Anthony Veasna So, Author on the Brink of Stardom, Dies at 28

His darkly comedic stories explored the experiences of Cambodian-Americans. His first book, the subject of a bidding war, is to be published next August.

Anthony Veasna So’s book of short stories was described by another author as a “history-haunted comedy of Cambodian-American manners.”
Anthony Veasna So’s book of short stories was described by another author as a “history-haunted comedy of Cambodian-American manners.” Credit...Chris Sackes/Ecco, via Associated Press
Penelope Green

Anthony Veasna So, the author of crackling, kinetic and darkly comedic stories that made vivid the lives of first-generation Khmer-Americans, died on Dec. 8 at his home in San Francisco. He was 28.

Alex Torres, Mr. So’s partner, confirmed the death but said he did not know the cause. He said it was sudden and unexpected.

Mr. So was on the brink of literary stardom. His first book, “Afterparties,” a collection of short stories that the author Jonathan Dee described as a “history-haunted comedy of Cambodian-American manners,” is to be published by Ecco in August.

Ecco had won the work in a bidding war, offering Mr. So a sum in the mid-six figures for a two-book deal, said Rob McQuilkin, his agent.

It is not the usual way of publishing to make so much of a collection of short stories, but Mr. So’s was a new voice, witty, hilarious (“mindfryingly so,” as the memoirist and poet Mary Karr put it) and also very tender. And he was writing about a community that is rarely heard from, though its themes — inherited trauma and the generational clash of immigrant parents and their American children who, as Mr. So wrote, “have grown healthy and stubborn” — are universal.

In “Superking Son Scores Again,” a story that first appeared in the literary journal n+1, he writes of hapless, hopeful and striving teenage skater boys, clad in too-large T-shirts, eager for heroes, even fallen ones like Superking Son, of whom Mr. So writes:

“He shifted into older-Cambo taunt mode, donning the same antagonism our moms did when we try to buy shoes not on sale, our dads when we prioritize our homework over the family business, our Mas and Gongs when they hear our shameful Khmer accents, and our older siblings when we complain about responsibilities they previously shouldered, about enduring what could never match what had already happened to everyone we know.”

Helen Atsma, vice president and editorial director at Ecco and Mr. So’s editor, said in a phone interview: “His writing is blazingly funny but also deeply empathetic. Those traits don’t come together that often.” She added, “Funny can easily start to feel flip, and empathy can feel maudlin, but Anthony was somehow able to make it work. It just felt astonishingly original to me. He had great insight into the human condition.”

Mr. So had just graduated from the three-year master of fine arts program in creative writing at Syracuse University, where just six writers in each genre (poetry and fiction) are accepted. (The ceremony, postponed last spring because of the coronavirus, was held on Dec. 5 via Zoom.)

Ms. Karr, a professor at Syracuse, first met Mr. So when he appeared in her memoir class.

“He streaked into the room like a comet,” she said. “In addition to being so hip, slick and bad — but not really — he was also really sweet and present. He had so much radical talent.”

Ms. Karr and Mr. So had been talking all summer about how he was going to take his new book on the road. “He was already being hustled by media folks and felt a creeping self- consciousness mess with his work,” Ms. Karr said. She told him: “You’ll be fine. Just wheel yourself out there on a skateboard and open your mouth.”

Anthony Veasna So was born on Feb. 20, 1992, in Stockton, Calif. His father, Sienghay So, owns an auto repair shop, and his mother, Ravy So, is a retired claims representative for the Social Security Administration. Mr. So’s parents fled the Killing Fields of Cambodia for a refugee camp in Thailandno bi before settling as teenagers with their families in Stockton, where they met.

Mr. So studied art and English literature at Stanford. (He failed computer science. On his website, he described himself as a “grotesque parody of a model minority.”) At Syracuse, where he earned his master’s in creative writing, he was a university fellow. He received numerous awards, including a Tin House Scholarship and the Joyce Carol Oates Award in Fiction. (Ms. Oates received her bachelor’s degree at Syracuse.)

Mark Krotov, publisher and co-editor of n+1, remembered Mr. So arriving in the journal’s New York City offices one wintry Friday afternoon in 2018, straight from a long bus ride from Syracuse, with an introduction from Ms. Karr. “He seemed to stumble in, slapstick style,” Mr. Krotov said, and was immediately chatting up the entire staff, down to the interns. “The whole magazine became friends with him that day.”

“He was working on what he called ‘a stoner novel of ideas,’” Mr. Krotov added. “He had this chill, expansive vibe attached to a real intellectual intensity. It was very Californian. He walked in slowly but his mind was firing in all directions. He sent us a bunch of stories, and we published his first one in our next issue. He was very proud that, as he told me later, it was the one his workshop disliked the most.”

Dana Spiotta, the novelist and a professor of Mr. So’s at Syracuse, recalled office hours with him as a nonstop duet of “competing enthusiasms.”

“He was always trying out ambitious theories of how to write,” she said, “how to ‘queer’ literature, but he also was practical and grounded in nuts and bolts technique.” She added, “He was poised to make a splash, and he would have enjoyed it so much.”

Mr. So taught English and creative writing at Syracuse; he also taught at various college workshops and programs, like Next Generation Scholars, for college-bound, low-income first-generation American students; and the Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants, a nonprofit based in Oakland that serves Southeast Asian refugee communities.

He had been a game designer, comics writer and, as a news release from his publishing company noted, “dabbled in standup comedy.”

In addition to Mr. Torres and his parents, Mr. So is survived by his sister, Samantha Lamb.

In “The Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts,” which The New Yorker published in February and is included in “Afterparties,” Mr. So writes of two sisters, Kayley and Tevy, typical preteen and teenage Cambodian-American children. They are working the night shift one summer with their mother at the family’s restaurant, chafing at the ever-present burden of their parents’ hideous past trauma, flicking it away with black humor. Tevy, he writes, would “do something as simple as drink a glass of ice water, and her father, from across the room, would bellow, “There were no ice cubes in the genocide!”

“Do you remember what Dad said about marriage?” Tevy asks. “He said that, after the camps, people paired up based on their skills. Two people who knew how to cook wouldn’t marry, because that would be, like, a waste. If one person in the marriage cooked, then the other person should know how to sell food. He said marriage is like the show ‘Survivor,’ where you make alliances in order to live longer. He thought ‘Survivor’ was actually the most Khmer thing possible, and he would definitely win it, because the genocide was the best training he could’ve got.”

When he died, Mr. So was working on a novel called “Straight Through Cambotown,” about three Khmer-American cousins — a pansexual rapper, a comedian philosopher and a hotheaded illustrator.

“Anthony was all three of those people,” Ms. Karr said, “plus some other people, too.”