The history of culture is littered with artists who died too young, and literature is no exception. From Arthur Rimbaud to Edgar Allan Poe to Sylvia Plath to John Kennedy Toole, writers of all eras and backgrounds have succumbed far too early in their careers, leaving behind a litany of what ifs. In 2020, we added yet another bright young talent to the list: Anthony Veasna So.
Born in 1992 to Cambodian immigrants, Veasna So graduated from Stanford and went on to teach at Colgate and Syracuse, and his work was published in the New Yorker, n+1, Granta, and elsewhere. He died of a drug overdose on Dec. 8, 2020. Less than a year later, his debut story collection, Afterparties, the subject of a bidding war between publishers, was released by Ecco/HarperCollins. In a starred review, our critic noted, “Even when these stories are funny and hopeful, an inescapable history is always waiting.” Afterparties was one of my favorite books of 2021.
The second part of the author’s two-book deal with Ecco is Songs on Endless Repeat: Essays and Outtakes (Dec. 5), which our starred review celebrates as a “posthumous publication from a writer who was only just discovering his brilliance.” I think that line ably captures the significance of the collection as a tribute to an artist who showed legitimate signs of becoming canonical.
The essays are a mix of fiction and nonfiction, both previously published and unpublished pieces, and they wonderfully demonstrate Veasna So’s range. In an early passage drawn from Straight Thru Cambotown, the novel he was working on at the time of his death, readers get a tantalizing glimpse of his propulsive style:
“Early 70s is civil war and coups d’état. Late 70s is communist-style book burning, entire libraries up in flames, and killing fields ornamented with piles of skulls everywhere. Early 80s is refugee camps and immigration and adopting new names such as Steve, Bill, and Kathy, names we always forget to use, names we didn’t realize were nicknames for longer names such as Steven, William, and Catherine. Late 80s is overdosing on fresh-off-the-skillet perms and Tom Cruise aviator sunglasses and gangs, gang violence, and gang wars with other gangs, mostly Hispanic. Early 90s is, okay, still gangs, but also small business owners and the American Dream of grocery stores that stock and restock fish sauce, while late 90s onward is PTSD symptoms passed down to kids like your mom’s eyes and your dad’s bad karma and your dead Gong’s fat head, or what sure looks like a fat head from the single surviving photo of him pre-genocide.”
As in his previous work, Veasna So highlighted the experiences of second-generation Cambodian Americans, giving us a glimpse of lives many readers may not have encountered. The author was a master of blending a variety of cultural touchstones, from reality TV to literature to film, and our critic was exactly right in writing, “It seems impossible to read these excerpts without wishing for more—from these characters, from this narrative, for this author.”
Eric Liebetrau is the nonfiction editor.