Sacred and Profane and Infinitely Compassionate: Remembering Anthony Veasna So
Almost every outlet has called Anthony Veasna So some variation of a star-on-the-rise. However, on the rise implies a trajectory when the truth is, he was already there. Everyone just had to catch up.
Before So’s untimely death at the young of twenty-eight last winter, his debut collection of short stories, Afterparties, sold to Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins, for $300,000 as part of a two-book deal after a six-way bidding war. The buzz since has been palpable; everyone knew this young author was poised for literary stardom. Brit Bennett, George Saunders, and Bryan Washington championed his work early on, in addition to those who taught So at the Creative Writing MFA at Syracuse like Jonathan Dee, Dana Spiotta, and Mary Karr. The book has appeared on almost every anticipated book round-up from Vanity Fair to TIME to the Wall Street Journal. Roxane Gay selected it for her monthly book club. It is populating cases of staff picks at independent bookstores across the country right now.
So’s intention with Afterparties was to subvert the immigrant tropes he’s come across in fiction, according to his editor, Helen Atsma. The collection examines Cambodian American life with both resounding emotional depth and biting humor, sparing no complexity unexamined. The stories mostly focus on the children of refugees who survived the Khmer Rouge genocide, and follow them as they seek to carve their own space in the world while contending with inherited trauma. Its medley of love, queerness, race, friendship, and family is the backbone of So’s ability to wield his fiction in an effort to shelf joy and struggle side-by-side in a community often underrepresented.
But before claiming his space in the limelight, So always possessed the “indefinable it” that deems one a star. His friends, family, and partner, the writer Alex Torres, who recently published an essay on his relationship with the writer in BuzzFeed, all recall the light that exuded from the young talent long before it was shined on him.
Below, So’s editor, Helen Atsma, and his agent, Rob McQuilkin, recall similar memories when working with the young talent on his debut collection.
The Rumpus: Rob, as an agent, what excited you about Anthony and his work?
Rob McQuilkin: It was immediately clear, on first reading “Superking Son Scores Again,” that there was a fiercely fresh voice at play on the page—the antic, manic hilarity; the spot-on sense of observation; the fine-edged delineations of what, to me, felt like a community I’d not yet seen much of. And so I reached out to his editor (and also publisher) at n+1, Mark Krotov, to find out who this Anthony Veasna So was, and whether I could, you know, meet him. Mark then sent me a story that had just been type-set, I think, for an electronic-only issue of the magazine that was about to go live. This one, “The Monks,” though clearly by the same hand, had such a very different pacing and tone that it made very clear Anthony’s depth, dexterity, and seemingly limitless potential.
Of course, I made good use of the email address Mark gave me, reached out to Anthony himself, and a conversation then began that would take us through any number of adventures before being cut short by his death.
Rumpus: And Helen, what about you as an editor?
Helen Atsma: Everything about Anthony’s work felt new to me—the bright humor and pathos of his prose, his electric use of language, the community he wrote about. Each story is astonishingly vivid and original—and he never wrote the same story twice.
Rumpus: What drew you to this collection, specifically?
McQuilkin: Story by story, everything Anthony gave me subsequently only deepened and confirmed that earlier hunch. The range and ambition of these stories as they came in, both individually and as a whole, just left me sometimes… stunned.
Rumpus: Any story in particular that pops out right now as you recall this stunned feeling?
McQuilkin: I remember the feeling I had when first reading what was then called “Cleveland Elementary—1989” (now “Generational Differences”), and seeing the daring ways in which he sought multiple frames for the story—frames that in someone else’s hands could have ended up muffling the impact of the tragedy at hand, but in Anthony’s, only amplified it. Same thing with “Somaly, Serey/Serey, Somaly.” He just was not afraid of complexity, he leaned right into it. And to dazzling effect.
Finally, when he shared “The Shop” and “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts,” fairly late in the game, I knew this collection was destined for very big things indeed.
Rumpus: Is that when you went out with it?
McQuilkin: We’d been trying Cressida Leyshon at the New Yorker with some of these stories, and while she, too, was dazzled by Anthony’s work and eager to publish him, none of the individual stories had felt quite right to take to the editorial board, and ultimately David Remnick himself. But with “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts,” that threshold was crossed. Sufficiently that they tolerated a rather wickedly careless word count of what started off at more than nine thousand words, if I remember correctly! It was such a joy to see his work so beautifully showcased in the magazine after the work Anthony and Cressida did to rein it in a bit and sharpen it up.
And, of course, unlike this moment here, as Afterparties hits bookshelves around the country, Anthony was there to take full gratification in the thrill of it all.
Rumpus: And how has this collection evolved since it first came across your desk, Helen?
Atsma: Some of the stories in the book are very close to the versions I saw when they first came across my desk. Some evolved quite a bit throughout editing, particularly the three stories about Maly and her family. Anthony and I worked together on the prose at the sentence level, and then we also thought quite a bit about the overall shape of the collection, eventually reordering the stories. Anthony was a perfectionist, and polished each sentence until it shone.
Rumpus: What are your favorite memories of working with and getting to know Anthony?
McQuilkin: Of course, the joy I felt in hearing him tell me, after speaking to several of my existing clients, that he wanted to work together—that would be pretty hard to beat.
Later, though, when he came into the office to visit, sending everyone’s heads spinning with all of that brilliant energy and openness, I remember admiring the tattoo on Anthony’s biceps. He told me then the story of Pen Ran, a guiding light for him, who was still a famous Cambodian pop star when, identified in a line-up (the Khmer Rouge guard on duty forced everyone to sing, and she could not *not* use that voice), she was executed with a pistol shot.
Maybe the thing that stays with me most is that, every time I saw him in person, and that may have been just three times in the course of our work together (because generally we communicated by phone and by email), upon parting ways, Anthony would begin to take a few steps away from me and then lunge back in for a hug. There was something very moving about those hugs, which were both fierce and sudden and yet also so gentle. I’d never had anyone else part ways quite like that.
Atsma: He wrote delightful emails—funny, sharp, and full of vision—and was just such a pleasure to correspond with. I only met him in person once, when his work was on submission to publishers, and he had the entire Ecco team in stitches. His work very much reflects who he was as a person—quick-witted, hilarious, deep, and never missing a thing.
Rumpus: I know it’s hard to pick a favorite, so I won’t ask you two to, but what story sticks to your brain like gum to a shoe the most?
McQuilkin: I’ve mentioned a couple of the show-stoppers, and, boy, those are hard to beat. Really, everything he wrote sticks to my brain, I’m afraid. But I do want to point to “Maly, Maly, Maly,” which ultimately ran in the Paris Review (which had always been a dream for him, being published there), because to me it is in many ways the navel of this collection—sacred and profane and infinitely compassionate—reflecting all the elements of the collection as a whole. And the way it ends feels to me just such an intimate portrait of his sometimes lonely, isolated omniscience as a writer and as a person on the planet Earth.
Atsma: I love them all, but the last story of the collection, “Generational Differences,” packs an incredible punch, I think—as a story, but also as an ending to this collection. It’s about a mother, a teacher, recounting the story of her life to her son, and remembering one day in particular—when her then nine-year-old son visited the elementary school where she taught, where there had once been a school shooting she had witnessed. It’s a story about trauma, and survival—and it’s a beautiful story of motherhood. I still find it astonishing that Anthony, at his young age, could so perfectly write about characters old and young, about characters still figuring themselves out and those more settled into their identities. His range was vast.
Rumpus: Beyond the release of this book, how would you like to see Anthony’s memory honored?
McQuilkin: I’m so grateful to Mark and his colleagues at n+1 for starting up the Anthony Veasna So Fiction Prize, and it comforts me to know that, kind of in the way that Rob Bingham, who also died of a drug overdose, as a matter of fact, has had his name and spirit carried on through the PEN prize bearing his name. Anthony will be there as a fixture in the imaginations of other young writers we don’t even know about yet—there on the literary landscape as a goal and an example.
But I also hope that this collection will itself be honored by making a long or even shortlist or two for the bigger book prizes. Because it really is that good.
And I hope, too, that someone else may someday take up that story that meant so much to Anthony that he literally inscribed on his body, of Pen Ran: this was the novel this otherwise fearless person was almost afraid to write, it meant so much to him, the one he was saving up his talents and heart to let loose on the world.
Photograph of Anthony Vaesna So by Chris Sackes.