September 5, 2018
I feel like every time I read something by a queer Asian woman, some part of me is like “every original thought you’ve ever had is just you tapping into a cultural consciousness you only vaguely have access to”
I’m reading apparently what is the definitive queer cult classic by a Taiwanese lesbian writer who committed suicide at age 26 and was so influential queer people started using her narrator’s name, lazi, as synonymous with lesbian.
Literally me rn
I read the first few chapters just now and literally texted you
I’m literally reading it right now
If this isn’t tapping into a similar vague cultural consciousness idk what is
Exchanges like these characterized my relationship with Anthony. I still remember getting his text about Qiu Miaojin’s Notes of a Crocodile on the bus home, smiling over the quiet confluence of our reading tastes. Two years later, I moved to Taipei to study queer Taiwanese literature. It was there that I learned of Anthony’s death—at 3 AM, on the last night of my government-mandated quarantine, the rain lashing down for the seventh day in a row.
I’d just seen Anthony two days earlier, at a belated Zoom graduation our MFA program had held for us. I saw Anthony’s face and thought of the drafty house we’d lived in for the first two years of the program. We’d shared that house with three other writers in the Syracuse program, chasing mice into corners and going to court over an unlawful eviction notice. Our first year in that shared house, Anthony and I had smashed a vengeful wasp into the kitchen sink, opened a stream of hot water over its body, and watched it twitch into the drain.
I trusted Anthony with those small, strange moments of rupture. He was always liberal with his judgments, brutally honest about the shortcomings of others, brave enough to offer unpopular opinions—cutting through the polite, forced veneer of conversations. But he was also humble, putting in the real work: voraciously reading across genres, keeping spreadsheets to document his daily word count, texting the house group chat to crowdsource synonyms and line edits. Anthony was both scary and refreshing, someone who was bold enough to name the skittering unease I felt but never verbalized. In him, I found not only a model for a literary life, but also an example of someone who was truly—unapologetically—himself.
To Anthony, the project of being a writer was broader than simply publishing work or accumulating industry recognition. He often drew a distinction between “people who write good books” and “good writers,” and he aspired to be the latter. To Anthony, a literary life was characterized not by the sum of one’s accomplishments, but by one’s actions: their capacity to write regardless of circumstances or accolades. Every time I contacted him after the program, he’d inevitably ask: How’s your writing? How’s your short story collection? Think harder about that fellowship. Will it actually give you time to write?
I will remember Anthony during awkward silences at parties, during too-stuffy literary events and academic conferences, during mornings where writing is especially difficult. I will remember him when I am on the fence about sharing a story that might be too sensitive, when I am on the verge of apologizing for saying something honest. I will especially remember him when I read something hilariously queer or idiosyncratic—something that I could only imagine sharing with him. I still haven’t come to terms with the strange, long silence that will take his place.
What I remember most vividly about Anthony is how it would go when he would come to my office hours. We would immediately launch into what books we had read, what movies we had seen, but also random things—we would jump from, say, Fat City the book to Fat City the movie, to Denis Johnson’s obsession with Leonard Gardner’s dialogue, to literary gossip and Syracuse, to Stockton, to the Cambodian Donut King, to keto recipes, to exercise regimens, to comedy, to his family and how funny they are, to his classes at Stanford, and then back to books and movies. Rambling digressive wild dense funny sharp takes punctuated with California-boy likes and asides (and counter-asides). He had a very entertaining kind of horror vacui—he seemed to think while talking, and it was dazzling to watch him connect something unexpected in real time. Anthony’s ideas were always original to him, he synthesized it all into his own sensibility. He wasn’t precious—he was a joyful hard player, and his capacity seemed limitless to me. Only after we had covered a myriad of subjects would he finally get to his very specific literary question, usually some formal problem he was trying to solve and the reason he had turned up in my office hours in the first place. He listened carefully, never defensively, despite the fact that he must have known his mind was faster than his teachers’; and usually he came up with his own solutions. Being his teacher made you smarter, more careful, because he absorbed it all, threw out what he didn’t need and kept what he did. It inspired me to watch how everything was transformed by his radiant, singular talent.
But let me amend the above—I found Anthony so appealing not just because of how funny and off-kilter and brilliant his mind was. But also because he was so full of gratitude and generosity. Anthony was very careful to credit everyone who helped him and express his thanks in profuse, meticulous detail. He was truly tender hearted, and very willing to help everyone else. And he was charismatic, seductive—he was the master of disarmingly extreme self-deprecation in which he somehow managed to turn a confession of his own weaknesses or gaps into funny, charming brags. I remember him saying that he became a writer because he had failed at everything else. And that “writers are those people that can’t find anywhere else to go.” How can you not love someone who always led with his own vulnerability? And that is what informed his work too: his big heart with his frenetic mind and his wacked sensibility.
After he graduated, Anthony maintained his funny energetic thought streams via emails. There is one that sums up Anthony for me. Last fall I wrote him to ask how he was doing with the wildfires, the air, and the pandemic. Despite his asthma, what he wrote back was all about his concern for his parents’ health rather than his own, and about the state’s unreliable stand on smoke precautions. Then he closed with this, classic Anthony: “I’m actually brainstorming ideas for a second novel/third book that’s based in SF, and dives deep in queer culture but also the Fire season and conspiracies involving the smoke and the state. Like Pynchon meets Queer autofiction. So at least i figured out a way to channel this into my writing haha.”
“Ant, I’m a fucking mess and a shit writer and anyone who accepts my work must be high out of their mind.” And then came his golden nuggets of wisdom: you’re not shit, you write about shit; HAVE YOU READ YOUR WORDS?!; just do it [so many exclamation points].
Last year, our communications were limited to messages and phone calls. I went on rants about NYC’s gay dating scene, X-Men: The New Mutants being such a letdown, and my manuscripts’ confused story arcs. Anthony was a witty friend, a compassionate therapist, a champion of my writing. When I say community, I mean Anthony and I laughing at our messy anecdotes. I mean Anthony helping me see why xyz-guy I was dating was sooooooo not right for me. I mean Anthony giving me space to be trashy and go off on tangents and go back and forth about the ~meaning of life~ and instilling in me a feeling of belonging through not belonging; the treasure trove of joys that comes from being authentically myself.
I was on my bed, scrolling before a nap, when I saw a post that I thought was going to be more acclaim for Anthony’s upcoming collection. I saw his picture—that pink shirt, his adorable side-smile—and thought, “More praise, yaaassss!” And then I saw “was” in the caption. And then I saw “would’ve been.” And then I didn’t want to read further. I couldn’t. My last conversation with him was about my application anxiety for a writing conference, and now that sounds stupid. So stupid. Like, why couldn’t we have talked about something more meaningful: dogs, my dying houseplants, falling in and out of love, recipes, fucked-up humor, post-pandemic coffee/tea, tattoos, facial hair, all the good times? Why couldn’t we have known that it was going to be our final conversation, so at least we could’ve video chatted, and I could’ve given him virtual hugs and poked fun at him for his comment about having asthma but loving ash-ridden mouths. Had I known, I would’ve told him how much his presence in my life reshaped my values. I would’ve praised his sentences, said something corny about his stories transcending the words on the page, how they shattered the ground under my feet and made me sprout wings.
Anthony Veasna So was a gem. He was a light. He was a hoot. He is loved.
—Christopher James Llego
I was fortunate to meet Anthony last winter at Tin House. Even beyond his own talent, he was such a warm, funny, vivacious presence. He read his peers generously, as invested in their growth as in his own. I was thrilled to revisit his writing when he sent me his debut story collection in the fall. His stories are surprising, complex, hilarious, and challenging—he tackles difficult topics irreverently without ever lapsing into cynicism. I loved following his voice into every world he created.
Here are a few things that are stereotypically Asian American: Costco, badminton, the McDonald’s dollar menu, monks, Jack in the Box tacos, Church’s Chicken, minivans, 24/7 donut shops, fast food chains in general, inherited trauma, burpees, getting stoned, dropping out of med school to pursue literary criticism. When you’re a child of Asian diaspora, it can be hard to see how generically Asian these things are. But reading Anthony Veasna So’s stories—which draw on all these tropes and more—they emerge not only as coherently Asian American, but indelibly so.
The first work I read by So was his New Yorker short story, “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts.” As suggested by the title, its plot is a relatively sparse, almost allegorical, telling of a Cambodian mother and her two daughters who run a 24/7 donut shop somewhere in California. Against the alienating “cool fluorescent glow” of the shop, however, So’s narrative voice unfolds through a surprising intimacy, as it lovingly drifts between the three women’s perspectives. Recalling his own memories of frequenting late-night donut shops while attending Stanford, So explained how he became “obsessed with claiming this image as part of a Cambodian-American visual language. It felt like this urgent site of meaning that was distinctly Cambodian.”
The images So claimed, be they donut shops or headless torso selfies on Grindr, are nontrivial for the descendants of Asian immigrants, and Cambodian refugees especially. So’s parents fled Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge and landed in Stockton, California, where So was born and raised. In the aftermath of Pol Pot’s genocidal regime, which eviscerated a nation by targeting its artists, writers, and intellectuals, what’s left to be claimed by subsequent generations can be hard to discern. The unique difficulty of processing this kind of generational trauma results from the destruction of the language, archives, and cultural forms that would enable its expression. (My parents grew up under Maoism and immigrated, with me, in 1992; I can attest first-hand that one consequence has been an impossibly disorienting grasp of Chinese history, of narrative causality.) How does one write an immigrant story when the story’s very premise was designed to be distorted? Does it require historical distance—a second or third generation to begin to piece it together? And if so, how would we go about writing it?
So’s stories mark an exciting moment of writing by and for a younger generation of Asian diaspora that crucially takes up fiction, rather than non-fiction or memoir. “I pursued the arts because I want to never forget my own history,” So once remarked, “and I want to do my part in making sure this history is never lost for others. I want to pave new futures for my people.” Given So’s investment in Cambodian American cultural futurity, his forthcoming debut story collection, Afterparties, might seem deceptively titled. The after reckons with the aftermath of migration, the post of post-traumatic stress disorder, to be sure. But the telos of the phrase—the parties—is like the main event.
So’s writing doesn’t rehearse Asian American refugee trauma through hackneyed tropes or over-sentimentalized similes. More often, his stories make me laugh, often out loud. Sometimes, they even make me feel like I’m at a party. Genocide is not a joke, obviously, but So mobilized humor in a way that heightened the realism of trauma’s everydayness by undercutting readerly expectations. One anecdote that repeatedly pops up throughout his writing, inherited from his dad, is a joke about how Pol Pot prepared him to be a contestant on Survivor.
So exemplifies what I hope is a new generation of Asian American literary fiction—one that writes Asian Americans not in terms of negation or abjection, and which simply tries to tell what it’s like to live through our ill-defined present. Consider, for instance, the opening lines of his story “Superking Son Scores Again”: “Superking Son was an artist lost in the politics of normal, assimilated life.” Something similar might’ve been said about So—indeed, about many of us. One of my favorite rhetorical strategies of his was the frequent invocation of the plural first person. It’s how he concludes “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts,” and it appears across his fiction (“Superking Son Scores Again”; “Collateral Damage”) and nonfiction (“Manchester Street”). As with So’s use of comedy, his turn to the collective “we” feels generous without generalizing. It’s a form of stereotyping that feels remarkably honest for its knowing levity, and its refusal to exceptionalize or fetishize what has often just felt like living.
The other day, I went back and read So’s entire Twitter feed, where his handle (“@fakemaddoxjolie”) and name (“tall and tan ocean vuong”) instantly register how devastatingly funny he was about being Asian American. (Another stereotypically Asian American thing is, of course, being mistaken for another Asian.) I scrolled through the feed in one sitting, periodically sending resonant tweets to various Asian friends. We don’t have more of So’s writing after Afterparties, but we might have things that we have not yet properly seen.
Anthony and I were roommates for two years. We lived in an old Victorian house in Syracuse with three other writers and joked that one day, once we’d made it, we’d share anecdotes about the experience. Anthony and I became very close in the way that you do when you live with someone. I like to think that our friendship was inevitable, that the universe would have found a way to connect us somehow. Once, when we were both flying back to Syracuse at the end of spring break, we—completely unplanned—not only ended up on the same flight, but with seats next to each other.
Even though Anthony self-described as “irreverent,” he was also one of the most radically tender people. He was hopeful, working hard to be able to play a role in shaping the futures of his communities. And when he loved something, anything, people, or art, literature, he loved deeply. I remember him in his striped socks, making us our morning coffee, reciting Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency, yelling out, “I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love” again and again.
What makes his writing so genius: the dark humor and sharp wit, not dropped like a punchline, but deepened through his profound affection for people and places—is Anthony for me. Both nostalgic and deadpan. Extremely generous, in his life, but also in his writing, in the extent of detail and specificity packed into single sentences. Extremely perceptive and utterly brilliant. Caring. One of the best of friends. Ant, who made me grilled cheeses when I got too drunk, and Ant who let me sleep with him in his bed when I got too scared of ghosts. Rest in boundless love, my friend.
The stories will have no trouble speaking for themselves. They’re brilliantly written, compassionate and precise in their evocation of a donut shop, a mechanic’s garage, an empty video store, an obscenely expensive wedding, and in the aggregate I would like to say “they create a world” but of course that world—the world of Cambodian Americans struggling with both poverty and excess, with the burden of memory and the seduction of forgetting—has been there for fifty years, it just hasn’t been brought inside the tent of American literature before now. The stories are funny and psychologically acute and give you that flush you get when you realize you’re hearing a voice you’ve never heard before. It will be hard for readers newly galvanized by that voice to believe that it has already been stilled.
For those who knew and loved Anthony, the loss is of a different magnitude. It was intoxicatingly hard to try to keep up with the pace of his thoughts, his speech. He wore, for years, a pink baseball cap that said “Daddy.” He was insanely productive, in the way some geniuses are when part of their genius is feeling that their time is not limitless. I will miss talking with him about books, which he could do endlessly, and his attitude about them was just right: that is, his takes were extreme and passionate but he was not married to them; he was eager, really, to be argued out of them. In a class of mine he wrote a twenty-five-page essay about style in Paul Beatty’s The Sellout that made me feel embarrassed for ever arguing with him about anything. Young literary men who meet with big early success often become, let’s just say it, assholes; but Anthony was so attuned to others, so cognizant of the help he himself had gotten in tackling the monumental, sprawling, shifting task of keeping himself happy and focused and upright and working. Help from his friends, from his heroic partner Alex, from his sometimes bemused family. He was so funny on the subject of trying to win over his immigrant parents, who had sent their genius son to Stanford to major in computer science, to the idea that he was really meant to be a fiction writer. He described the phone call home after his agent sold his first two books (Afterparties and a novel that will remain unfinished); he told his mother the dollar amount and a few moments later found himself shouting into the phone, “Mom, don’t drop the baby!” He was one of the smartest and most talented people I’ve ever known. He made me feel like teaching might actually be an important job, and that, paradoxically, is because I taught him nothing, I was just part of creating and shielding a space where he could be safe and supported and encouraged in the work of becoming the artist he had it in him to be.
Afterparties is shockingly good. It’s one of those books the world didn’t know it was waiting for. It’s trailblazing, indelible; we’ll always have it, and it will never be enough.
This is how I knew, when he wrote, “you’ll swear, on the graves of all those murdered Cambos, on every cupping bruise your mom self-inflicts to rid her body of trauma, we promise you’ll swear that the lingering smell of raw fish never left the air.” I knew that smell, I knew that Delta town. I knew how the smell of fish was laced with fried unsweetened crullers and pickled turnips sold in Ziploc bags and Asian gangs and gambling losses in Reno, and most of all with an America whose best promise to you was that your dreams could be taken from you at any moment no matter how small they were, and especially if they were small.
I never met Anthony So in real life, but when I read all this in “Superking Son Scores Again,” published in Issue 31, I thought, I swear, I know this person. So I sent over an oddball art suggestion to accompany the story, a Yelp photo of the market by the house where I grew up. I had a hunch it was the same one. Anthony wrote back, “That is the exact Superking Grocery Store I’m writing about. Last week, I visited CA and was literally in that store waiting for the butcher to gut some fish for my mom. But because that’s a photo of the literal store, we can’t use it. Even though this story is VERY fictional, I’m pretty sure my parents would be PISSED if I called that much attention to the store/their friends.”
This, too, I understood, and so I know your ancestors mourn you, Anthony So, because they raised a son who loved them and sought to shield them from harm. To depict a place so vividly that a stranger could guess its precise location from descriptions of its smell, and to feel protective of the smells at the same time, and also maybe protective of the humiliations from which we could not shield the adults we loved when we were still kids in that town. And realizing only later that the adults did not need our protection, in their flashes of power and pleasure, like when our moms flexed knowledge at the fish counter, or splurged on a plastic mesh bag of imported fruit. To write as you did about where we grew up was a miracle of double vision, Anthony. Your writing: a miracle.
First, I am so incredibly sorry for Anthony’s family and those who loved him. I am sorry, too, for those of us who knew him best through his work, which was vivid, funny, weird, silly: “I gave the Buddha a closer look and realized he was cross-eyed. He looked like a dumb jock, flexing until his eyes went all fucked up” (“The Monks”). He was just so good.
Anthony and his partner Alex were both students of mine at Stanford, and that’s how I first knew them. They had just started dating when they were in my class. This was seven years ago. Anthony was finishing up his degree—the email I still have from him setting up an office hours appointment describes graduate school applications. I looked over my notes to him, and I can already see evidence of the writer he became: his paper on Wilde hews closely to the text, unfolding an argument about Dorian Gray’s disordered nerves, his extreme stimulation. But the work is still a student’s work (my notes have a long digression on his use of “rationality” as a place-holder—what does he mean by that word?), he is still developing his own way of using words to do things.
It is a strange thing to know someone as a student and then come to know him as a friend. Over the past few years, Anthony and I had exchanged emails and work, we made jokes on Twitter, and I read his stories. And I feel awkward saying that I feel like we were at a funny inflection point: the pivot between being ordered by an institution and ordered by amusement and perspective. One of the things I admire most about Anthony’s stories is how casual they are—they roll through their plots with a simplicity that feels real (of course Superking Son ends up in a badminton battle, it’s what has to happen to Superking Son; of course the kids call him Superking Son, because he’s the son of the owner of Superking), but his stories’ details are maddeningly precise, wickedly so: “Sure, he reeked of raw chicken, raw chicken feet, raw cow, raw cow tongue, raw fish, raw squid, raw crab, raw pig, raw pig intestine, and raw — like really raw — pig blood, all jellied, cubed, and stored in buckets before it was thrown into everyone’s noodle soup on Sunday mornings” (“Superking Son Scores Again”). The catalog here reels through its raw repetitions and lands, horribly, on the cubed blood. At once horrifying and casual: the blood is an ingredient, it’s normal; on the other hand, it’s a cube of fucking blood. Anthony’s precision is something surreal, the perspective so vivid it feels hyper-real, in part because of the thrownness, the casual freedom with which these details are assembled into narrative, into story.
I am depressed at the thought we won’t read more of Anthony’s work. We have a little more to come—his story collection is due to arrive in August, I know he had more stories in the pipeline, and there is his unfinished novel. But I mean more. He was a writer who in the time I knew him came into his voice. Vividly and clearly. What a lot he had left to show us with his bemused, ingenuous, delicate, searching, fucking casual voice.
In May 2018, n+1 introduced me to Anthony Veasna So. Mark Krotov told me I would love “Superking Son Scores Again” and he was, of course, absolutely right. After reading that story, I went on Anthony’s website and read everything he linked to, then brandished a copy of n+1 around Grove Atlantic, excited to share Anthony’s voice with my colleagues. Over the past couple of years, Anthony and I met up several times when he was in New York, often for breakfasts in the West Village, and I loved getting to know him. I was excited to see many editors clamoring to publish his work when it went out on submission, though sorry to lose out on the chance to publish him in the States myself. But last year, we were in touch again more officially as I was lucky enough to snap up the UK rights to his collection Afterparties for Grove’s UK imprint. It was a real joy to reconnect over Twitter and email even though we couldn’t share breakfast to celebrate our officially working together. I am devastated that he’s gone, I miss his laugh and his dry sense of humor, his intense view of the world, and his life stories. Anthony was incredibly talented, and just getting started. I know readers will love the energy, exuberance, and linguistic brilliance of Afterparties. Anthony deserves to be read widely and celebrated energetically, and I have every faith that will happen.
I never knew Anthony Veasna So. When I heard of his passing, I thought it was strange I would feel so much grief for someone of whose writing I read only a few stories, and whom I had never met. Like many, I am only an admirer and reader. I found his work through the introduction of a friend, another Asian American writer, and quickly went through what he had available online. I loved the irreverence and deadpan de-exotification (the best word I can think of for it) of the monks in “The Monks,” and the casual, even easy way Tevy wears the inheritance of her parents’ immigrant past in “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts.”
So was Cambodian American, which is not an experience I, a Chinese American, want to pretend I understand. However, many of the through lines of his work—parents surviving brutal conditions in their home country, “model minority” children looking for a way to fit their family’s cultural identity into their own—share structural similarities with my own biography. In this industry, being an Asian American writer can feel so painful, narrow, and constricting, but Anthony’s writing achieved a freedom, confidence, and ease. Perhaps this is why my friend and I liked him so much; we so looked forward to his books coming out, to his career taking off. We predicted he would quickly become one of our favorite writers, one of the new, young generation reshaping what it was allowed for Asian American writers to do.
And he also seemed knowable. On Instagram, he made jokes about 99 Ranch that I, too, laughed at. I was flattered that he followed me back on Twitter. As I continued my own writing, I thought it was not unlikely we would one day meet. The Asian American writing community is a small one, and losing any member of it is a heavy loss. In a year of so much grief, this was even more grief.
In January 2016, in an email with the subject line “Got my first lit mag publication!” Anthony wrote:
“Did I tell you about how I saw Eavan and she started bullying me into focusing on only nonfiction? She looked me straight in the soul and, verbatim, said: ‘Anthony, you don’t know who you are.’ Haha. My argument was that my fiction writings are all roman a clefs, so basically nonfiction blended with fiction. She, then, told me that if I was primarily nonfiction, I would definitely sell my book. Anyways, I’m still doing nonfiction stuff, I just think that one, my fiction is definitely improving more than my nonfiction, and two, there should be more Cambodian-American writers breaking into the fiction world, rather than allowing the publishing world to pigeonhole them into the memoir, trauma narratives. . . [A]t a certain point, the literary world needs to allow Cambodian writers to diversify, to explore their past in different mediums, to demonstrate how our oppression hasn’t handicapped us in terms of our poetic imaginations. Of course, when I was talking to Eavan, all of this came out as nonsense and awkward phrasing. It’s hard to argue with people who are super eloquent when you are just inherently a goofy person—the reason I never got first place in Speech and Debate competitions in high school.”
The last time Anthony and I spoke was last spring after Eavan Boland—our beloved, mutual professor—passed. It was surreal to learn of Eavan’s passing—we both owed so much to her. How much more surreal it is to learn of Anthony’s passing.
For one semester in 2013, Anthony and I met up for two hours each week for his Levinthal Tutorial at Stanford. Even as an undergrad, his writing just barreled down the page—when I was reading his Levinthal application, before I had time to laugh at one joke, he was already delivering another. Anthony set up this independent study to discuss “nonfiction and the history of humor,” but what we really discussed was Anthony’s humor—his comics for Stanford’s humor magazine and his stand-up jokes that he’d intersperse throughout his essays on Manchester Street, his family’s auto-repair shop, and Chuck’s Donuts. What I loved most about his humor is the risks it took. He would err on the side of going too far, of humor that was so funny it risked not being funny. Writing from a Jewish tradition, I share this sense of humor—Anthony once joked with me that he felt he had the most in common with old Jews because they were also making jokes out of genocide.
Anthony was able to express the complexities of the world in a joke—identity, genocide, relationships, even his own name. When Anthony began to add his middle name to his publications, he wrote me, “Funny story about my middle name, which means ‘Destiny’ in Khmer. My mom didn’t think of it in time to put on my birth certificate, but did in time to put it on my social security card. So my birth certificate says ‘Anthony So’ and my social security card says ‘Anthony Veasna So,’ which means, according to the government, I’ve had an identity crisis since I was a week old.” Anthony wrung jokes out of each crisis—as I always included in the recommendation letters I wrote for him, “Anthony’s characters not only engage in critical conversations about race, sexuality, and culture, but they do it in tones that subvert the decorum often assigned to these discourses, and in doing so, redefine the boundaries of what can be said, how it can be said, and who can say it. This is revolutionary work.”
When I think of Anthony, I see him shyly beaming beside Alex when he first introduced us. I see him talking excitedly across the table in the Stanford bookstore about the essays he wrote about his family. If Anthony’s parents and sister are reading this, I send you love and thank you for a son and brother who brought the world so much joy.
The feeling I have when I think about Anthony goes on and on. The devastating news made me cry, but it’s hard to think about him for too long without eventually smiling.
—Allison Pitinii Davis
I met Anthony Veasna So at an Oakland café in 2016 through Allison Pitinii Davis, a dear poet friend of mine who was one of his undergraduate mentors at Stanford. He was interested in being connected to other Bay Area Asian-American writers and I was happy to give him some advice and introduce him to writers in my social circle. As a queer Chinese American poet elder from Long Beach, home to the largest diaspora of Cambodians, I delighted in his meteoric success as we kept in touch.
With his recent book deal, Anthony was set to become a bright star and an important voice across the Cambodian American, Asian American, LGBTQ+, and literary communities. It is shattering to lose him in a year of overwhelming loss. He achieved so much in such a short time, writing queer Cambodian American stories on his own terms, vividly, poignantly, hilariously, living so joyously and abundantly, and finding his Southeast Asian American writer community. His work will endure across generations because of his expansive vision and heart. I am glad that Anthony and Allison had the chance to know each other in this life. I wish we had more time with him.
It started as quarantine became real, with a hi and hello from Anthony, there were friends there with him, but he just wanted to say hey after he’d friended me on insta and I’d clicked 🔥 on one of his stories, and it ended in December, a short novel’s worth (~36k words) of insta chats later, with him asking, how’s it going? And I waited a few days, job stuff was consuming, and I still hadn’t read the unpublished essay he’d sent me on Pavement and a friend who’d killed himself, which I really really needed to read, because that was from October, and it was December now, a sunny December day, I’d seen some literary gossip that morning, and that would be my next message, maybe a “seen this?” and a link to the tweet, but out walking my lunging French bulldog I checked Twitter again, I wanted to see if there was anything more, I wanted to give Anthony the best possible runway to whatever gloriously bitchy thing he’d have to say about it, but at the top of my feed there was a tweet that he was dead, Anthony had died two days ago, and a link to a GoFundMe for his partner.
That first day, beginning of March, we got into most of the topics that would define our Instagram chats: literature, sex, food, drugs, and a smattering of ideas for future essays Anthony would write. Anthony was often at his most off-handedly brilliant when dunking on his contemporaries, or those a half-generation above him. One prominent gay writer, lauded for his sex scenes, “wrote like a virgin,” Anthony said, in a warm-up to a much longer and more detailed dismantling of the guy. But this was always in balance with the fandom for the writers who got it right: Jamel Brinkley and Paul Lisicky and Miriam Toews and Kristin Valdez Quade, to name a few, as well as this magazine.
I was 41 and he was 28; I’d been working in publishing since I was younger than he was, and he’d hit me up at times with publishing-related questions. He was planning a series of cultural essays on Asian American identity and queerness to be published in the run-up to his story collection. “One essay,” he typed, “is about prestige ‘deep reality tv’ and queer eye. Another is about how the Hmong cop in George Floyd’s murder can be read as a racialized cuck for white violence.” A third—I wish I could have seen this one the most, because I have no idea how it was going to work—would be about Wong Kar-wai, Samuel Delany, and a student at Stanford who’d been there at the same time he was, a sort of doppelganger, a guy who he “freaking DESPISED”—but, Anthony added: “like, how to recuperate repulsion as being politically useful?”
He had ideas for some real barn-burning essays, often centered on critiquing queer or Asian American writers (or both). I suggested he tap the brakes, that a flamethrower piece that fights your generation has limited upside in terms of goosing sales, and at the same time, careers were long, and the memories of the antagonists of the essay would be long, and he’d acknowledge that, and then blow past it and add another target to the essay-to-be. Anthony was hyper-aware of his position as a queer Cambodian writer and thought constantly about how to write histories of genocide, trauma, and immigration. (His first book is in some ways a formal argument for all of his preoccupying thoughts on race and queerness and history.) We had a chat about the #PublishingPaidMe phenomenon on Twitter, where authors revealed the advances they’d received for various books, and which was intended to show pay disparities between Black writers and others. I was interested in how a chunk of that conversation became an oddly curated space for white writers to be humble-braggy or self-flagellating in the name of transparency, or to hitch themselves to sense of oppression if they felt that they themselves had been paid insufficiently. Anthony had debated adding to the hashtag, but ultimately thought that to do so would be to uncenter Blackness.
Is the moral of this story that a south east asian family has the race privilege to work from refugee to upper middle class and then their gay son can get a 300k advance? Is this actually true other than for my family?
Elsewhere he said: I have a working theory about Asian American writers leaning into lyrical writing because then they can avoid the tangibility of their race, which is that we still have privileges and are not being shot in the street.
I wish I could have seen these thoughts in their expanded forms. I wish I could have read all those essays he was messaging about.
But our chats weren’t just about literature. Anthony as an insta-chat friend had an exhilaration and an over-it-ness, a simultaneously jaded and hearfelt speediness (I was often still typing my reply to a message when he’d be on to the next thought, and one after) that was a joy in the long ongoing blahness of the quarantine months. We traded recipes. A mention of making a keto meal for my partner would branch rapidly into his own keto past, his love of his own partner, an anecdote about a beloved professor of his who had gone keto because she believed it put a check on Alzheimer’s, and the broader histories of dementia in both our families. He messaged, he tweeted, he read and wrote and thought. He posted many mirror selfies in his insta-stories. When I asked about the brand of a shirt in one, he said “It’s carhartt I’m Hipster scum.”
Anthony claimed to be “better in person, not so good w/words-only communication.” And we had vague plans when all of this was over, maybe when he was on book tour, to go out dancing or something. I had also planned to wait until his book was out to teach his work. I would have him visit in person or online, depending on his book tour, but after he died I added a couple stories and essays of his to the final week of the MFA seminar on “queer form” I was teaching. For this remembrance I could land on the final line of his New Yorker or Granta stories, lines that deal with death and memory, but Anthony would have hated that—shorn from context it would be too easy, too sentimental. Instead, I’ll include a moment from his New Yorker story that my students singled out: “Kayley studies the man’s reflection in the window. He’s older but not old, younger than her parents, and his wiry mustache seems misplaced, from a different decade. His face wears an expression full of those mixed-up emotions that only adults must feel, like plaintive, say, or wretched.”
The discussion drilled into the undecidability of the face: a reflection, “older but not old,” and a mustache misplaced in time, and the 12-year-old focal character doesn’t fully understand what she’s seeing, and is forced to the words “wretched” and “plaintive”—these old-fashioned words, ironized in the italics, that Kayley must have been learned from somewhere, and which she knows are not quite right. This is Anthony, and Anthony’s writing: how it vibrates between possibilities, wants to see through and past images and history, and even if this is not possible wants it more and more until something inside breaks.
Anthony: Hey hey. How’s it goin?
Me: Good! U?
Anthony: Good! Weather is beautiful
Anthony: I’m not writing trash anymore
I can’t write anything worthy of Anthony. He deserves a full-on elegy, an alt-pop anthem in his memory, sung by smiling buff boys in tight palm-print swim shorts in a music video tribute. He deserves thousands of quiet tears in a room packed with hugging friends who stay all night reminiscing (which would be happening if not for this stupid pandemic), deserves a hundred books dedicated to him and a full-wall mural portrait you can see from the highway and at least seven arms tattooed with his drawings and quotes from his stories and eighty more full years of his life. I worry that I didn’t know him well enough to justify feeling this crushing dumpster of grief; we weren’t intimate friends, though it always felt like we would get there someday. We’d hug when he visited the n+1 office and sit on the couches in the corner and shoot the shit. He’d show up and unleash a vibrating, electromagnetic field—I don’t think he’d approve of using the word energy unironically—bashful for maybe two minutes before he’d start talking impossibly fast about whatever he was thinking about, what gross thing he saw some guy eating on the subway, what he was working on, what TV he’d been watching. He would tease us that he’d really take us up on our offer to “come by anytime” by moving to Brooklyn and writing for hours from the intern’s table, “bothering” us every day. Do it! we responded. We meant it; we wished he would.
Often I’ll feel embarrassed about the way I slip into enthusiastic, overly detailed narrations of my own life—high school mishaps, family foibles, childhood folly. Anthony endlessly proved that, in the right hands (his own), this impulse and personal storytelling in general could be elevated to a joyous art, with the same mix of flawless dialog, stand-up-like punchlines, and gutting truths that made his fiction so damn good. A recurring theme in our conversations was our youthful nemeses; I didn’t feel that I really had one, but he was adamant that no, I had to have a nemesis. His favorite candidate was Ariana Grande, then Ariana Butera, with whom I’d attended middle school and had a couple of interactions. “OK, yeah, but there’s enough there to work with, you just have to stretch it a little,” he’d say. He had strong feelings and endless, impassioned anecdotes about his own nemesis, with whom teachers would confuse him and with whom he felt a sense of fierce competition. He would launch into a nemesis story and I would laugh-cry until my abs hurt. The only part that felt unbelievable was that anyone could mistake Anthony for anyone else.
For a while he was working on an essay about the slick, addictive, shitty reality TV shows Netflix was churning out, and we laughed about their Queer Eye reboot and Bravo’s Queer Eye and growing up queer and closeted (in his case) and oblivious (in mine). There has always been gay art, queer art, but the buttoned-up respectability gays (Bravo’s Queer Eye) and rainbow capital queers (Netflix’s Queer Eye) feel specifically of our time after a history of work coded or sidelined or obscured or downplayed or marked as scandalous or shrugged off as the fringe avant-garde. And sure, it’s nice to read Maggie Nelson and Garth Greenwell, but I feel generationally estranged from their narratives, almost as much as I feel generationally estranged from the young millennials and zoomers who didn’t have teen years when queer and gay and fag and lesbo were the gravest insults, when Bravo’s Queer Eye was the only media representation around and made it seem like you could only be gay if you were also extremely clean.
After I read Anthony’s “The Shop,” in Granta last year, I bookmarked it to refer back to whenever I wanted a reflection of the actual clotted queer feelings of my early twenties, though it’s so much more than that. I know innumerable people saw themselves reflected in Anthony’s work and, in reading his fiction, felt more real themselves, because that’s how I felt even though I’m a white girl and he definitely wasn’t writing for the likes of me. In his stories, the tender pains of human experience are doulaed by jokes into permanent residence in your psyche. (How many nights have I spent wondering if “the violent chasm between [my] parents also exists within [my] own body”?) He wrote stories about Cambodian American kids that were stories about all kinds of financial precarity and struggling neighborhoods, adolescent naiveté and growing pains, youthful imagining and childhood trauma; stories of simultaneously sorting through many kinds of belonging and unbelonging. His representation of young queer life in “The Shop” was one that, to me, felt finally true.
When I was first coming out—mostly to myself—I wasn’t vocal about it. I was held in place by a reverberating, internalized voice, one that echoed the “advice” expressed by Doctor Heng’s wife (“The Shop”’s meddling nudge): “I am not saying you cannot be gay. How hard is it to be normal and gay? . . . You can be as gay as you want after your life is established.” I set about trying to establish my life, thinking I would just figure out my sexuality later, but that was both stupid and overoptimistic. The story’s narrator, Toby, lingers in his own slice of the half-openness I navigated at that time: lucky enough to be accepted by family and friends, but still caught in the dark mire of loving people not ready to be open, not ready to fully accept themselves—or you. This isn’t the story’s main theme, but it’s a countermelody, rhyming with Toby’s contemplation of his own future and fears of failure and his relationship with his parents and the Khmer community. He spends nights lovingly hooking up and joking around with his older brother’s friend Paul, who is closeted and has a girlfriend, so they have to keep it under wraps. We’ve all been there, basking in the glow of some queer crush finally reciprocated but unable to tell anyone, forced to stifle the joy. The other’s shame wins. Still, it’s hard not to fantasize, like Toby, that soon they will change their mind, grow a spine, and finally love you in public.
The subtlety of these emotions is the stuff of our actual lives, not the limited storylines typically allowed for queer characters, let alone queer characters of color, let alone queer Cambodian American characters. Queer romance is still represented in most mainstream narratives as some form of difficulty, pain, or potential violence: the danger and trauma of coming out and loving in broad daylight, the risk and consequences of it, the shame and slurs and pigeonholing. In “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts,” one of the sisters, Tevy, wonders, “Maybe we’re just bad at it—loving, you know.” She’s talking about Khmer people, but the worry hit me too, that ever-present fear that not being perfectly normative—not being straight, or in Tevy’s case, not being white—means that you just don’t get full access to this glorious, life-affirming thing.
But that’s bullshit; Anthony himself proved that fear so wrong. I want you to know that he made love look easy. I spent an afternoon in Portland crammed in a booth with him and Alex and walked out of the bar hours later with an ebullient sense of possibility. They could have that—which meant we could have that, I could have that, with someone, someday: the seamless banter infused with affection, the investment in each other’s work, the smirks and softness. They did this in public, on Twitter even, and though I’m not on the platform I’d occasionally log in to the n+1 account and read their back-and-forth tweets, fantasizing for myself a future partnership similarly composed of sweet teasing and intellectual companionship. Most of the straight couples I know seemed dull and loveless in comparison. Of course, only Alex knows what their relationship was like from the inside, but it looked beautiful from the outside, and felt beautiful that they shared it, and showed it—showed me and others that queer love could be like that. That you can find someone who will want to cherish you in public. That we can be geniuses of love, and fiction too. Or at the very least, Anthony could be.
I know he’d laugh and demur and have brilliant, sharp, thoughtful, sarcastic things to say about whatever relationship between identity politics and fiction I’ve sketched here, kindly smacking down my over-earnest musings, but whatever, this isn’t an essay. I’m just trying to tell you how recognized he made people feel—people near him, and people who’d never even met him. How lit up you felt sitting next to him or reading him anywhere. How much you laughed and how good it felt.
The morning “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts” came out in the New Yorker, n+1’s whole staff stopped what we were doing to read it and send it to our friends. We talked for days about how endlessly we were craving donuts and how excited we were for Anthony to be a major novelist who we could say we knew back when. In November, Mark sent an email in which he described Anthony as “charismatic, going to be famous, feels like the future of fiction.” That’s true. I mean, who could forget the tenderness of the laughing sex scene in the back of Paul’s minivan, or the exhausted absurdity of Superking Son’s victory meltdown? What more could we possibly want from fiction? I don’t want to have to imagine a different future, and I am so angry at the world—at the circumstances, at life—that we do. Reading Anthony always felt like hearing a friend tell a captivating story, the kind that makes you stand in the rain or ride two extra subway stops to finish hearing, even long before I knew him as that friend. He deserves to be here, to be the future of fiction, to still be telling these gorgeous, hilarious, gut-punching stories. Now, stuck in this unimaginable other future, we just have to keep telling his.