Anthony Veasna – Infinite Self
New York magazine|August 2 - 15, 2021
Anthony Veasna so died unexpectedly last winter, before his debut short-story collection, Afterparties, was released. Everyone remembers him differently.
By E. Alex Jung

One of the last photos Anthony took of himself, four days before he died.

I. 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.”

Anthony displays his story in n+1 in 2018.

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.”

II. 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 mean 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.”

Young Anthony.

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. Did I pay 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 remembers.”

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 may be 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 Khmerdubbed 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.”

III. A TWITTER BREAK

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