Remembering Anthony Veasna So
Anthony Veasna So was, in his own words, “a queer boy, a Khmer-American son of former refugees, a failed computer scientist, a grotesque parody of the model minority, and a graduate of Stanford University.” He was also a wonderful friend, one of my favorite writers, and a prose editor at The Adroit Journal from 2015 to 2019.
Before he passed in December of 2020, Anthony sold his debut short story collection Afterparties, which has been hailed as “a wildly energetic, heartfelt, original debut” (George Saunders) and “a stunning collection by an exciting new voice” (Brit Bennett). Like all his work, it is hilarious, exquisitely detailed, and unbelievably complex in its exploration of the lives of Khmer, queer characters.
In Anthony’s memory, we are republishing a “staff spotlight” that features him at his best: Irreverent toward all but that which deserves reverence, whether it’s the “unreachable source of energy in [his] stories” or Moby Dick. I implore everyone who reads it to pre-order Afterparties. He is dearly missed, but his humor and light lives on within it.
— Garrett Biggs, Managing Editor
Prose Editor Anthony So joined The Adroit Journal in 2015, and it took no time for a literary dispute to break out. It all came to a head over the writing of Joe Jimenez, specifically his “Cotton,” a short story in Issue Twenty-Two: “His writing was just so beautiful, and I don’t think anyone was even fighting against me that much. I just was so passionate about publishing it. I was ready to get in people’s faces and throw some punches.”
A Cambodian-American son of former refugees, Anthony is a Stanford graduate who lives and works in Stockton, California. His family background holds a vivid presence in his writing. In “The Monks,” his latest short story, So explains that “Cambodia serves as this unreachable source of energy in my stories,” a constant underlying presence that is felt but intangible, elusive.”
The intersections of sexuality, gender, and nationality are topics of literary interest for So. “I often like to write from the perspective of a younger generation that literally cannot access crucial aspects of its culture, because of the massive destruction of Cambodian art, literature, and people. These young kids are forced to fill in the gaps of their culture with the wonky things you do and learn about growing up marginalised in the U.S., creating a new subversive mode of being.”
So’s interests are various—he is an illustrator and comedian as well as a writer, and he draws from a bevy of influences. “I used to watch a ton of movies and television, from French New Wave films to Wong Kar Wai to Bowfinger with Eddie Murphy and Steve Martin. God, I watched Bowfinger so many times. I remember when I was around eight, my cousin and I spent a whole summer watching her double VHS version of Titanic almost every day. When Blockbuster was still trying to compete with Netflix, they let you trade in Netflix DVDs for free Blockbuster rentals. I would get three Netflix DVDs sent to me, watch them or burn illegal copies of them, and then go trade them in for new movies at Blockbuster. I did this all the time in high school, and watching all this media really informed my work. I also did stand-up comedy for a couple of years, and learning how to time jokes and anticipate a direct audience—that was super helpful. Oh, and Moby Dick. Moby Dick fucked me up.”
Like So, many contemporary writers combine their words with images, podcasts, film content. We find ourselves in an online culture where the image has primacy, and a graphic illustration can grab the attention of a potential reader mindlessly scrolling through Twitter. On So’s website, word and image are collapsed into comic strips. “Comics were originally this way for me to get out all my stand-up comedy ideas after I stopped doing stand-up comedy (I decided I didn’t want to deal with the entertainment world). But I’m actually working on a story collection that features a bunch of my comics, so I’m starting to merge the my prose and comics into one distinct purpose. I love the way that comics don’t need to be that refined, and the way you can focus on mundane, trivial, irreverent things.”
“I feel that the narration of prose is almost too powerful sometimes” he says. “If you write about a certain detail in one scene, it carries a sort of symbolic, meaning whether you want it to or not. Comics aren’t burdened by that history of narration, and I find that I want the characters in my book—which pretty much only features Cambodian-Americans—to be relieved of the burdens of everything that being Cambodian-American means, because I would never want that for any actual Cambodian-American person, to always live with the weight of the past.”
Peter Chappell: What do you hate most politics right now?
Anthony So: People talking before thinking. People not thinking. People talking without knowing any history at all.
PC: Name one Adroit writer you would recommend to a friend.
AS: Joe Jimenez and Kayleb Rae Candrilli.
PC: What do you look for when selecting prose for publication?
AS: Energy. Purpose. I hate shit that reads like it was an exercise someone did in a creative writing class based off some random prompt the workshop leader gave.