guest will be James Lapine. He wrote the book for the shows "Sunday In The Park With George," "Into The Woods" and "Passion" and directed the original Broadway productions. His new book is a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of "Sunday In The Park." I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTHONY DE MARE'S "FINISHING THE HAT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.