New York Magazine’s August 2–15, 2021, cover story profiles Cambodian American author Anthony Veasna So, who died suddenly last December on the cusp of literary stardom. His debut short-story collection, Afterparties, is being published by Ecco this week. The cover image features a self-portrait collage by So using Southeast Asian stamps from October 2020; another self-portrait by So is featured in the magazine’s table of contents.
The cover story is by New York and Vulture senior writer E. Alex Jung, who has previously profiled Bong Joon Ho, Michaela Coel, and Jennifer Coolidge for the magazine, to name just a few. Jung began his career at the magazine as a Vulture intern in 2013, and shared his thoughts on how he got to know So’s writing, what appealed to him about it, and his approach to the challenging assignment of a posthumous profile of a man who was a different person to the many different people who loved him:
I first was introduced to Anthony through “Superking Son Scores Again,” his short story in n+1 about the son of the local Cambodian grocery-store owner who’s both responsible for the shop and the high-school badminton team. So much of it is funny: the vibes, the pettiness. But what’s really marvelous is how he uses a first-person plural narrator — a “we” — to tell the story. They’re Khmer high-school kids, so they’re bound together in that familiar teenage groupthink; there’s also an aspect in which they’re naïve narrators who don’t quite understand all the adult things going on in the background. Still, they can sense them. I felt very moved by the sensitivity evident not only on the level of language, but of people and their histories. I read the galleys for Afterparties and felt the same thing.
So when it came to writing a profile of him, I was interested in understanding the “we” that he might have come from. And it turns out, like most of us, he belonged to many different “we’s” — his big, Cambodian American family in Stockton, his partner he met at Stanford, his college friends, his Southeast Asian writers crew, his MFA cohort, and so on. Obviously, piecing the story together after his death proved to be a challenge, because those different groups that he was a part of lost the person that bound them together, and not only that, were often in friction with one another. That made the profile much more challenging than I ever could have anticipated, because it raised questions of the self: Who was the “I” in those groups or relationships that Anthony was a part of? Ultimately, this was an impossible project; there is no way to know who Anthony really was, but I wanted to get at least a little bit closer to understanding the person who wrote those stories that I loved.
Read more about Jung’s writing process, the state of the profile, and more in this Q&A.