The Next Literary Superstar (Yes, He Knew He Was the Shit)
Here’s something everyone can agree on. For the occasion of his first book, Afterparties, Anthony Veasna So would have loved it all: the interviews, book tour, readings, attention, praise, pans, mythmaking, the opportunity to opine on the treacly queer writers he hates (or at least shade them) and the insufficiency of Asian American identity. He might talk about how he identified as Cambodian American before Asian American and, for that matter, Californian before American, which would have been a way of making space for himself as well as others. Some writers might be tentative about the limelight, but not him. His parents survived the Khmer Rouge genocide, and he survived Stockton, California, so you can be damned sure he’d make every second count.
Everyone could agree, too, that he was ambitious. Anthony was 28 with a plan. He graduated from Stanford and then got his M.F.A. at Syracuse, where he was adored by his teachers: Dana Spiotta and Jonathan Dee and Mary Karr, who would all write glowing blurbs for the back of his book. During his third year, he got a $300,000 two-book deal with Ecco, and he made the bold move of hiring a personal publicist to promote the first. Most important, he had a (roughly) five-book plan: Following Afterparties, a short-story collection that draws from his Khmer American universe in Stockton, would come his debut novel, Straight Thru Cambotown. Then an essay collection called Dreadful Places and two more books, including a novel about the Cambodian singer Pan Ron, whom he had tattooed on his right arm from a sketch he drew himself, paired with a quote from Slaughterhouse-Five: “And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.”
But instead of that agreed-upon future, in the early hours of December 8, 2020, Anthony died of a drug overdose. His partner of seven years, Alex Torres, whom he had met as a student at Stanford, found him in the morning. It’s a bittersweet irony that Anthony is now enjoying a literary debut he could have only dreamed of. His death changed the narrative but not the goal — instead perhaps adding to the specter of other young, brilliant artists who passed too soon. After his death, his publicist, Michael Taeckens, contacted national media desks to let them know Anthony had died suddenly. The AP, the L.A. Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the New York Times ran obituaries describing an author “on the brink of stardom” — his potentiality cut off at the point when it was limitless.
Since Anthony didn’t have a will, California law dictated that his estate be split between his parents, Ravy and Sienghay So, and Alex, with whom he had entered a domestic partnership two months prior. While handling the estate, the tombstone, and the matter of the unfinished second book in the contract, tension has grown among those who knew him best. The family did not learn the official cause of death until just last month. Instead, they’ve had to rely on Alex’s vague and ever-shifting account of that night and what exactly led to the overdose. It has created a rift between Alex and many of Anthony’s family and friends, who were forced to question how well they really knew Anthony. Memories blurred and diverged. He was a bundle of frenetic energy, a silent observer; a hard worker, a hard partyer. His friends would say he was sharply funny, generous, and confident in his awkwardness. If you ask Alex, his partner was many of those things, but cast in a garish light toward the end of his life: bossy, cocky, self-centered, manic, boundaryless, a creative supernova and an addict. If you ask Anthony’s mother, Alex lies. His parents think of him as their wise, quiet angel who could tell the story of their family. Each person has their own conception of Anthony, dependent both on who he was when he was with them and also, perhaps, on how they wish to remember him.
Anthony’s death left the bereaved acutely aware of the parts of the self that will always be closed off, private, unknowable. Dark corners that can never be fully legible. How do you know a soul? “As time goes on, I’m learning new stuff about him,” says Danny Thanh Nguyen, a fellow Southeast Asian Bay Area writer who became friends with Anthony after they both taught poetry classes in 2019. “He was good at code switching and hiding certain things from certain people. The person who I taught with was a different person than the one who texted me at three o’clock in the morning doing Adderall to finish up his edits. When I reflect upon that, I’m sensitive to this idea of — I knew him and, also, I didn’t know him.”
The Quiet One
Let’s see … In the extended-family universe, Anthony is No. 7 out of 11, right between Christina and Kevin. His older sister Samantha Lamb is giving me the rundown as various aunts, uncles, and cousins gather at her parents’ house in an upper-middle-class gated enclave in West Stockton, situated in the ample plenitude of California suburbia. The cousins she’s referring to are on their father Sienghay’s side of the family, including his three sisters, Somaly, Serey, and Chavy. Unlike their mother Ravy’s branch of the family tree, the dad’s side is as thick as thieves: Somaly lives next door to Sam and Anthony’s parents, with a gate connecting their backyards, and Serey is just down the street. (Chavy died in a car accident in 1999.) The sheer number and proximity of family members means that holidays, birthdays, and special events can all get rolled up into one big party, like Happybirthdaymerrychristmasit’saboy!
“Oh, we numbered each other?” breaks in Christina (No. 6), when I ask whether David, the baby of the bunch, is No. 11. “Now we’re ranking behind the scenes. I see how it is.”
“I wasn’t ranking!” replies Sam. “It was literal birth order.”
“I know how the cousins roll,” Christina says, laughing. “We’re assholes.”
“Christina,” commands Ravy from across the kitchen island. “Can you make a pot of rice?”
“Yes, in a bit.”
My visit has occasioned this gathering to remember their son, cousin, nephew, and grandson. In the family dynamic, Anthony was the quiet one reading in the corner. He was smart but lacked common sense. Clumsy. One of their favorite stories is how he once tripped and sent that night’s dinner, salmon, splattering on the ground. He had been sickly since childhood: asthma, chronic ear infections, allergic to everything — pollen, grass, dogs, cats, Stockton. Like his mom, he had a nervous twitch around his eye. He got straight A’s in high school (okay, except for that B in Spanish that cost him valedictorian), 5’s across the board on his AP exams. He was their shy, sweet, awkward boy who went — can you believe it? — to Stanford.
“When he first graduated from Stanford, I didn’t know he was gonna become a writer or anything,” says Ravy. “He told me that he majored in English. I’m like, Oh my God. I paid this much money for you to major in English? My husband was disappointed, and Anthony knew he was disappointed.”
“But for me, I saw what Stanford instilled in him. He understood the generational differences,” she continues, referencing the title of one of his short stories, written from her perspective. “I always have a problem with my daughter. Always fight with her. Ay-yi-yi. But Anthony was different. He understood me. He was very wise. He’s my little professor.”
“He was just listening and soaking it all in,” says Christina.
“Every story we told since he was 5,” says his mom. “I’m surprised that he remember.”
To read Anthony’s work, most of which his family didn’t see until after his death, is to see the place-memories specific to Stockton reflected back at them: the auto shop Sienghay owns and runs; the Cambodian supermarket Super King; the duplexes his father rents out; the carne-asada burritos packed with French fries from Adalberto’s; his sister’s badminton practices. But Afterparties, which has the warm intimacy of a sleeping body, is gathered here around the iron-wrought patio table crowded with food and people and stories. Anthony was interested in writing archetypes — the roles you either take on or that are foisted upon you — in part because that’s how his family operated. His short story “We Would’ve Been Princes!” declines to name secondary characters and instead typecasts them: FAMOUS SINGER, FUN COUSIN, LOCAL ACCOUNTANT. Maybe limiting but maybe true; the accountant cousin could give tax advice. (That would be Melissa, cousin No. 9.)
Anthony’s parents had wanted him to become a doctor or a pharmacist. Most of his cousins got stable jobs with 401(k)s: Sam works as the dean of students at a charter school in Richmond; the “all-star” cousin, Leana (No. 5), is a lawyer; Sopheap (No. 1!!) works at Social Security like his mother and aunts before him; Brian (No. 3) works in IT. Anthony picked the thing so many Asian immigrant parents fear: a life of creativity and fellowship applications. The older he got, the further his adult life spun away from his family’s. Feeling uncomfortable as a queer man with his conservative family was a part of it. Another was the mutual language barrier; Anthony’s Khmer wasn’t that good, in part by design. He was raised on a steady diet of encyclopedias and American sitcoms like Frasier, Arrested Development, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. He didn’t watch the Khmer-dubbed Thai Lakorns like his sister did, so as good as Ravy and Sienghay’s English is, they felt the barrier between everyday conversation and the intellectual world he aspired to be a part of. The American Dream for immigrant children means entering rooms their parents cannot.
Still, he couldn’t always keep his worlds separate. Before he switched to English, Anthony majored in computer science at Stanford. He was put on academic probation for plagiarizing code and suspended for one quarter. He spiraled. He was diagnosed as bipolar and began taking Seroquel. For once, he was in the family hot seat, and he let it all out: Not only was he failing a class for a major that he hated, he was gay and bipolar, too. “I was like, ‘So you got suspended and you tell your parents [that you’re gay]?’ ” remembers Christina. “He was like, ‘Yeah, I opened Pandora’s box.’ And we started laughing.”
“I feel like a bomb just dropped on top of me,” says Ravy. “My beautiful child, I thought he was healthy. He’s very brave because his dad still did not accept.”
“Tell you the truth?” his dad replies. “I don’t want to know about it. Whatever you do, don’t need to tell me. That simple.”
“He only hid from me his relationship with Alex,” says Ravy of Anthony’s partner.
“Actually, he hide everything from us,” says his father.
They learned much more about Anthony’s life after his death: that he and Alex had gotten a domestic partnership and that he had a virtual graduation ceremony at Syracuse during the pandemic. He kept his literary ambition on the down low, as though his parents would only be able to take it seriously once he could hand them a physical copy of his book, which opens with the dedication: “For everyone who underestimated me, including myself.”
“I think he really blossomed more once he left [home],” says Christina.
“If you meet him, you do not know that he has the funny thing,” says Ravy.
“They don’t think he’s funny,” corrects Christine. “He’s very witty. The last Christmas we were all together, we did a family trip to Tahoe. We were in a restaurant, and I started laughing hysterically because we were stealing the salt and pepper shakers as we were bashing Caucasians. And Anthony tweeted, ‘we can’t be screaming about white people AND trying to steal their condiments.’ That was a typical conversation.”
“I’m just looking at his tweets,” Sam says, checking her phone. “I never looked at them before.”
“Where do you find this app?” asks his mother.
“Mother,” replies Sam. “Don’t look at the tweets. I don’t even wanna look at the tweets.”
A Twitter Break
The Artist As He Saw Himself (for Others)
Anthony’s artist’s statement from his time at Stanford:
I am a gay first-generation Cambodian-American diagnosed with manic depression — an absurdly overdramatic amalgamation of identities. On top of that I am a stand up comedian, creative typist, drawing man, painting boy, video guy, world class amateur, failed computer scientist, sketchy animator, self-loathing narcissist, average beauty, obsessive compulsive lover, and anything else that is worldly and self-indulgent.
As an artist, I’m interested in the idea that even the most simple concepts are made complex by the mind, whether done consciously or subconsciously, and because of this the human psyche is an everlasting web of intricacies. Thus, my artistic process is an effort to unravel so much of myself that I hit an universal core of complex thoughts, emotions and instincts. This is conveyed mostly through projects combining prose, drawing, print transfers, photography, and animation. All with a splash of laughter and tears.
Currently, I’m the editor-in-chief of The Stanford Chaparral, Stanford’s humor magazine. I’m also preparing a writing and art portfolio to send to MFA programs and trying to finish that damn Computer Science minor. Follow me on instagram @antvso or watch my funny animations and performances at https://vimeo.com/user13978309.
The Consummate Performer
As his friends tell it, Anthony was a magnetic presence on campus. He was awkward and gangly, with an endearing cackle. He had a generosity and immediacy that could make you feel as though you were instantly his best friend. He talked fast and loved to perform. Sometimes it felt sincere, and other times it was a bit “amplified,” as Nguyen puts it. You could tell when he was testing out a joke to see how you reacted or when his self-confidence tipped into arrogance. But it was all rooted in his ability to make ’em laugh. Anthony loved to gossip, critique, shit-talk, swap stories, and maybe mine yours for his own. “He had this bravado about him that was charming,” says Nguyen. “I loved hearing him read a bitch, because his comments would be hilarious.”
Socially, he identified as Erin from Derry Girls, which is another way of saying he liked to concoct schemes. Out in the world, he was an extension of his family: loving, opinionated, wanting the absolute best for you and a momager about getting you there. “He was always pushing a ridiculous agenda,” says Sharon Bade Shrestha, a classmate of Anthony’s from Stanford. He held endless convictions about the world, which ranged from the serious to the seriously silly — impact matters more than intent; humans shouldn’t eat dairy; tops shouldn’t be mad about poop dick. “You had to be careful with Anthony, because often he would be like, ‘You’re being dumb. This is clearly what you should do,’ ” says Gaby Quintana, who knew him since their first year of undergrad. “And he was right like 70 percent of the time, but then there was that 30 percent when he wasn’t.” His prescriptiveness could be applied to anything — he would try to get his friends to apply to fellowships or eat more vegetables or stop drinking milk. (He was very “anti-milk,” says Shrestha.) “His love language was to help bolster people’s careers,” says Zeynep Özakat, who lived with Anthony in Syracuse for the first two years of their M.F.A., starting in 2017. “I would text him randomly throughout the day, and he’d be like, ‘Did you get your writing done today?’ before he kept talking to me. Or just planning my whole future.” As he saw it, what was this journey called life for if not to become hot and successful?
Anthony was suspicious of institutions of power but savvy about leveraging them. Immigrant know-how. “He was really good at making use of opportunities,” says Quintana. “Networking, connecting with people, taking advantage of programs.” He was constantly discovering new artistic mediums, which he would obsessively pursue for a while: cartoons, stand-up, painting, photography, animation, film. Because he kept this all close to the vest, it was hard to know exactly what he was up to. It wasn’t until he applied for a Levinthal Tutorial at Stanford, where undergraduates are paired with Stegner fellows, that his friends realized writing fiction was one of those pursuits. “He wouldn’t tell you about everything he was doing,” remembers Quintana. “Then you would suddenly go to an art show of his and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, when were you doing all this?’ ”
For college graduation, Anthony’s friend Soo Ji Lee gave him a copy of Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker. It contained a line that tickled them — the soon-to-be ex-wife of the protagonist calls him a “B+ student of life.” Great on a Raya profile but lacking a certain zest. When Anthony began naming characters for his short story “Human Development” — the only one of the book that pointedly skewers San Francisco tech culture — he gave two characters A and B names. The latter goes to Ben, an earnest older Cambodian man who unironically believes in tech-utopia and states that one of his life goals is to “disrupt the Khmer food industry with organic modifications.” Technically, Ben might be successful, but he is also boring at life. He reserves the A name for his sharp-tongued narrator, Anthony.
The One Who Knew Him Best — or Worst
Everyone grieves differently, but even Alex would say he’s further along in the process. “Anthony and I took a really philosophical approach to living,” he says. “That’s why I’m handling my grief very well.” He tells me he feels great, and I believe him. He is buoyant as we walk around San Francisco, pointing out the exterior of their old apartment in the industrial no-man’s-land of Soma. He may be the co-executor of Anthony’s estate, but he says that Anthony feels more like an ex-boyfriend to him now, and that perhaps they would have been better off as friends anyway. Anthony’s family has found his detachment cruel and perplexing. “He really surprise me when he didn’t show that much love when my son died,” says Ravy. “I thought he would be heartbroken like me.”
Alex didn’t have much of a relationship with the Sos when Anthony was alive, which may have been by Anthony’s design. The versions of Anthony they experienced were worlds apart. Alex depicts him as a libertine — together, he says, they lived a “very queer, Bohemian, underground” lifestyle. “There’s just things they wouldn’t know,” he says of Anthony’s family. “His art wasn’t just fueled by sitting in the classroom and being a straight-A student. It was fueled by somewhat chaotic living.”
As modern lovers do, Alex and Anthony met on Grindr. It was Alex’s second quarter at Stanford; he was a 19-year-old first year, and Anthony was a super-senior at 22. Their first date took place at the Philz Coffee on Alma Street. Anthony asked him to guess what kind of Asian he was, and he guessed the fancy Asians — Chinese, Japanese, Korean. Wrong! He was a jungle Asian, as Ali Wong, whom Anthony admired, would say. He got up off the couch right there in the coffee shop and asked Alex if he wanted to hear some of his stand-up material. Sure … ? He told the one about how he wished he could tell people he had Tourette’s because of his facial tics. “I’d rather just have Tourette’s than try to stop eye twitching,” he said with a performative slouch.
Alex thought he was a dick, and it wasn’t until the second date, when he went to Anthony’s dorm room, that he could see past the shtick: He looked at Anthony’s photographs, print transfers, and sketches. He was taken by a self-portrait with text that read, “I have food, I have shelter, I have water.” Things clicked into place; he understood that even the jokes were Anthony’s way of telling you about himself. “We had a real powerful ability to be moved by aesthetic experiences. All of a sudden I felt like I understood something about him that other people didn’t get,” he says. “We instantly fell in love. It was effortless.”
From that point on, Anthony and Alex became the kind of couple that shared everything. “They did enter into this world where you knew they were a package deal,” says Quintana. They wore the same clothing, shoes, underwear even. Alex thought they were like Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas or Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith. They read each other’s work voraciously: When Alex was writing about Emily Dickinson for his undergraduate thesis, Anthony would recite poems like “Wild Nights — Wild Nights!” aloud. When Anthony began writing fiction in earnest, Alex became his first reader and executioner, axing pieces he thought weren’t worth it. “There would be no book without Alex,” Anthony writes in the acknowledgments. “Thank you for showing me that a queer Cambo from Stockton, California, could find a wealth of commonality with a queer half-Mexican kid from rural Illinois. I don’t think I could’ve finished this book without knowing that. I love you. You wrote these stories with me.”
Alex still wears Anthony’s clothes, including the dotted T-shirt and brown Doc Martens he has on when I meet him at his one-bedroom apartment in the Mission. His new place is just a couple of blocks away from the one they shared, and it is filled with Anthony’s personal effects: a glass cupboard arranged with photographs and Afterparties like a miniature shrine; a cracked mug he loved; a hospital-blue bookshelf Anthony insisted on taking from California to New York and back again; all manner of notes and marginalia; old issues of The Stanford Chaparral. Anthony drew one cover in the style of The New Yorker as a way of declaring that he would one day be in its pages. “Everyone’s like, ‘Shut up, Anthony, you’re not going to be in The New Yorker. You’re a computer-science major,’ ” says Alex. When the magazine published his short story “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts” in February 2020, he remembers Anthony said “ ‘I told you I was right.’ ” He adds, “Anthony had this sort of arrogance about him that was usually accurate.”
Alex’s version of Anthony is spikier than others’, with more effervescent highs and crushing lows. From the time they met, he says, Anthony loved to party; he was a social ringleader, loud, outlandish. He polarized the girlies; people loved him or hated him, but at least they felt something. He did what you’d classify as circuit gay drugs: coke, ketamine, molly. “He didn’t have a sense of boundaries and restrictions, like hooking up with somebody he shouldn’t hook up with or pressuring people to do drugs,” says Alex. “He had that ethos about him, picking anybody to do a drug. I think he was toxic in certain ways. The problem is people thought he was funny. People liked having him around.”
Alex speaks quickly, volubly, and incessantly; the way he talks about Anthony feels like a way to talk about himself. After Anthony died, he began pitching himself to his publicist and agent as someone who could help editorially. He has been a little aimless anyway — he dropped out of his Ph.D. program in English at Berkeley — and this gave him purpose. Now he’s getting assignments. He wrote the foreword for a posthumous piece by Anthony about never finishing books for The Millions; he wrote another about Anthony’s creative process for Poets & Writers; he published one about their relationship in BuzzFeed that he’s “super-excited about.” He asks me if I can get him a job — “just kidding.” “I didn’t have any Twitter followers before this. Now, I have over a thousand. I had my first tweet go viral,” he says, referencing one in which he says that holding galleys of Afterparties was like “meeting our child for the first time.”
“I tell people it felt like I woke up when he passed,” Alex continues. “I was in a spinoff in my old life in a way, rather than the main character now, which I didn’t really want.” Despite what he saw as his partner’s flaws, he also saw him as a mentor, and I get the distinct sensation he is trying to become his own version of Anthony. Alex tells me he thinks he could be the one to finish Anthony’s novel, Straight Thru Cambotown, because he knew him so well — “but there’s a lot of the politics and ethics around me not being Cambodian American writing that book.”
The closer we get to discussing the night of Anthony’s death, the vaguer Alex becomes. He says that in the months prior, their partnership was fracturing. Anthony’s single-minded focus on completing the book was so all-consuming it was burning up all the oxygen in their relationship. He says that Anthony would have nightmares about the genocide and talk about it. “You don’t always want to be thinking about Pol Pot,” he says. “Being in his creative space was very difficult. I needed a break from it.” He was starting to feel like a muse trapped in amber. “Sometimes I feel like he was Hades, and I was Persephone,” he continues. “Like if I left him, he would do something bad. There was a lot of concern there.” He alludes to horrific things — things he told the family and their mutual friends that have caused rifts in those relationships — but he won’t elaborate on them.
He does say that he “started to sever [him]self from him creatively,” and that as he did, Anthony grew more dependent on drugs to get work done. Anthony was anxious about finishing Afterparties, he says, and living off nonprescription Adderall and fumes. “I think he was probably up 16, 17 hours a day, going nonstop on his edits,” says Alex. “And he couldn’t let go of the work. He was very fixated on it. He had OCD, and I think that was not always a good thing for his art. I would tell him, ‘You’re at an A-plus. You don’t need an A-plus-plus-plus-plus-plus-plus.’ ”
Anthony’s friends remember this time in a different light. They were more concerned about Alex’s partying and drug usage. “Anthony didn’t have the space and time to focus on his work because Alex was demanding a lot of attention,” Quintana recalls Anthony saying. She and Shrestha were in a quarantine pod with Anthony and Alex, and they would see each other regularly. “He would put his headphones in and be like, ‘Okay, this is my work time,’ but Alex would keep talking while his headphones were in,” Shrestha adds. “And then he would have to listen for extended amounts of time and that would disrupt his schedule.” They recalled discussing whether it would be a good idea for Anthony to apply for a fellowship to get a separate studio space to write.
Alex can’t, or won’t, explain exactly what happened the night of Anthony’s death; he’s more evasive in conversation than he was with the police. “I don’t remember a lot of it … I can’t really get there,” he says. “ ‘He made cocktails, and he spiked it, I think. I think he was on so much Adderall and caffeine.” When told that the medical examiner said there was no evidence of alcohol in Anthony’s system, he backtracked and said that he may have had a hard kombucha while Anthony had an orange juice. “I think he just took a lot of something, and I don’t know what,” he continues. “I woke up the next day feeling tired. I showered, I logged onto Slack, and then I realized he wasn’t moving.” To Alex, his partner’s death was in line with the Anthony he knew: drug-dependent, impulsive, self-destructive. “I’ll leave you with this thought,” he says after our first conversation in May. “I was not surprised by his death in ways that other people were. Anthony was a very complex, beautiful person. It’s very difficult for me to watch other people talk about him in ways that they do. And it’s not that they’re wrong. It’s just that they’re not seeing the full story.”
The Cause of Death, According to the State
According to the police report, at approximately 8:28 a.m. on December 8, two members of the SFPD were dispatched to Anthony and Alex’s apartment. A medic was on the scene and had pronounced him dead four minutes prior. The official police report gave the following statement from the incident:
On 12/8/2020 at approximately 0030 hours, he and So were celebrating that So had just finished writing a book. [Torres] stated he and So used GHB, Adderall, and ate an edible marijuana induced pastry. So and [Torres] went to sleep at approximately 0200 hours. So fell asleep in the bedroom and [Torres] fell asleep in the living room of the apartment. On 12/8/2020 at approximately 0800 hours,
[Torres] woke up and checked on So. [Torres] saw that So was lying face down on the bed … [Torres] attempted to wake So up to no avail. When [Torres] touched So, he noticed that So was cold and stiff. [Torres] called 911.
[Torres] stated he and So had been domestic partners for the past 7 years and that So had been a drug user since they met 7 years ago. [Torres] stated that to his knowledge, So used GHB, Marijuana, Cocaine, Molly, Ketamine, and Adderall. [Torres] stated that So was writer and had been writing a book for the past several months. [Torres] noticed that since So began writing the book, So had been using Adderall more than usual and had hardly been sleeping. [Torres] also stated that So had Asthma.
On July 1, 2021, the medical examiner’s office of San Francisco released the official autopsy report determining that the cause of death was the “toxic effects of gamma-hydroxybutyric acid (GHB), methamphetamine, and 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA).” There is no evidence of alcohol ingestion. The manner was determined as accidental.
In “Maly, Maly, Maly,” the third story in Afterparties, two cousins, named Ves and Maly, get stoned before a family gathering to celebrate the reincarnation of Maly’s dead mother as their second cousin’s baby. Both find the presumption from the elders ridiculous. The story is drawn from So family lore. When Anthony’s aunt Chavy died suddenly in a car accident, his grandma’s cousin’s wife believed she was reincarnated in her granddaughter. The cousins’ real-life reaction was similarly incredulous. “Like, ‘Who the fuck are you to say my aunt is a reincarnation of your granddaughter?’ ” remembers Sam. Still, after harboring hostility toward the idea, at the end of the story, Maly caresses the baby and says, “I’ve changed my mind. She’s actually pretty cute.” In that moment of quiet, Ves realizes, “Of course Maly would want to be with her mom, no matter how.”
After Anthony’s death, Sam started dreaming that he was following her around. “I felt like Anthony was haunting me in the sense of like, Hey, I need your womb so I can be reincarnated. Like, Get pregnant already,” she says. Then, on what would have been Anthony’s 29th birthday — February 20 — Sam told her mother she was pregnant again. “When she found out, she was like, Oh good, Anthony has come back,” she says. Ravy explains that she wouldn’t want her grandchild to necessarily be Anthony. In Buddhism, reincarnation is a way for the soul to grieve, understand, and, eventually, let go. Over time, the body they inhabit becomes their own, and the deceased becomes a faint memory. More than anything, Ravy has been searching for closure and understanding. Anthony’s death unmoored her. “I talked to him in the coffin all day long, telling him to come back,” Ravy recalls. She thought he was her perfect son, but then he caused her the greatest injury by dying. “It’s like I lost my soul,” says Ravy.
In March, the family gathered for a 100-day ceremony, traditionally held after the funeral to let the soul go. They put together a slideshow of photos. The event was light-filled, communal, personal. Shrestha and Quintana were there. Alex did not attend. “That felt like the first time somebody created a space for us to just focus on Anthony,” says Quintana, “because everything else had been distracting us from our friend.” For seven arduous months, the family waited for the medical examiner’s report. A delay with the city had dragged out a very basic question — what happened? They had to rely on Alex, who had left them with gaps in their understanding of Anthony and the events of the night he died. “The hardest part for my family is not having a clear picture of why,” says Sam. “And how. Because there’s only one person with him on that night. And for whatever reason, they don’t feel they can trust that person’s story.”
The family continues to find ways to remember Anthony. Sienghay is planning on getting a tattoo of his son’s Khmer name, Veasna. Anthony and his father always liked the name, which means “destiny.” (His mother hates it.) For the release of Afterparties, they have been thinking about having their own book party. “We felt like we should have a celebration and invite all his friends to come,” Ravy says. “I still don’t know what his writing means to the world.” Sam begins to say the preorders are good, but her mother interrupts her. “No, no, no, no, no, nothing money with me. I don’t really care. I just want … I want his dream to come true.”
W hen Mark Krotov accepted “Superking Son Scores Again” for n+1’s spring 2018 issue, he remembers Anthony telling him he was particularly proud of that moment — it was one of the stories his M.F.A. workshop had liked least. “No, that’s not true,” says Dana Spiotta, his first-year workshop instructor. “I think that was a bit of self-mythologizing.” Indeed, Spiotta dug out her notes at the time — she had called it “brilliant” and summed up her observations thusly: “This is a terrific story and wonderfully original and funny.” “Anthony was a deviser of his own apocrypha,” says Spiotta. “He exaggerates for comic effect or for drama.”
Anthony was a performer; he had a sense of himself as a writer not just on the page but in the world. The publication of “Superking” got him an introduction to his agent, Rob McQuilkin, who wanted to build up what the latter called a “war chest” of stories and essays they could use to promote the book. The original auction had been timed with the release of “Chuck’s Donuts” in The New Yorker, when interest would be at its peak. “So much of it is going just as he had planned,” says McQuilkin. “He didn’t care about riches much. He did care about renown. He did want to be a well-regarded famous writer.”
The machine Anthony devised has continued apace, and without him here to subvert his public persona — or just enjoy himself as a hot boy writer — his death has ascribed a different myth to him. There has been no dearth of coverage since Anthony’s passing: Afterparties continues to grace summer reading lists; The New Yorker and the New York Times have run multiple pieces about him ahead of the book’s publication. The Paris Review, where Anthony had long wanted to be published, accepted “Maly, Maly, Maly” posthumously. n+1 has dedicated an annual fiction prize in his name, “to a writer whose work, like Anthony’s, brings new and neglected worlds onto the page with great care and boundless imagination.” The New York Times Book Review likened Afterparties to the works of Bryan Washington and Ocean Vuong, despite there being few stylistic similarities between So and those authors; the comparison makes more sense in terms of the career trajectory that would have opened up to him. Anthony was talking to TV producers about potentially adapting Straight Thru Cambotown. He wanted to go to Hollywood.
The initial interest in Anthony undeniably had to do with the pathway that brought his parents to the U.S. as survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide. Individual talent and historical circumstance had convened to create someone singular, someone they had never seen before. “I sadly had not read fiction set in a Cambodian American community before,” says Helen Atsma, the editor of Afterparties at Ecco. “As an editor, what’s always exciting is feeling like you’re reading something new and alive and invigorating.”
Anthony might have raised an eyebrow at all of it but would ultimately have taken it in stride — after all, talking about the white gaze is “boring,” as he put it in a posthumously released interview in Soft Punk. He was good at intellectualizing his work, grafting theory onto craft. “I don’t think people are actually that interesting,” he said in the same interview. “They’re not that complex — they’re very much created by the institutions and the forces around them. If you think that I’m interesting, it’s probably because you never met someone that’s come from my particular context.”
Anthony As Described by Himself
Here’s how it should have gone down: I would have flown to San Francisco, where Anthony might have shown me his favorite haunts around Soma and the Mission. We would have grabbed food at Tartine or gotten drinks at El Rio. Our exchange would have existed within the parameters of a conventional profile: the tension of mutual seduction. He would have been charming and engaging. Someone as well versed in critical theory as in Pokémon types. We might have rehashed a discussion around autofiction or cruel optimism and the American Dream. I would have asked about his chaotic bottom tweets, his family, his queerness, the collisions between them. I would have wanted him to dish, no really, and maybe asked to go to Stockton; he might have said no to the fancy Asian reporter, which, fair. Either way, I probably would’ve liked him.
Like almost everyone else, I got to know Anthony through his language: the specific worlds he inhabited and the humorous incongruities he created. He could see through cool postures for the protective mechanisms they were — the devastation that hides under humor — possibly because he was adept at using them himself. Many of the stories in Afterparties end with a vision of what’s to come, through the lens of what has come before. The present moment is wedged between damned pasts and possible futures. In “Maly, Maly, Maly,” as Ves packs for college, he pictures Maly becoming the same mother in “all her reincarnated selves.” In “The Shop,” after all the sacrifice and heartache and hardship to keep the family auto shop alive, the son looks at his father’s worry-worn wrinkles and thinks to himself, “ ‘But what,’ I was ready to ask, for every life Dad and I had lived and lost, ‘will we do after?’ ”
During one of his last public appearances, a Zoom reading of the Steinbeck fellows in December, Anthony reads pages from Cambotown. He sports a mustache; he looks healthy. During the audience Q&A, his answers are concise but inviting — perfect for the rigmarole of a book tour. At the end of the event, one of the audience members asks, “Is there a particular emotion or feeling that you want to try and evoke in your readers?” He replies, “I got really drunk one time and just, like, started screaming — it was, like, in my M.F.A. — and I just started screaming to everyone about how all I ever wanted my work to be was to communicate an exuberant grief.”