"I want reading to save people" — Anthony Veasna So

A previously unreleased interview with the late Anthony Veasna So.

Editor’s Note:

I met Anthony Veasna So for an interview over Zoom last year. Throughout our conversation, Anthony was hilarious, brilliant, and kind. The interview had been scheduled for thirty minutes; we spoke for almost four hours. Anthony and I agreed to work together on editing down the interview transcript and adding clarifications where necessary, but we never got the chance. Anthony passed away on December 8th, 2020, at the age of 28.

In collaboration with Anthony’s partner, Alex Torres, we’ve decided to publish a condensed version of this interview, as a way of honoring Anthony’s remarkable life and work. It has been edited for clarity. I hope that after reading it, you will consider buying a copy of Anthony’s beautiful collection of short stories, Afterparties, out August 3rd from Ecco Press.


Charlie Lee:

You’ve mentioned that you find it helpful in your writing to conceive of people as archetypes, rather than individuals. Can you say more about that?

Anthony Veasna So:

Well, in my writing, I'm much more interested in systems than in people. I don't think people are actually that interesting. 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. Rather than thinking about people as these unique and complex individuals in my writing, I think it's much more powerful to try to reimagine different paths for people to take in their lives, as a way of thinking about how to create better types of people. This is really an idea about the good life. I'm interested in thinking about the project of happiness in terms of orientation — what are you oriented towards, and what shapes you? I think that's just a better way to conceive of people and characters, or at least it’s my way.

CL: Is that something you’ve experienced in your own life, as well as in your writing?

AVS: Oh, absolutely. I’m a good example of this, honestly. I often think about how it was that I made it to Stanford for college — I didn’t even know that Stanford was in California until I applied, even though I’m from Stockton. My parents are refugees. They came here without high school educations, and they got GEDs and associate's degrees. Fast forward to my generation, I'm on the younger side of around 15 cousins. My oldest cousin somehow made it to Berkeley, which was really impressive. In doing that, she created this pathway for the next one to follow. So then various cousins followed the pathway, and added to it, so that by the time it got to me, there were like five different paths I could follow. Five different paths for how I could envision my life. What I’m saying is you don't get to just be yourself, whatever that means; you follow a path. This is what saved me. I wasn't saved by someone empowering me, I was saved by having paths I could follow and imagine.

CL: What do you mean by saved?

AVS: I think about this a lot in the context of writing. I’m very drawn to thinking about how people can be saved from the logical extension of trauma — death, essentially. The idea that because of trauma, because of the past, life could become unbearable for someone, and the future could seem like a non-option. So how do you actually strive forward into the future? How do you help people do that? That's what I mean by saving, to be blunt. I think writing can be part of this, insofar as it’s a reimagining of what different paths people could follow and be shaped by and saved by. In some sense, I guess I want reading to save people.

CL: Would you describe that as literature’s ethical project or capacity?

AVS: Let's think about this in terms of living in a racist society, and how one might combat racism. I think a useful example is The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen. In many ways, I think that book is genius, in how it mixes these literary genres. It’s a novel of ideas. But it’s also a historical novel, a recuperation of Vietnamese history. And then on top of all that, it’s a spy or mystery novel. The result of this mixing is that as a reader, you're forced into a position of reading a novel of ideas or historical novel while following the interpretive codes of a mystery novel, in which every single detail matters, every detail could be a clue. It's a brilliant strategy for getting a reader to pay attention to a historical narrative, though also exhausting.

But then there's another aspect of the book, which is how it's trying to dismantle stereotypes. This is relevant in the sense that it offers a contrast for what I'm talking about. That book is trying to dismantle toxic Asian stereotypes — for example, it tries to dismantle the notion of the effeminate Asian man by having this character have lots of sex. But that strategy — and this isn't so much a criticism of The Sympathizer as it is a helpful example for what I want to say — doesn't so much dismantle a stereotype as just substitute another. The strategy of negation doesn't necessarily entail doing the work of reimagining different possible archetypes, different possible paths. Another example, moving away from The Sympathizer, might be the badass Asian girl stereotype. I see that as a new stereotype that has been offered up to dismantle the ways that Asian women have been portrayed in media as demure or quiet. But it doesn't dismantle anything; it just reasserts a different stereotype, that of the manic pixie dream girl. My worry is that it's a dead-end. Of course we have to attack these stereotypes, but we've also been doing that for decades. What's the next step, you know?

CL: In considering these questions in your own work, do you think at all about who your audience is? I can imagine that could be a relevant question when it comes to addressing stereotypes.

AVS: Yes, definitely. I've been thinking a lot about audience recently. This is in part because I've found it somewhat tiresome to hear people say that I shouldn't be considering the white gaze in the writing process, because I almost think that's unavoidable as someone writing in English. It's not that I don't think that's a useful idea, of course. But anyways, I think the first step is to just use my own words. That in itself makes a white audience feel pretty uncomfortable — that's easy. That takes like 10 minutes. Just control F and put a Khmer word in place of an English one in every instance. Everyone's already doing that, so what's the next step? I tend to think of this not so much in terms of "making it new" as much as taking the next step. If you're lifting weights and trying to build muscle, it won't happen if you just always lift the same amount. Same with an audience. If they get used to what you're doing, it doesn't really accomplish anything anymore.

Moving beyond thinking about the white gaze, because that's boring, I would say that my audience is anyone who is caught in a sort of paradoxical world, but is looking for a different way to react to it, if that makes sense. This is who I write for: someone who has mastered one way of coping, for whom that way of coping has now hit a wall. And now they need to imagine a new way.

There’s another way that I also like to consider the question of audience. I’m going to take you down a tangent, if that’s okay, but I promise it links back to this question.

CL: By all means!

AVS: So, my boyfriend reads a lot of philosophy. I like philosophy, too, but I read very slowly. I never really finish things. Instead I’ll read 30 opening paragraphs in a day, and then lose interest, and then interrogate why I lost interest. But my boyfriend can read a book in a day — he's a much more avid reader than I am. He'll be reading, say, Hannah Arendt, or something, and start actively thinking these Hannah Arendt thoughts. Then he'll talk to me about it, and I'll start thinking Hannah Arendt thoughts. The ideas just sort of take hold and take over. My boyfriend was reading Adorno — wow, that's a line. My boyfriend was reading Adorno. Well, he was. And he read me this line, something to the effect of "true style comes from trying to appease two or more different audiences that are in conflict." I feel that that actually summarizes a lot of how I approach the question of audience in my stories. It changes with what I want to accomplish in any given story, but that formal constraint — how to appease these two conflicting audiences, whatever they may be — is very generative for me as a method.

I know this is all pretty gestural. I like that, honestly. It's more fun than philosophy, where you have to be deeply concerned with getting it exactly right. Writing shouldn’t be too concerned with getting things exactly right; the obsession with being right will ruin a writer. An artistic method can be more gestural. The important thing is to have a method. Method is everything.

CL: How do you think your own method developed? Was that something that happened through your MFA experience?

AVS: Yes, but it began in the years just before that, too. It was important for me to try to get as good as I could without any help, so that I could actually take advantage of help when it became available. Part of that means developing your own taste and figuring out what types of stories you want to tell. I was ready for the MFA because I'd realized that I wanted to tell stories about Cambodian Americans that depicted the full range of experiences I grew up with. That is, I was getting tired of reading extremely melancholic Asian writing, not because that's not good or important, but because it wasn't what my life was. This is why my advice to people who want to apply to MFAs is to wait until they've written, say, 5 stories they feel extremely good about that they didn't even conceive of until after they graduated from college, before they even begin to think about next steps or professional moves. Not because undergrad stories are bad, but because you probably won't know what it is that you want to say just yet. People should spend some time doing other cool stuff during those years, too. Meet people, teach, start a magazine — though not if that magazine is just going to be Harvard Crimson Redux, if you know what I mean.

Getting back to method, though, this is also where I think I benefited a lot from studying art in college, and from doing stand-up comedy. It’s really clear when someone is just doing the same painting over and over again. Or when someone is just telling the same sort of joke. There are things that different forms do better than literature. Paintings or movies or stand-up can do some stuff way better than writing can, and I think part of creating a method is studying those things and taking what you can from them. The best artists created their own methods. Picasso created his own method—he was like, sorry, faces look like this now, deal with it. Or Godard, say, in Breathless, he made his own method of editing a movie, without which we wouldn’t have Bonnie and Clyde, without which we wouldn’t have action movies. So I think the important thing about interacting with other media is that you look at them with an eye towards building a new method for what you’re doing. And to do that you need to know what it is that you want to write. Figure that out, then build a method to accomplish that.

I also learned a lot about how to create a method by being an art student who often didn’t have enough money for oil paints or things like that. I had no formal training, either. That forced me to create my own method. I learned how to do print transfers on Xerox paper, for example. This is funny, but thinking about this in terms of my own writing, I actually don’t have a very good vocabulary. I don’t know many words, at all. It’s like not having fancy paints. So I’ve had to create a method out of the words that I do know, at a very basic level.

CL: I’m curious about your experience with stand-up comedy. Reading through your stories, something that I’ve noticed comes up repeatedly is this close alignment of the hilarious with the tragic. Characters often make a movement towards profundity or towards an engagement with trauma, but then brush it away with humor in a way that is both deflating and devastating. What role do you feel humor plays in your method?

AVS: Wow, yes, you nailed it. Absolutely, a lot of what I’m trying to accomplish has to do with this intermingling of those two things. Before I start spouting philosophical nonsense at you, I should just say: my family is really funny. My parents are really funny, my grandma is really funny — everyone is. So that’s very important for me. When stories were told in my family about terrible things that have happened to Cambodian people, there were often jokes mixed in somewhere, almost reflexively. So there’s that.

One basic theory of humor is Kant’s idea of incongruity—the idea that we laugh when things appear incongruous without any resolution, like when the punch line of a joke is incongruous with the set up. When you’re living in the aftermath of trauma, when you’re living in a refugee world, everything often feels incongruous. There’s a sense of things not fitting together. That’s what it meant to me to grow up in a refugee community: a constant grappling with incongruity.

There’s another aspect to this, too, which gets back to your question about audiences. I think that when someone is made to laugh at a joke, they’re sort of forced to concede something. They’re forced to admit that they agree with the terms of the joke, or that they recognize the incongruity that makes it funny. That involves an acknowledgment of where you stand in relation to the joke, right? If you’re a white person, and you laugh at a joke about racism because it makes you uncomfortable, part of your reaction is an acknowledgement that you understand what’s being said. And that’s a very powerful thing you can do to people—forcing them into recognizing that sort of complicity. Sometimes laughing means recognizing that you yourself are on the wrong side of something, historically speaking.

CL: You mentioned that you’re now working on a novel. What’s it been like to move from short stories into novel writing?

AVS: I mean, the biggest thing I've learned so far is that writing a novel, as opposed to writing short stories, feels more like work rather than pure creation. Short stories feel very intuitive to me. They're the kind of thing I feel like I would be able to do outside of a job — like, as a hobby, on your own time, but still in a serious way. Of course, people write novels on the side all the time, but for me, writing a novel is very much tied to the idea of being a working writer. It's its own job. You have to be your own operations manager, your own managing director, your own HR person, your own accountant, all wrapped up in one. It involves having to be super organized and accountable, and to keep track of what you're doing at the most minute level — really boring stuff. Like, how many times have I used this word, is it too many? You have to have brainstorming sessions that you schedule for yourself, as if you were at a job. Stories, on the other hand, feel looser, more ephemeral, more intuitive. There’s also a lower sort of burden in terms of answering basic questions, which is nice. If “The Shop” went on for much longer, people would start to ask “what happened to the lost car?” But it ends before that, and when it ends nobody really gives a shit about the car.

CL: This is a slightly ridiculous thing to say, but it’s striking to hear you talk about it in terms of this boring sort of work, if only because the experience of reading your stories often involves feeling immersed in this sense of playfulness, as if writing them was actually a fun process.

AVS: Oh, I’m glad to hear that! I want it to feel fun to read them, because it is not fun to write them. I love it, obviously, but fun is not the right word for it, though there is a playful aspect of letting myself follow my intuitions. I like to write about 15 pages of a story without an outline, just playing around, and then reassess it, and that’s when the work becomes play. I think it should be a sort of basic principle that writing shouldn’t be very fun. Writers shouldn’t privilege their own desires and pleasure over the readers’.

Actually, you know what? It’s like fitness. Fitness can be fun — I’m kind of addicted to physical fitness, honestly. This is going to make me sound like a really annoying art major, I guess — I push myself to the edge for my art. [Laughs] But actually, it is like working out! You do it every day. You’d never work out for 5 hours in one day — that would be unsustainable, but also just bad for you. Similarly, taking a month off is okay, but it’s going to really fucking hurt that first day back in there. None of this is fun. But it can feel good.

CL: Can you tell me a bit about the novel itself?

AVS: Oh, I’d love to. It’s basically about these three cousins who thought that their way of doing things was the right way for them to strive into the future, and now they’ve found themselves astray. They realize that they might need to reconceptualize how they conceive of the future, and that if they don’t do it sooner than later their lives will only get more and more difficult. It’s very much a novel concerned with the paths that people can imagine for themselves, as I was saying before.

My idea of it is essentially a philosophical novel about being Cambodian that is also nothing like a philosophical novel. I know that doesn’t make sense! But it’s what I want. I looked at my education, I looked at what I’d learned—and how Stanford ruined my brain—and realized that what I can offer is a philosophical take on being Cambodian. That’s what I can offer, and that’s what I’m striving towards with this novel and in terms of building a body of work. I can’t pretend I’m, like, still out there on the streets, so this is what I can do. It’s going to be written from the perspective of a narrator who is distinctly Cambodian, and is also kind of a genius. He thinks that all of history in Western civilization has been written terribly, and he wants to rewrite it so that it includes philosophical tangents and some actual imagination. I want this person’s race to be absolutely inseparable from who he is. He’s sort of like a Cambodian Ishmael. Here’s my pitch: it’s Moby Dick, combined with Nietzche’s The Gay Science, but it’s also a Cambodian philosophical novel, and most of it is about this rapper.

CL: I’m not gonna lie… that sounds awesome.

AVS: Thank you! It is! It’s also a stoner novel—that’s probably the most important thing. I’ll probably have to change this, but right now every chapter is mostly just them smoking weed and driving somewhere, because that’s what California is all about, and this is a California novel.

CL: Well, I’ll look forward to reading it! Thanks so much for making the time to speak with me, Anthony.

AVS: Thank you! This was a lot of fun.

Actually, wait. Before we stop, can I just throw out a ton of random advice for younger writers? You can cut it from the interview if it’s nonsense.

CL: Please do! That would be wonderful.

AVS: Ok, let’s see. I said that, and now my mind has gone totally blank. I guess one thing I should mention off the bat is that writing was like my fifth choice profession. Writing isn’t cool! People think it’s cool, but...is it really? The important thing to know is that being cool isn’t necessarily something you want to be. At the end of the day, it’s kind of cool that Jeff Bezos is evil. It’s kind of a vibe for him—he got really buff! Doesn’t mean it’s good!

Alright, advice. People like to say that the best advice they can give to writers is to read a lot. And that's true, of course. But you shouldn't just read literature. You should read life. Read movies, and art, and people. Read everything around you, very critically. Then build your method out of that process.

The other advice I want to give is that you should assume that you're worse than your professors, or the writers you admire, and that you have something to learn from them. But then, more importantly, assume that it's your job to get better than them. That's the basis of all student-teacher relationships, regardless of whether this person is actually your teacher or if they’re just someone you want to emulate. You're supposed to get better than them. So go do that. Otherwise what are you doing?

Charlie Lee

co-founded Soft Punk with Jacob Barnes in the summer of 2019. He is an assistant editor at Harper's Magazine.

All contributions from Charlie Lee

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