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‘Afterparties’ is the book of the summer

Anthony Veasna So died at 28 but leaves a brilliant legacy

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(Book cover image courtesy of ECCO)

“What knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it,” Holden Caulfield says in “The Catcher in the Rye,” “you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone.”

Having met a variety of writers and being a scribe myself, I wouldn’t want to call or text an author whose work I love because I’d likely be disappointed.

Except for the writer Anthony Veasna So. I would have loved to have had coffee with him or been a fly on the wall, as he wowed the room with his brilliance and humor.

So, a queer Cambodian-American writer, whose work dazzled everyone from acclaimed queer writer Bryan Washington to poet and memoirist Mary Karr, died at 28 of an accidental drug overdose in December 2020.

So’s death has been a stunning blow not only to his family and his partner Alex Torres but to writers and readers. Queer and Asian-American writers especially feel his loss.

Thankfully, “Afterparties,” So’s collection of, by turns, gritty, funny, almost unbelievably sad and loving short stories, is just out.

The volume of nine stories is the book of this summer. “Afterparties” is a selection of writer Roxane Gay’s book club. The journal “n+1” has honored him by creating the $5,000 Anthony Veasna So Fiction prize.

You might think that the praise for So’s work springs from grief over his dying so young.  But you’d be wrong. “Afterparties” deserves the hype — and then some.

So’s parents escaped from the genocide of the Khmer Rouge in the Killing Fields of Cambodia. They immigrated to Stockton, Calif., where So was born and raised.

Stockton has the largest number of Cambodian Americans in the U.S.

So, who studied art and literature at Stanford, earned a M.F.A. degree in creative writing from Syracuse University.

“He streaked into the room like a comet,” Karr, one of his Syracuse professors, told the Times.

The characters in “Afterparties” are fictional. So’s style and voice are distinctly his own.

Yet, these stories are imbued with the reality of So’s personal life and the lives of other Cambodian Americans.

People go to college, gossip, come out, get married, have babies, play sports and roll their eyes at the religious beliefs of their elders while the trauma of the genocide is always in the foreground.

You’d expect that people who’ve endured the tragedy of the Khmer Rouge would be somber.  That short stories about a community that’s endured such suffering would be unremittingly bleak.

But the stories in “Afterparties” are often filled with humor. You may well find yourself doing a spit take while wondering if you should be laughing.

“There were no ice cubes in the genocide!” a dad tells his teenage daughter when she drinks a glass of water with ice.

In the story “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts,” a single mom, with the help of her 12- and 16-year-old daughters, runs a donut shop. “She’s never met a Chuck in her life,” So writes, “she simply thought the name was American enough to draw customers.”

In the story “Maly, Maly, Maly,” Ves and Maly, teenagers and cousins, get stoned.  They’re getting ready to go to a celebration with their relatives. Maly’s mother has died, and the adults in her family believe that her mom has been reincarnated in the birth of their cousin’s baby.

Many of the characters in “Afterparties” are openly queer. Though this isn’t always easy.

“All very cliche, in that gay sob story kind of way,” one character says of coming out to his family.

In “The Shop,” a doctor’s busybody wife is the character you love to hate. She’s not upset that the story’s narrator is gay; she’s annoyed that he’s working in his Dad’s auto repair shop. “Why did you not become a doctor?” she demands.

Reading “Afterparties” is like being at a gathering of family, friends and lovers; it’s infused with sex, food, wit, and love. It’s this summer’s afterparty.  

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Books

New book chronicles founding of gay-owned Falls Church News-Press

Nick Benton emerged as major influencer and nurturer of local talent

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The History Press released a book by D.C.-area journalist Charlie Clark in October entitled, “The Life and Times of the Falls Church News-Press” (a 192 page paperback). 

The News-Press was founded in 1991 by journalist and gay activist Nicholas Benton and has published more than 1,700 consecutive weekly editions since serving the inside-the-beltway Northern Virginia suburb of the City of Falls Church, a mere seven miles from the White House.

In its masthead, the News-Press says of itself, “Since 1991, an award-winning LGBT-owned general interest community newspaper.” It has been named the Business of the Year twice and Benton the Person of the Year by the Falls Church City Council. These are selected excerpts from the Clark book: 

“Its founder, Nicholas F. Benton, is a native Californian, college baseball player, degreed master of divinity, gay activist and journalist born “with printer’s ink in his veins” – or so he suspects. He launched the Falls Church News-Press largely as a one-man band. But with unflagging energy, he emerged as a major influencer and talent nurturer.

“Benton knows the key players, hosts frequent parties and can be see walking the streets and dining at eateries that make Falls Church homey. In editorials written every week by Benton himself, the editor strives to protect the city’s prize schools by pressing for property tax revenues and favoring development in the occasional battles with traditionalists who treasure the residential village. He made his mark on zoning disputes over how to tastefully attract commercial development. News-Press news sections combine small-town intimate coverage – plenty of photographs of smiling residents lined up for the camera – with exclusive accounts of action by the city council and the school board (at whose meetings Benton is sometimes the only member in attendance)….

“Some say it’s a miracle that Benton’s close-to-home news organ – backed neither by inherited wealth nor corporate investors – has survived three decades, given the current death knells for local news outlets…. The book you hold relays the tale of how Benton pulled things off. He takes virtually no vacations (beyond a few weekends). He pays staff writers (and offers health insurance) rather than engaging too many volunteers. He hires and mentors high school students. He gives the paper out for free and publishes letters that criticize. He donates to charities and cultivates youth readers by boosting high school and Little League sports, holiday parades, scouting and local history. His team covers charities, efforts to aid the homeless, published authors, theater productions, demands for low-income housing, struggling small businesses, gay rights and wars over parking. And Benton invites the public to his office parties..

“The News-Press is one of the things that make Falls Church special,” Mayor Dave Tarter told me as this book was in preparation. “The paper reinforces and enhances the sense of community of shared experiences” in covering stories that the Washington Post would not make space for. “It is a labor of love for Nick Benton, and it shows. Whether you love it or hate it, everyone reads the News-Press…” 

“…Benton enrolled at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley (class of 1969). This brought him to the University of California’s flagship school at the height of the antiwar, civil rights and student power protests, a time when the smell of the national guardsmen’s tear gas was familiar on campus. Benton was awarded his master of divinity diploma cum laude on June 13, 1969 (it is framed and displayed today in the News-Press office. He worked as a youth minister for three years at seminary but never pursued that as a career. He would later consider his newspaper ownership a close substitute to ministry…

“Benton remained in the Bay Area and worked for the famous alternative weekly, the Berkeley Barb, enjoying the freedom to publish on counterculture subjects from women’s liberation to rock music…While at the Barb Benton also came out as gay, just before the 1969 Stonewall Riot in New York’s Greenwich Village that launched the gay right movement. His articles, he later wrote, “promoted the notion that fully actualized, gay liberation had the potential to be socially transformative.” He penned the editorial for the first edition of the Gay Sunshine newspaper, and he coproduced a pair of issues of his own fledgling gay newspaper, the Effeminist…

“… By 1987, he had incorporated his own news service…It became the context for his decision in early December 1990 to launch the News-Press. He would pull it off by charming volunteer labor and combining it with his own seven-days-a-week style. Another secret to Benton’s success: he is “frugal.” There were no desks in the office, just boards and folding chairs. “Editor in Chief Nick Benton is too modest to blow his own horn,” wrote reader Robert O. Beach in a letter published in March 1998. “But he deserves tremendous credit for the vital contribution the News-Press makes to our community.”

“Environmental consultant and history activist Dave Eckert goes further. “The News-Press became the focal point of Falls Church,” he said in 2022. “Nick Benton wanted to do good journalism, get readers and advertisements, but in many ways the paper brought the city together. And in many ways it drove it apart.”

“… ‘We worked all night on that first issue,’ Benton recalled, ‘and as the deadline approached, as dawn began to break on March 27, we looked out our second-story windows to see that the cherry blossom trees on North Virginia Avenue had blossomed overnight. That was our sign to press ahead.’

“After the proverbial all-nighter, his team of three drove to Gaithersburg, Md., to the Comprint Co. plant to witness the maiden print run. ‘When the press bell rang and everything started to move, it was a very special moment,’ Benton remembered. ‘As the papers started chugging onto a conveyor belt, I couldn’t help but stand on a box and loudly exclaim, ‘Let every tyrant tremble!’ The noise of the press drowned me out so that only a couple of pressmen gave me funny looks.’

“Back in Falls Church, young O’Brien had walked the streets crowing, ‘Have you heard the news? Come March 28, Falls Church is going to have its own newspaper!’”

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‘Seek’ shows how one tiny action can open big doors

New book could ‘transform your life and change the world’

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(Book cover image courtesy of Balance)

‘Seek: How Curiosity Can Transform Your Life and Change the World’
By Scott Shigeoka
c.2023, Balance 
$30/243 pages

Curiosity killed the cat.

That’s what Grandma said when you were a nosy little kid but hey, you needed to learn about your world. Asking questions, that’s what kids do – and so do savvy grown-ups. Curiosity may have plagued Grandma’s cat but as you’ll see in “Seek” by Scott Shigeoka, a lack of it could do you harm.

His friends worried about him.

When Scott Shigeoka quit his job to travel around America for a year, they figured he’d be the target of all kinds of bad things. As a queer Asian-American man, Shigeoka wasn’t searching for himself, and he surely wasn’t looking for trouble. No, he was looking for strangers, to see what we have in common with one another.

“I wanted to feel less scared and angry all the time,” he says.

Shigeoka’s interpretation of studies is that our general lack of curiosity about one another “is literally killing us.” With that in mind, he left his home and his job and headed out to small towns in the South, a reservation in Minnesota, a Trump rally, and a retreat center with nuns and millennials. He squashed his inner negativity, bravely swallowed his reluctance, approached people, and cultivated his curiosity by speaking with religious leaders, zealots, and everyday folks. In doing so, he learned to D.I.V.E. into his outward curiosity.

Detach, he says, and let go of “the ABCs”: assumptions, biases, and certainty. Even if you think you’re against racism, homophobia, or any other intolerance, you “still have unconscious biases that need to be… interrupted and challenged.” Learn to act with Intent. Know what questions to ask so that you can best learn about others and their thoughts. Show someone their Value by remembering that their political leaning, for instance, “is only one piece of a person’s life and personality.” And finally, learn to Embrace what’s in front of you. This will “open the doors” to “more fulfillment and happiness to your life.”

Does it sometimes seem as though today’s world is filled with awkward moments? Like you want to communicate with people you meet, but the rules have changed? Or maybe you have and if that’s the case, then author Scott Shigeoka has a fix. In “Seek,” he shows how one tiny action can open great big doors.

It seems kind of fun, actually: you meet someone new, show a gentle bit of interest and pay attention, ask a few open-ended questions, and voila! New friend or client. New, healthy lines of communication. New or enhanced working relationship. Big yay.

And yet – while this book is very useful, easy to grasp, and enthusiastic, Shigeoka has very few cautionary words to offer readers who may be too eager. Some of the ideas here, in the wrong hands, may be perceived as obnoxious or threatening. Understanding when to back off might have been good advice here, too.

Keep that in mind, know your target, open your heart, and have fun. If your curiosity needs fluffing up, “Seek” may be the purrfect book for you.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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Books

‘Gender Pioneers’ reminds readers that trans people are not new

‘A Celebration of Transgender, Non-Binary and Intersex Icons’

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(Book cover courtesy of Jessica Kingsley Publishers)

‘Gender Pioneers: A Celebration of Transgender, Non-Binary and Intersex Icons’
By Philippa Punchard
c.2022, Jessica Kingsley Publishers 
$22.95/118 pages

Take a left at the first road, then right and right again.

It’s always a good idea to know where you’re going – but then again, getting lost can have its benefits, too. Veering off an easy path gives you a chance to see things, maybe even something better. You can get all kinds of directions for life but sometimes, as in “Gender Pioneers” by Philippa Punchard, you just gotta step off the road.

In 1912, French audiences were thrilled by the talent of a trapeze artist known as Barbette. The lovely Barbette flew over the heads of Parisians solo, gracefully, and the best citizens followed those performances avidly. By 1919, Babette added to the end of the performance the revelation that “she” was really Vander Clyde Broadway, a male performer.

We might think that being transgender is “new” and just “a Western thing,” but Punchard has reason to disagree: history is dotted with men passing as women, and women living as men. As Christine Burns says in the foreword, “Trans people are not a new thing.”

Some seemed to do it as a means to an end: Ellen and William Craft wore clothing of the opposite sex in order to escape slavery in 1848. Betty Cooper may have worn men’s clothing for the same reason in 1771. Neither case, says Punchard, indicates “classical” trans behavior, but we’ll never know for sure.

Biawacheeitchish, who grew up to be powerful, wealthy, with four wives, was kidnapped as a young girl and was encouraged by their Native American adoptive father to engage in male activities, perhaps because he’d lost two sons; in another time and place, Biawacheeitchish would’ve been called a “female husband.” Dora Richter, the first woman to receive vaginoplasty, was killed by “a Nazi mob.” Dr. James Barry, a highly renowned surgeon, used “built-up shoes and… padding to appear more masculine…” James Allen and Billy Tipton were both married to women before death revealed that they were female. And Mary Read was a girl, until their mother lost her only son.

In her foreword, Burns says that there are “two awkward challenges” when we talk about trans people in history: were they intersex, rather than trans; and were they people – mostly women – who presented as the opposite gender to gain the benefits of the opposite gender? The questions demand more study and “Gender Pioneers” offers a launching point.

Open this book anywhere and you’ll see that the theme here is serious, but author Philippa Punchard also lends a bit of breeze. There’s no certain order to what you’ll read, and while the entries reach back to ancient times, they focus more on the past 300 years or so; each of the articles is short and to-the-point, and the soft illustrations invite browsing. For readers who want a quick read, this works.

Be sure to keep going through both appendices of this book, where you’ll find a wealth of further information and dates to remember. Historians and readers of trans history will find “Gender Pioneers” just right.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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