Anthony Veasna So’s “afters” are electric


In addition to being fraught with difficulties, the experience of American immigrants can be hilarious at times. Misunderstandings, shaky translations, and cultural exchanges gone awry are inevitable fodder for comedy – the question is who can benefit from the punchline. In his book Minor feelings, Korean-American poet Cathy Park Hong describes humor as potentially liberating for the Asian immigrant, but also dangerous: “The Asian accent,” after all, is still one of the “last acceptable accents for mockery”; there is even a “sitcom friendly” version “used by no Asian except Asian American actors on screen,” of which there are few. When they find themselves playing for the general American public, immigrants and their children are well aware of the distinction between laughter. with and laugh To; sometimes it can just come down to the number of white people in the audience.

Exposed in the open, a joke or a funny anecdote can oxidize into shame or racist ridicule. It’s usually easier, as Hong suggests, to internalize the condescension by preemptively laughing at yourself and your heritage, with an outrageous emphasis before everyone else. For many immigrants and their children, political awareness only begins with the realization that the joke is no longer funny. The risk is that this idea will make you humorless for good.

Anthony Veasna So’s collection of stories, Afterparty, has almost no white people but a lot of humor. The book, which is published posthumously after So’s untimely death last year, follows a loose group of second-generation Cambodian Americans and their families. These young people have in common a propensity for digression and filth, to fake even their own private monologues. Most of them are residents of the dusty Central Valley of California, where the neighborhood’s staples are family businesses run by Cambodians, for Cambodians. In “The Shop”, a narrator ironically describes his father, a local mechanic, as the origin of “an entire ecosystem, both in terms of neighborhood service and employment for twelve Cambo men”.

Community in Afterparty is therefore not so much “tightly knit” as it is curled up on itself, insularity not always being a choice or a godsend. Unlike what one character calls “the dominant East Asians,” many of whom, starting in the mid-1960s, entered the United States to take up professional jobs in white-collar or STEM fields, most of the first generation Cambodian Americans arrived as refugees fleeing the murderous Khmer Rouge regime. In So’s writing, their children and grandchildren fight, live and drink with each other in the uneven memory of this horror; Yet they are heading for something beyond diasporic trauma. In response to elders’ accounts of Pol Pot and the concentration camps, the younger characters in So are just as likely to roll their eyes as they are to flinch: every grandmother in the community, complains a teenager, “is a psychopath since the genocide ”.

In So’s stories, the past settles over everyday life like a film of strange particles. AfterpartyThe first story, “Three Women from Chuck’s Donuts,” follows a pair of sisters who were forced to work in a failed donut store by its owner, their mother. They spend their time observing a lone man who regularly goes to order without eating. The sisters think he looks like their absent father; the mother fears that he is associated with “a criminal organization of former Khmer Rouge officials”. The truth turns out to be so commonplace that it borders on cliché, but as So knows, the story – like a play of light – shines and bounces off the present, making it harder for the immigrant to see. what is happening in front of it.

Afterparty is a world speckled with patterns of light, dark humor; readers intrude, knowing that jokes are funny but not always made for their benefit. So’s humor doesn’t have to mock the politics of relevance or respectability. There is only the sarcastic side, which gives the reader the feeling of being privileged, in the sense of being specially chosen as a confidant. “Nothing is special,” complains the narrator of one story, “about an adulthood in California’s asshole, which a government official deemed worthy of a group of afflicted refugees. of PTSD ”. Irreverent lines like these suggest that So trusted his reader as much as he loved his subjects. Rather than stage his characters in easily understandable postures, bringing them together around the mythical American Dream from serious angles, he shows them to us as they bask in the afterparty of the dream. Here the lights are dimmer, the truths more blurry, the hangover entering. There are no easy answers as to how the characters might digest collective trauma or ignore the past, but they keep asking the same question that closes “The Shop”: “But what,” the narrator wonders. , “shall we do after?”

The collection is packed with comedic characters that sometimes read like the community’s own list of Shakespearean archetypes: the failed badminton coach, the masturbating monk, the Phnom Penh diva who sings at weddings and drinks “brewed tea.” only with Evian mineral water ”. These individuals are intimately known to the protagonists of So, who are also aware of how the archetype, in its encounter with discrimination and poverty, can harden into a stereotype: the jester become the laughing stock. One narrator describes a “long legacy of crappy guys” in the neighborhood, “who spent their adulthood sleeping on their mother’s couch and eating their mother’s food.” Soon he sees his own role model, the aforementioned badminton coach, sink into that same bathing predictability. It feels like individuals are struggling against their expected outlines, which tend to fold up with terrible elasticity.

This is the dual nature of community: Structurally, an ecosystem can look a lot like a negative cycle. Most characters find that their trajectories end up turning back – that fateful return after college to live with their parents – and indeed, Afterparty itself traces a curiously circular pattern. The same characters recur throughout the collection, getting old or suddenly out of place, and some stories explore the Cambodian Buddhist belief in reincarnation, which the younger characters laugh at but can’t totally disown. The narrator of “The Shop” thinks of “all those who are dead [in the genocide], two million connection points reincarnated in the abyss, ”and“ how young Cambos like me should repopulate the world with more Cambos, especially those with sophisticated college degrees. His confession is half flippant and half sincere. The reader comes to understand that repetition, far from being predictable or boring, is both funny (the madman who falls and gets up and falls, for example) and necessary.

In a test for n + 1So once wrote that “repetition enables reinvention”, where cycles – and their breaks – allow “new understandings, radical feelings never experienced before”. This kind of possibility is seen in “Human Development,” a story that follows a young man as he worries about the stifling familiarity of his relationship with another second-generation “Cambo”. A sexual adventure that he has – an almost transcendent trio – allows him to observe himself again: “We took turns in each position, in each role, to the point that we have become interchangeable, simple parts of a system. improved fuck. His identity anxiety unresolved, the narrator nevertheless leaves with a new capacity for surprise. “I wondered then, to the impossibility of my existence. I was there !

As the title of the collection suggests, Afterparty is interested in gatherings and regroupings: times when communal insularity becomes strange, skewed in unexpected directions. “I’m going to stop seeing myself as one thing and part of another,” says one character, who briefly joins a temple. Notably, such ideas come not through monogamous romance, but through something more messy and cluttered. Group fellowship for So seems to open a space between predictability – the paths of immigrant life, so condemned by history and struggle – and chance: the stupid joke that has become sublime, the realization that a intimate actually feels like a stranger, or vice versa. It is only in the midst of others that a person can hope that the circuit toggles, that the pattern changes, that the arrow of the cycle vibrates, and gradually begins to point elsewhere.


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