Fantasy, Folklore, and the Contemporary Vietnamese Experience

The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith (Spiegel & Grau)

The Fangipani Hotel is an interesting creature—an atmospheric collection of ghost/supernatural stories that are contemporary in their setting, but grounded in centuries-old Vietnamese folklore. I’m not usually a reader of supernatural fiction, but having read a fair bit of non-fiction about the war in Vietnam, I was curious to see what the author would do in creating post-war narratives that drew on both recent and more distant history. The war itself was certainly more horrific than any Stephen King novel—and “our” war was only the latest in a long history of struggles for Vietnamese independence.

These aren’t really stories that will surprise. The tropes of this sort of literature are familiar enough, even to people like me who read very little of it. But these are definitely stories that will unsettle—and in more ways than one. First, they offer that seductive pull of a situation that begins just a little bit off, then takes the reader further and further from reality as she knows it. I found that the added glimpses of contemporary Vietnamese culture and experience (both in Vietnam and the United States) turned the collection into a sort of other-worldly diversity training: this combination of supernatural “real” and “real” real made for an interesting read.

This is Violet Kupersmith’s first book, and it feels like a first book. Some moments are exquisitely presented; others seem a bit flat-footed, as though the writer couldn’t quite move beyond her initial idea to a fuller embodiment of that idea. In some of its best moments, the collection has a thread of humor running through it that illuminates many of the cultural contrasts underlying the stories. In “Guests,” set in Vietnam’s community of European and American ex-patriots we are told about one character, an American teaching at an Australian international university, that “If he ever worried about color it was over whether or not he should spell it with a u.” In the same story, the characters spend endless evenings in bars and clubs that embody the cultural hybridization they experience, including one bar in which “the back wall was taken up by a lovingly rendered mural of Marx, Lenin, and Ho Chi Minh frolicking together in a swimming-pool-sized bowl of pho. Marx was wearing water wings and a snorkel.”

Another story, “Turning Back,” features a Vietnamese-American narrator who works night shifts at a local convenience store while her brother engages in low-level gang activity. This piece is related in first person and opens with the wry observation that “Though one fortunate consequence of my father’s disappearance was that we became estranged from his family and whatever nuptials they might incur, given the size of Momma’s side there are still at least four weddings to attend each year. Weddings of cousins, weddings of second cousins, weddings of people who are most likely cousins because their last name is Nguyen and they live within a sixty-mile radius.”

My hope is that Kupersmith will continue to write—and continue to be published. I expect the imagination she brings to her work will continue to yield interesting narratives and that her prose will become increasingly rich and complex.