January 21, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Emerging writer Anthony Veasna So died Dec. 8 at 28

A week after Anthony Veasna So, an emerging author on the cusp of success, died unexpectedly at age 28, a far-flung but tightknit literary community is in shock and mourning over what might have been.

So died Dec. 8 in San Francisco, according to his partner, Alex Torres. No cause of death was given.

His highly anticipated short story collection, “Afterparties,” to be published in August by Ecco Press, offers a series of portraits of Cambodian Americans grappling with the inherited trauma of the genocide that their parents fled.

“I was completely dazzled by it,” said Helen Atsma, Ecco’s vice president and editorial director and So’s editor, recalling the first time she read his manuscript — one of the first she acquired for the publishing company. “The writing was so punchy and funny and smart and attuned to pop culture and life in California.

“I found his work utterly new,” she added, noting not only its fresh perspective on a community underrepresented in American literature but also its unique voice. “He had a way of juggling both humor and trauma. It’s a balancing act that I think is very difficult to do, and he did it, it seemed, effortlessly.”

In a blurb for “Afterparties,” Dana Spiotta, author of “Innocents and Others,” called the collection “one of the most exciting debuts of the past decade.” Bryan Washington, Brit Bennett and Jonathan Dee have also praised his work.

George Saunders, author of “Lincoln in the Bardo” and a professor at Syracuse University, where So earned a master of fine arts from its prestigious writing program, said in an email that he was an “incredibly talented, intense, loving person who was hitting some beautiful new tones.”

What Saunders loved most, he continued, “was his energy — his background in standup, refined and polished, was very much evident in his work. His mind could take a simple idea and animate it and put the reader right inside of it and make her or him care. This is such a tremendous loss — one of those that, I think, is pretty much impossible to understand at the time it happens.”

A few days before he died, So had spoken with Mark Krotov, publisher and coeditor of the literary magazine n+1, mapping out some essays he’d write next year. Krotov was excited.

“He was such a craft person: He wrote his stories, he rewrote his stories, he rewrote them again and he was extremely receptive to editing,” Krotov said. “All of that, plus this great ambition and the sheer quality of his work made it clear to me that this was a person who was really going to transform American literature.” (So’s writing and comics have also appeared in publications such as the New Yorker, Granta, Zyzzyva, Hobart and Ninth Letter.)

“His literary projects were so clearly connected to Cambodian American literature, to diasporic literature, to queer literature, but also to his family members, to Stockton,” said Krotov. “There was a real sense in reading his work that he wanted to bring out this collective voice in his writing.”

So — a self-described “queer boy,” “failed computer scientist” and “a grotesque parody of the model minority” — was born Feb. 20, 1992, to Sienghay and Ravy So, two refugees from Cambodia, in Stockton, Calif. He graduated from Stanford University with degrees in English literature and art practice; as an undergraduate, he hosted a comedy open mic night and helped publish several graphic novels.

After graduating, So taught literature and writing at the Urban School of San Francisco and the nonprofit Next Generation Scholars, and later went on to teach at Catapult, the Young Writers’ Workshop at Colgate University and the Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants in Oakland.

Author Anthony Veasna So and the jacket of his book “Afterparties,” due for release in August.

(Chris Sackes / Associated Press)

Mary Karr first met So when he walked into her memoir class at Syracuse about four years ago. “He just blazed in shedding sparks,” said the writer and poet.

“He was a mensch, but he was also a darling. He was very boyish,” she said, adding that he was very politically sophisticated. “He was never afraid to say a very uncomfortable political truth, no matter who was included in it, including me, but he always called people in rather than out.”

He knew a lot about many things, including photography and painting, but what struck Karr most was his gratitude toward his parents. She recalled an art project in which So used house paint and drywall, supplies his father used to repair apartments, to make a collage of photos of his parents in Cambodia.

Karr said that the Saturday before his death, during a virtual graduation celebration with other Syracuse students and professors, So brought up his parents: “I may be paraphrasing here, but he thanked them for ‘clawing their way to a beautiful life and for never sparing me their stories.’”

Other writers emphasized the importance of his own stories in broadening the literary landscape. For Bobuq Sayed, So “was part of an emerging generation of queer and trans writers of color who were bucking conventional, assimilative practices of writing. He was invested in a defiant, unapologetic, genre-bending, rule-breaking approach to writing stories from the margins of society that rarely get told.

“That movement is so sparsely populated already,” continued Sayed, a fellow writer who was also So’s penpal. “There are such few people who are getting opportunities and who are getting paid attention to from this community — an emerging, queer writer of color experience. That’s part of what’s so tragic.”

Friends, relatives and writers commemorated So on Twitter shortly after learning of his death.

Lance Cleland, director at Tin House Workshop, called So “a brilliant light, off and on the page.”

“Thunderstruck” author Elizabeth McCracken tweeted that So’s short story, “The Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts,” published in the New Yorker in February, is “one of the most extraordinary, complicated, funny, strange stories I’ve read in ages.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize-winner for “The Sympathizer,” also read that story with admiration. “I never could have written that story at his age,” Nguyen said in an email. “I’m not sure I could write that story now. It was wise, witty, entertaining and tragic. It marked, as we say in the world of letters, an important new voice.”

Notable to Nguyen was the way So laced his family’s history into his writing: “Cambodian American literature has been dominated by the horrifying genocide of the Khmer Rouge regime. Most Cambodian American books focus on those years and their rituals of terror and degradation. Anthony doesn’t forget that history. But his writing also showed how to envision life and culture for Cambodian Americans here and now.”

Though Atsma only met So once in person, he left a lasting impression on her. “He lit up a room,” the editor recalled, “but he was also confident without being cocky, and he was utterly charming.”

So’s agent, Rob McQuilkin, was continually charmed by the young author’s humor. His writing was charged with black comedy and survivor’s wit, McQuilkin said, and he enjoyed roasting Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie, as shown by his Twitter and Instagram handles, “fakemaddoxjolie.” (Maddox Jolie-Pitt, the actress’ adopted son, was born in Cambodia.)

So was working on a novel about three Khmer-American cousins, a pansexual rapper, a comedian philosopher and a short-tempered illustrator. He is survived by his partner; his parents; and sister, Samantha Lamb.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.