When James T. Spencer, director of the Syracuse University Brass Ensemble (SUBE), turned to accept the applause at the 2018 Great American Brass Band Festival (GABBF) in Danville, Kentucky, he joked to himself, “Now what do we do for an…
Anthony Veasna So Receives Soros Fellowship for New Americans
Anthony Veasna So has received a 2018 Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans to support his studies in the graduate program in creative writing in the University’s College of Arts and Sciences. So joins 29 other new Soros Fellows, selected from 1,765 applicants this year. Paul and Daisy Soros, immigrants themselves, chose to invest their money in supporting each year the graduate education of new Americans—immigrants and children of immigrants—who are poised to make significant contributions to U.S. society, culture or their academic field. Each fellow receives up to $90,000 in financial support over two years, and they join a lifelong community of New American Fellows. So shared a little about his background and his ambitions for his writing.
01Tell us about your family background.
My family is originally from Battambang, Cambodia. In 1981, my parents—alongside my grandmas, aunts, uncles and older cousins—immigrated to Stockton, California, as refugees and survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide. My parents had sixth-grade educations, spent their adolescence in concentration camps and, without ever receiving their G.E.D.s, they earned associate’s degrees at the local community college. After working as a car mechanic for years, my dad eventually started his own car repair business. My mom worked as a bilingual aide at an elementary school and now has been working for Stockton’s Social Security Administration Office for about two decades.
02Why do you think it’s important to write about the Cambodian-American experience?
I grew up in a pretty big Cambodian-American community, one of the biggest in the U.S., and I have been fortunate enough to have never questioned the validity of my community’s existence, even as our history of being colonized, undergoing political turmoil and experiencing racism in the U.S. continues to oppress our people. But I would say that Cambodian-Americans represent one of the overt failures of how the U.S. has viewed race, in terms of what the U.S. has distinguished as culturally and racially legible. The poverty and struggle of many Cambodian-Americans—who are lumped into the group of Asian-Americans—are rendered invisible by the “model minority” myth, and I hope my writing serves to deconstruct this regressive idea so as to help other marginalized communities pierce through the limitations imposed upon them.
03How does your identity as a gay man affect your writing?
My writing is informed by how Pol Pot used Nixon’s invasion and massive carpet bombing of a neutral Cambodia as an impetus to mount a successful political coup. This resulted in the Khmer Rouge genocide and the murder of two million Cambodian persons, including half my family. In a literal and figurative sense, the surviving members of my family and my community are indeed collateral damage. My stories push the theme of “collateral damage” which is the title of the collection of short stories I’m working on. My stories push the theme of collateral damage to explore how the experiences of an older Cambodian generation permeate the lives of a new Cambodian-American generation, and how unintended repercussions of the war are sublimated into cultural tensions and contradictory beliefs within the community. Here is where I find my own gay/queer identity to be a useful point of interrogation into my Cambodian community. Queer people often have the power to disrupt tradition by virtue of existing outside of a patriarchal lineage. In my community, queer people are born transgressive, so we aren’t “destined” to progress our father’s name, traditions, beliefs, by having children and living “normal” lives. Many of my stories have queer protagonists because they often have more radical perspectives, due to their marginalized existence, and thus, they can see clearly the seams, ruptures, and contradictions of society—what I view as being the present-day collateral damage of our history.
04In addition to writing fiction, you also create comics and do standup comedy. Do you think of yourself primarily as a writer, or do you express yourself in whatever way fits the material?
I think of myself primarily as a writer, but I believe there’s much to learn from other storytelling mediums. My fiction has benefited immensely from my training as a visual artist and comedian. In my writing, I also find myself incorporating more visual and comedy work into my stories. I think that the Cambodian-American experience deserves its own form of storytelling, and that writing in a traditional manner or genre—one more suited for, say, the experience of writers like Raymond Carver—might not effectively convey the lives of many Cambodian-Americans.
05Your writing includes a lot of comedy, but also a strong component of social justice. How do you reconcile those two?
My parents are hilarious. I describe my childhood as a series of one-liners my parents would deliver alongside constant references to the genocide. As a kid, I’d be wiping the windows at my dad’s shop with old newspapers, complaining about how we didn’t have fancy blue paper towels, and my dad would say something like, “Do you think we had blue paper towels working in the rice fields!” Humor, I think, is an intrinsic part of how my parents engage with the world, their history, and I believe making jokes is an effective method for understanding oppression and being able to progress social justice. There’s a theory of humor I love, which is the incongruity theory. It describes humor as arising from when our expectations are subverted, from when what we think will happen is incongruous with what actually happens. The punchline of the joke reframes how we think of a situation. It surprises us. At the very core of a marginalized person’s experience of the world is an incongruence, a misunderstanding. The culture of many marginalized communities and the culture of the dominant power don’t often match, and through the incongruity theory of humor, we can better understand oppressed communities.
06How did you come to apply for the Soros Fellowship, and how will it help you on your journey?
I came across the Soros Fellowship by happenstance off the internet, through some listicle of fellowships. When I quickly scanned the website, I realized the Soros Fellowship’s mission statement aligned almost exactly with my own. Then I did some more research and found Jolynn Parker, director of Syracuse’s Center for Fellowship & Scholarship Advising. Jolynn’s feedback and counseling was crucial for me, in terms of not only working on my application, but also just helping me build up the confidence to undergo the rigorous interview process. For my journey as a writer, the Soros Fellowship will provide me with the necessary support to work on my novel and story collection without distraction, without having to worry about my finances or summer funding.
About Syracuse University
Syracuse University is a private, international research university with distinctive academics, diversely unique offerings and an undeniable spirit. Located in the geographic heart of New York State, with a global footprint, and nearly 150 years of history, Syracuse University offers a quintessential college experience. The scope of Syracuse University is a testament to its strengths: a pioneering history dating back to 1870; a choice of more than 200 majors and 100 minors offered through 13 schools and colleges; nearly 15,000 undergraduates and 5,000 graduate students; more than a quarter of a million alumni in 160 countries; and a student population from all 50 U.S. states and 123 countries. For more information, please visit www.syracuse.edu.