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Revenge, Red Smoke And Rubber Trees: A Vietnam Ghost Story

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

"Build Your House Around My Body" is a ghost story, a sprawling novel that spans generations. It has some set pieces familiar from Hollywood horror movies and Brothers Grimm fairy tales, like an exorcism and a haunted forest, but because this book is set in Vietnam, the forest is an overgrown rubber tree plantation. The exorcism doesn't have crucifixes or holy water. The story begins with the disappearance of a young woman named Winnie, and then it works its way backwards through time. Winnie has a lot in common with the author, Violet Kupersmith. They're both Vietnamese American women of mixed racial background who moved to Vietnam in their early 20s.

VIOLET KUPERSMITH: I really didn't intend to have a character so close to me play the biggest role in the book. Winnie's part was originally supposed to be much smaller, but she kept growing, I think, to anchor the story as the story itself kept getting more and more complex.

SHAPIRO: This is your first novel. And before this, you wrote a collection of short stories that was also populated by ghosts, as this book is. As a writer, what appeals to you about the supernatural?

KUPERSMITH: Well, when I wrote "The Frangipani Hotel," the short story collection, I was very interested in the metaphor of the ghost as sort of a stand-in for the immigrant. Because I thought, oh, it's such a perfect figure, the ghost who's sort of trapped between worlds and doesn't really belong anywhere. But with the novel, I was more attracted to the ghost as a way of getting revenge...

SHAPIRO: Huh.

KUPERSMITH: ...And as a figure who has this agency that was denied to them in life.

SHAPIRO: There's a piece that you wrote for the Huffington Post way back in 2014 called "The (ph) Beginner's Guide to Vietnamese Ghosts." And you began it by writing, Vietnamese ghosts aren't that scary as long as you know what it is that they want. If it isn't staying dead, then there's probably a reason, and all you have to do is give the ghost the thing that it is seeking - revenge, redemption, a resolution - which sounds like such a pragmatic approach to something so, (laughter) like, spooky and, you know, impossible to fully understand.

KUPERSMITH: Yeah. Well, when I was living in Vietnam, ghosts were just a kind of everyday thing. Everyone just had their own ghost stories, and they were kind of blase about it. And I witnessed an exorcism in the Central Highlands. And I...

SHAPIRO: Which is where part of this book takes place.

KUPERSMITH: Yes.

SHAPIRO: And there is also an exorcism scene.

KUPERSMITH: (Laughter) This was - that - I did draw on this experience, by the writing of that chapter. But in real life, it was much less intense. And the ghost, it turned out, was, like, a vegetarian. And so it was upset at the offerings of chicken that was - that were being left for it.

SHAPIRO: Oh.

KUPERSMITH: And so that's why it was causing problems.

SHAPIRO: You know, you're sitting in suburban Philadelphia, and I'm in Washington, D.C. And you're saying the ghost was a vegetarian and upset at the offerings of chicken, which seems easy to laugh at, but I imagine that in the moment, it felt very real. Maybe it still feels very real. How do you kind of bridge that?

KUPERSMITH: Oh, it always feels real to me. And ghosts and ghost stories were something that I just - I grew up with. And I do believe in ghosts. And I don't think I would write about them as much if I didn't.

SHAPIRO: So much fiction about Vietnam is about wars or colonialism. And that certainly factors into this book, but it is not the focus. It's sort of the context lurking in the background. Why did you want to approach this from that perspective?

KUPERSMITH: Because I did want to subvert expectations. Because I think originally, fiction about Vietnam, Americans expected, like, GI stories...

SHAPIRO: Right.

KUPERSMITH: ...War trauma. And then, it evolved to expecting, like, a tender portrait of an immigrant family in America. And I wanted a story about Vietnam that was more than the war and something they wouldn't come into expecting. I like to think of, like, the book itself as a kind of house...

SHAPIRO: Huh.

KUPERSMITH: ...Like a haunted house. And the war with America is a ghost, but it's kind of trapped in the basement.

SHAPIRO: There is a scene in a graveyard near the very beginning of this book. And one character says, unfinished business always leaves dangerous openings. And in my experience, it will always come back to haunt you. But as you say, while it might be the ghost locked in the basement, colonialism is also part of the unfinished business. The Vietnam War is part of the unfinished business. Like, these things are not exactly resolved either.

KUPERSMITH: No, it's - well, there's the haunted forest in the book. It gets burned down, but then it has new growth that's always coming back. And it has these old scars on their trunks. And I thought that was just a perfect visual way to explore trauma.

SHAPIRO: And some of the rubber trees are still weeping, some are still bleeding.

KUPERSMITH: Mmm hmm because it doesn't go away. The scars from the history, they don't go away.

SHAPIRO: I'm just thinking back to you saying that ghosts in Vietnam are an everyday fact of life and nobody questions them. And the same would not be said for the United States, generally speaking. And I wonder why you think that is?

KUPERSMITH: I don't know 'cause it's not as if America doesn't have its own share of traumatic history. It's just much closer to the surface in Vietnam, how I experienced it. I think in some ways, that's healthier.

SHAPIRO: You mean to actually process it rather than pretend you're not being haunted?

KUPERSMITH: Yeah, I guess processing it as a ghost, whether you believe in them or not.

SHAPIRO: Being haunted can have many different meanings. What does it mean to you?

KUPERSMITH: I wanted to explore the haunting of being hurt in any way and how it occupies a little corner of you. It's your own personal little ghost in the haunted house of your mind. And for me, what I was - I did. I felt haunted when I came back to America after living in Vietnam for about three years and - mostly by the violence that I saw against women being perpetrated against my friends, against me - just the everyday misogyny that drains you. And it felt like a spirit inside you, of something that possesses you. And so the book was kind of my own way of performing an exorcism on myself.

SHAPIRO: I wonder if having a ghost almost makes it easier. Because misogyny and violence and trauma are so amorphous, it's hard to perform an exorcism on them. But you can perform an exorcism on a ghost.

KUPERSMITH: Yes. So I don't know if it worked. I feel like the ghost is never really going to go away. And for the characters in the story who are trying to process their own traumas, by the end, either they've - they think that they have escaped it or they've come to the realization that they never will.

SHAPIRO: Violet Kupersmith's debut novel is "Build Your House Around My Body."

Thank you for talking with us about it.

KUPERSMITH: Oh, thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.