Anthony Veasna So on the Alienation and Comfort of Doughnut Shops

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Photograph by Chris Sackes

As its title suggests, your story “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts” is set in a doughnut shop and is about a mother, Sothy, and her two daughters, Tevy and Kayley. Did one of those elements—the family of women or the doughnut shop—come first or were the two entwined from the outset?

I had been trying, and failing, to write a story about a Cambodian-owned 24/7 doughnut shop for three years, before I finally conceived the characters of Sothy, Tevy, and Kayley. Back when I was doing my undergrad at Stanford, my boyfriend and I regularly frequented a doughnut shop, which was, in fact, called Chuck’s Donuts, always between 1 and 3 A.M., always inebriated or stoned. Entirely in my own head, I had developed an intimate connection with the owner, who I was convinced was Cambodian (though he always refused small talk), owing to the Cambodian posters on the wall, and owing to the fact that tons of doughnut shops are owned and operated by Cambodians-Americans, including my uncle. (Also, around eighty per cent of doughnut shops in L.A. are owned by Cambodians, many of these shops by an infamous figure dubbed the Doughnut King.) I was an art-practice major studying drawing, photography, and printmaking, and this Chuck’s Donuts reminded me of an Edward Hopper painting, how the harsh artificial lighting fused with the natural hues of night, that vacant mysterious quality that evoked both alienation and comfort. It felt sublime to me, almost otherworldly, and I was obsessed with claiming this image as part of a Cambodian-American visual language. It felt like this urgent site of meaning that was distinctly Cambodian.

When I started writing fiction seriously, I tested different fictional characters and narratives that would fit within the tone of this image I had of Chuck’s Donuts. The name Chuck’s Donuts stuck with me, so I couldn’t imagine writing a story with any other name; everything else I wanted to be fiction. I always knew the story would have a sort of Cambodian Bartleby figure—I imagine all of Hopper’s figures to be Bartlebys—but I didn’t know much beyond that at first. The original draft featured a thinly veiled fictional version of me having terrible solipsistic ruminations about my dad’s obsession with James Bond. The second draft was straight-up campy, slapstick—it had a lot of screaming dialogue, too much banter. I was going for Pedro Almodóvar’s “Volver,” but it ended up like a bad indie film that premières to lukewarm reviews at Sundance and is released straight to V.O.D. Then in grad school I read Helen Dewitt’s “The Last Samurai,” and felt like throwing out half my books because why would I ever need to read anything other than “The Last Samurai” over and over again, and for whatever reason, this led directly to me capturing the right voice, characters, and story.

Sothy, who has recently divorced, is running Chuck’s Donuts by herself, and her daughters are helping out over the summer vacation, spending every night at the store. Tevy and Kayley are clearly close, but they bicker all the time, too. Was it hard to capture that kind of relationship or was it easy to fall into the rhythm of their squabbles?

I have a pretty big family, with lots of cousins whom I grew up very close to, and we would always fight while still being, like, Yes, of course we will do every possible thing together, even absurd things, like watch our two-tape VHS copy of “Titanic” every day for a month one summer. So capturing the ebbs and flows of Tevy and Kayley’s conversations came naturally. However, it was difficult to write their bickering to escalate with every scene so as to create narrative momentum. That required a lot of contemplation and texting my friends and boyfriend, “What if this happens?”

The sisters notice a repeat visitor, a man, who always orders an apple fritter he never eats. They believe he’s Cambodian, as they are, and spend much of their time speculating about him. Do you think they’d be so interested in him if their parents’ marriage hadn’t ended?

Tevy and Kaley, in my mind, are naturally curious and would find the man strange regardless, but the demise of their parents’ marriage does catalyze them toward taking action and interviewing him. I do think that there are moments in your life, especially transitory periods, that require a massive restructuring of your relationships to people and places (e.g., the girls are figuring out how to think about their father), in which you are particularly vulnerable and open (maybe even dangerously so) to the world, when you are more susceptible to observation and action, versus inward critical thinking, as a means of philosophical rumination—you’re almost hungry for it. I like writing characters who are in these transitory periods, when they are actively creating meaning and interpreting their surroundings and contexts, like the man’s presence in Chuck’s Donuts.

Sothy fears the man may be a gangster, sent by her ex-husband’s politically connected uncle in Cambodia. He’d lent Sothy and her then husband money to start the business, and her husband failed to repay the debt. You mention a real murder in passing here—the death of the Cambodian actor Haing S. Ngor, who was killed in Los Angeles, in 1996. Obviously, you’re bringing this up in a fictional context, but why did you want to invoke the case of Haing Ngor?

Part of my reasoning was that, in the context of Cambodian communities, it totally makes sense that Sothy would think that a politically connected supposed Khmer Rouge sympathizer had something to do with Haing S. Ngor’s death. It looms over our collective psyche. I remember watching “The Killings Fields,” in which Ngor plays Dith Pran, the real-life Cambodian journalist who is sent to a labor concentration camp during the Khmer Rouge regime. Afterward, my dad excitedly gave me every detail of Ngor’s death—how the police determined that three reputed members of the Oriental Lazy Boyz gang were the culprits, but how this didn’t make sense given that twenty-nine hundred dollars were left in his wallet. Then, in 2009, a former Khmer Rouge officer claimed that Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal regime, had ordered Ngor’s death. A genocide survivor himself, Ngor had used his Oscar-winning success as a platform to advocate for human rights in Cambodia, and Cambodian-Americans naturally thought that this placed a target on his back. I wanted “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts,” a sort of mystery story itself, to be placed in a lineage of distinctly Cambodian-American conspiracies. I very much feel that I come from a Cambodian-American world, not really an American one (my home town, Stockton, California, has the third-biggest Cambodian-American population in the U.S.), so I find it important for my work to reflect that—for characters like Sothy to be drawing references and making connections through a Cambodian-American historical and cultural lens.

But other than my insistence that Sothy would think of Ngor, I am generally fascinated by Ngor’s role in Cambodian-American history. If you read Ngor’s memoir, “A Cambodian Odyssey,” he dedicates several chapters to articulating the uncanny experience of reënacting his own trauma while filming “The Killing Fields.” He writes that “It didn’t take much to set off my nightmares—the sound of water dripping from the faucet was enough. It put me back in prison, looking up at water dripping from a hole in a bucket.” And he explains that in order to get rid of his nightmares and officially “start over,” he decided to return to the refugee camps as an actor and confront his past. By referencing Ngor, I wanted this model of reënactment as a way of grappling with trauma to exist in “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts.” Of course, I also wanted to reënvision the idea of reënactment so that it wasn’t limited to acting in a literal Hollywood movie about the genocide! The man’s presence in Chuck’s Donuts forces Sothy, and, to a lesser extent, Tevy and Kayley, to confront and reënact their pasts, in ways that allow them to move forward.

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