The critics have spoken: Anthony Veasna So’s Afterparties — a meditation on how the tragedies of the Khmer genocide still pervade the lives of Cambodian Americans — has won the John Leonard Prize for a debut book in any genre. So’s short story collection was published eight months after he died from a drug overdose at 28. The book glances at the California locations So grew up in: the Cambodian-run Super King supermarket, the badminton courts where his sister used to practice, a Stockton, California, auto shop. The work is sun-drenched yet calcified by generational shields that his characters can’t seem to rid themselves of.
So’s work joins other National Book Critics Circle winners including Honoreé Fanonne Jeffers’s The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, a debut novel that channels the marrow of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, through the kaleidoscope of Black American experiences in the South. Poet Dianne Seuss took home the poetry prize for her collection frank: sonnets while Rebecca Donner won the biography prize for All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days, a tale of her great-great-aunt’s resistance against the Nazis.
So — a burgeoning literary star — would indubitably have enjoyed the nod from the National Book Critics Circle, an organization that consists of more than 600 critics across the United States. The self described “self-loathing narcissist, average beauty, obsessive compulsive lover, and anything else that is worldly and self-indulgent” had a plan to publish five books and was known for his ambitious nature. In his Afterparties story “Maly, Maly, Maly,” he writes of a dead woman being reincarnated in the body of her infant granddaughter. Maybe this too is a form of reincarnation — a posthumous celebration of a writer who had so much left to achieve.