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Literature: Native Sons

by Paul Wilner

Anthony Veasna So, Jaime Cortez and Keenan Norris offer needed perspectives on a society gone wrong.

Three new books by Bay Area–based writers from historically underserved backgrounds overdeliver, with unforgettable impact. Afterparties, a debut short story collection from the late Cambodian American writer Anthony Veasna So, comes in the wake of his death in San Francisco last December at the age of 28 from an accidental drug overdose. Another debut collection, Gordo, by Jaime Cortez, is a series of linked stories about his experiences growing up in the migrant-worker communities of Watsonville and the Central Coast. And Keenan Norris’ novel, The Confession of Copeland Cane, paints a dystopian picture of the effects of gentrification on the Black community in East Oakland. Taken together, the trio stakes out new ground, with voices that demand — and deserve — to be heard.

Gordo (Grove/Atlantic, Inc.) Set in the 1970s, Cortez’s stories grapple with realities very much alive today.

One story in So’s collection describes two drunken brothers at a wedding afterparty — hence the title — as they try to expose a wealthy uncle for not contributing his promised share of the dowry. Another describes an affair between Anthony, the eponymous narrator, a tech bro trying to launch a “safe space’’ app, and the casual sex he enjoys with a guy he meets at a gay softball event at Dolores Park after previously blocking him on Grindr. The tensions of modern life — race, sex and class — are on display here in full force. One only wishes that the extravagantly talented author, whose second posthumously published book of combined stories and nonfiction (tentatively titled Songs on Endless Repeat) will be released in 2023, was still with us.

The Lit Hub website hailed Jaime Cortez’s debut as “the Winesburg, Ohio of the 21st century,” adding that “instead of revealing America of the 1910s, Cortez plumbs the lives of those living in a California labor camp in the 1970s through the eyes of Gordo,” the title character, whom the narrator describes as a “fat, precocious nine-year-old sissy boy.”

Afterparties (HarperCollins Publishers) While So left us much too soon, his prose will shine on.

The richness of the immigrant experience is detailed in celebrations of Lucha Libre masked wrestling, drunken revels around a campfire, pubescent arguments about who has possession of pornographic “nasty books,” and the societal pressures brought to bear on Raymundo, the gay outlier who fights off bullying to find a niche as the town hairdresser. But while Cortez, also a noted Chicano graphic and visual artist and LGBTQ and anti-AIDS advocate, deftly portrays the human comedy of a latter-day Saroyan, Steinbeck’s social concerns also come to mind as Cortez describes an INS raid on the garlic fields. “They braked hard, kicking up fields of dust,” he writes. “It scared me when several young workers bolted. They seemed to me so adult mere moments before, so full of the bravado and that physical competence of young men, hefting bushel baskets of garlic onto their shoulders with thoughtless ease. In a moment, they had been stripped of that and had been made into prey, fleeing to hide beneath cars or behind the stacked crates of garlic.”

The Confession of Copeland Cane (Unnamed Press) In Norris’ novel, Oakland is a vibrant character from a vital voice.

While Afterparties and Gordo are written within the realistic tradition, updated to incorporate modern themes and subjects, The Confession of Copeland Cane is more a Kerouacian stream of consciousness. The title nods to William Styron’s controversial fictional slave narrative, The Confessions of Nat Turner, but Norris makes it clear from the outset that he’s had it with white appropriation of Black and brown stories, let alone gentrified greed that pushes families out of their homes, race-based environmental toxicity and the advent of an Orwellian police state in league with Soclear Broadcasting, a right-wing media conglomerate (Fox News, anyone?), to surveil teenager Copeland Cane’s neighborhood. Big Brother lives. Cane’s story is told in flashback form by one of his friends — he’s on the run for a crime he didn’t commit, but that he refuses to stand trial and face a rigged jury for. It’s an American tale, as old as Huckleberry Finn (or Holden Caulfield) but one that’s given new life here. Norris’ exuberant prose recalls that of his East Bay predecessor Ishmael Reed when a protest rally decrying an Oakland police officer’s shooting of someone for the crime of riding BART while Black — and the revenge shooting of a cop — takes on Bonfire of the Vanities dimensions.

He paints a broad canvas of a society in crisis. In their own ways, so do So and Cortez.

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