5 Minutes with Violet Kupersmith

A young author channels the voices in cemeteries for successful storytelling

Violet Kupersmith is a young Vietnamese-American author who has gained much of her inspiration from Vietnamese folk tales she heard from her grandmother. Born in central Pennsylvania in 1989, Kupersmith later moved with her family to Philadelphia’s suburbs. Her father is American and her mother is from Đà Nẵng, Vietnam. Her mother’s family fled the country by boat following the fall of Saigon in 1975, and were resettled in Port Arthur, Texas. After graduating from Mount Holyoke College in 2011, she spent a year teaching English on a Fulbright fellowship in Trà Vinh, Vietnam, and then lived in Đà Lạt and Saigon where she wrote and researched her books. From 2015-2016, she was the David T.K. Wong Fellow at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. When she is not writing, she is probably cooking, or eating, or trying to find a river where she can swim.

How did you get started as an author?

I spent most of my childhood hiding somewhere – in a corner, up in a tree, under a table – and reading. Books were my best friends. I didn’t really begin writing seriously until college, and I never imagined that I would actually be able to make a living from it. The pieces that I wrote as an undergrad, which eventually became the bones of my first collection, The Frangipani Hotel, were able to find a publishing home through some very good fortune and the guidance of my writing mentor and thesis advisor, the great Valerie Martin.

What has it been like to be an author?

It’s a fairly lonely career – even when you’re part of an academic institution or a self-formed community of writers, at the end of the day it’s just you, alone, wrestling with your page. I am madly in love with this work and have been from the very beginning, but it’s taken me longer to learn to love the solitude of it, and how to balance this within my life. 

What are the most difficult and important factors you face when writing?

Letting my own feelings of inadequacy get in the way of the story I’m trying to tell.

How does your family support you?

I’ve been very fortunate in that both my family and my bigger, unconventional “family” are very supportive of my career choice. They are always my first readers and my loudest cheerleaders, even if they sometimes don’t fully understand what I write, or why it is so strange.

Let talk about your new book, Build Your House Around My Body. Where did you get your inspiration?

I set out wanting to write something set in contemporary Vietnam that showed a side of the country beyond the war with America, a side that hasn’t really been seen before in Western literature. I also wanted the book to grapple with being mixed race, and themes of belonging and unbelonging. I drew from my own experiences as a half-Vietnamese American living abroad, and I think what inspired me most were the cities in which I was writing – dreamy, misty, haunted Đà Lạt, where it feels as if past and present exist simultaneously, and electric, chaotic Saigon, whose sprawl I tried to mimic with the novel’s structure.I think that the land itself is very much alive in Build Your House and is one of the book’s most important characters.

How does Vietnamese culture impact your literary musings?

Much of my writing concerns ghosts and the supernatural, drawing from Vietnamese folklore and from stories I heard from my maternal grandmother. I think ghosts are a very powerful metaphor for war and memory and loss and, hopefully, a fresh way to write about these familiar subjects in diasporic Vietnamese literature. It feels like a vein of tradition running through all of my work, connecting me to something deeper in our shared heritage.

What makes you choose to write about ghosts, identity, immigration, womanhood and trauma? 

The act of writing has always been a kind a compulsion for me, like picking at scabs, and the areas of myself I feel most compelled to pick at are my experiences as a mixed-race woman, and my relationships with Vietnam, with America, and with the space in between them that my immigrant family exists in. I was drawn to using ghosts in my fiction initially because my grandmother is a great believer in the supernatural. Writing about literal haunting seemed to be a perfect way to translate the metaphorical haunting of the wars she lived through. After all, what is memory but a kind of ghost?

Have you ever thought you would write something different?

I’ll always be drawn to dark, muddy, liminal spaces in my fiction, but I think that the trajectory of my writing is heading in a slightly new direction. Build Your House was already a departure from the more traditional narratives that made up The Frangipani Hotel, both in structure and in content, and I hope that my third book will do something even more unexpected. 

As a Vietnamese American, what do you think about Vietnamese culture?

I recently read an article about the French-Moroccan novelist Leïla Slimani where she described her relationship with Morocco as sort of like being in love with a man who doesn’t love you back. And I think my own complex relationship with Vietnam is very similar. At the centre of the Vietnamese American experience is displacement and longing. Ours is an unrequited love story for a place that cannot love us in return because it only exists in memory.

Can you share your experience when you worked in Vietnam?

Like the main character in my novel, Winnie, I also moved to Vietnam when I was 22 to teach English, but unlike her, I lived in a tiny, remote town in the Mekong Delta, and so my experience was different in crucial ways. Winnie gets swallowed up by the big city, moving through it unseen, feeling lost and friendless. But Trà Vinh was too small to disappear in, everybody knew everybody, everyone knew everyone else’s business, and I was one of only a few foreigners, so I very much stood out. This was both the greatest challenge of living there and the most wonderful thing about it. The people I was privileged to befriend, to work with, and to teach were the warmest, most curious, and most welcoming I’ve ever known. 

What is your next plan?

Another book! And hopefully many more after that.

Would you like to share something with our young readers?

I wrote Build Your House for anyone who has ever wished to disappear, or who doesn’t feel at home in their own body, and in particular for the children of Vietnamese immigrants who grew up feeling that they weren’t Asian enough or Western enough for either world. You are enough, you deserve to be seen, and all of these worlds are yours. Violet Kupersmith has published two books: The Frangipani Hotel, and Build Your House Around My Body. The Frangipani Hotel is a collection of short stories based on traditional Vietnamese tales that blend the old world and the new with fantastical, chilling, and original explorations of the ghosts that continue to haunt readers – those of the Vietnam War. Build Your House Around My Body is structured around the disappearance of a 22-year-old Vietnamese-American girl who arrives in Saigon to teach English and ostensibly reconnects with her heritage. Both of the books can be found on Amazon.

This post is also available in: Tiếng Việt

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