THE FRANGIPANI HOTEL’s haunting tales of Vietnam announce the arrival of a remarkable young writer

This is a re-post of a review from February 17, 2015, the publication date of the softcover edition.

Frangipani Hotel  Violet Kupersmith

The Frangipani Hotel

By Violet Kupersmith

Spiegel & Grau (paperback): Feb. 17, 2015

$15.00, 240 pages

Vietnam. Most Americans of a certain age are still haunted by the Vietnam War all these years after the war that nearly split the country in two. The Vietnamese are undoubtedly confronted with the ghosts of the Vietnam War as well, 40 years after the U.S. military left Saigon. A third group is also dealing with that conflict, even though they were not even alive at the time: the children of the Vietnamese refugees who emigrated to the U.S. after the war.

Violet Kupersmith is the daughter of a boat refugee from Da Nang and an American father, who met in Houston, where many Vietnamese were resettled in the 1970s. Her bicultural upbringing eventually led Kupersmith, while a student at Mount Holyoke College, to begin writing stories about the experiences of her mother and grandmother, and the folk tales the latter told her.

The premise of Kupersmith’s debut story collection is that a Vietnamese-American high school student has asked her grandmother from the Old Country to help her with a class project by telling her about her experiences as one of the “boat people.” The grandmother is at first reluctant to revisit this physical and emotional territory, but when she is eventually persuaded to share her stories, she tells a series of what can best be described as Vietnamese ghost stories.

In The Frangipani Hotel, Kupersmith has managed the impressive feat of seamlessly blending these timeless Vietnamese folk tales with a contemporary approach to storytelling. The result is eight stories that seem both ancient and modern simultaneously.

Although the stories are always intriguing, the collection’s strengths are its mood and voice. Kupersmith manages to maintain a sense of mystery and foreboding throughout the book’s 240 pages, holding the reader’s interest with stories that explore the parallel worlds of the real and the supernatural, and the frequent occasions on which they intersect. Whether set in the streets of Saigon and Hanoi — crowded with a cacophony of people, scents, and sounds — or the fecund Vietnamese countryside, these stories are sticky with the oppressive heat and humidity of Southeast Asia. But Kupersmith’s greatest gift is her facility with the voices of all these characters, young and old, Vietnamese and American, as they tell their stories within her stories.

The opening title story is set in a faded early 20th century hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. It is narrated by the young front desk clerk, Phi, whose Uncle Hung owns the hotel (and has recently taken to calling himself “Mr. Henry”).

“The Frangi itself is a seven-story deathtrap, with four-footed things scurrying around inside the walls and tap water that runs brownish. If you slammed a door too hard the entire thing would collapse.”

A blustery American businessman intent on seeing the real Hanoi checks in and slowly befriends Phi, who speaks enough English to serve as his interpreter. Phi then encounters a beautiful and mysterious woman staying in one of the rooms, although she cannot be found on the guest register and no one else seems to know she is there. When the American and the apparitional woman meet, the American’s desire to know Vietnam takes an unexpected — and yet somehow fateful — turn as the past claims its hold on the present.

“Skin and Bones” tells of two adolescent sisters in Houston who are sent by their frustrated mother to spend part of the summer with their grandmother in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Thuy has become one of those all-too-common overweight American girls, and her older sister, Kieu, is sent along to keep an eye on her. When Grandma Tran fails to show up at the airport to pick them up, they’re not overly concerned, and they find their way to her house. Grandma is unusually distant and quiet, so the girls, resolutely American and utterly bored, find ways to entertain themselves.

Thuy sets off to explore the neighborhood and finds herself drawn by an irresistible scent of cooking food. The source is a run-down stall on wheels selling Banh mi, “the Vietnamese sandwich [that] was one of the more positive souvenirs of the French colonial era.” The proprietress is an old woman whose face is hidden beneath a large conical straw hat and who speaks softly accented English.

Over the next few days they develop a friendship of sorts, although the woman’s side of their conversations is often cryptic. She is particularly interested in Thuy and her mother and whether they identify as Vietnamese or American, at one point saying, “She is far away, isn’t she? In another world, you could say. And there are many, many worlds within this one. Worlds alongside each other, worlds that overlap each other; you might not even know if you wandered into one that wasn’t your own.” You should be hearing the theme to The Twilight Zone about now.

In “Little Brother” a loquacious long-haul truck driver tells the riveting story of the strangest trip he ever made. While making a delivery at a hospital in Saigon, he is persuaded by an alluring nurse to take a dying patient, Minh, with him on his return trip south so the man can die back home in his village. He is advised that it would be best if he didn’t speak to Minh on the long drive. Needless to say, the irrepressible driver is unable to bear the quiet – or his nearly catatonic passenger — for long. When he asks what the hospital was like, Minh lifts his head and replies, “Filthy. Vile. Foul. There were no healthy people to talk to and I was always hungry.”

Minh then persuades the driver to share his life story, since he has undoubtedly seen so much in his twenty years on the road. As darkness descends and they drive through a seemingly endless stretch of desolate countryside, one of Vietnam’s “many worlds” makes its presence known, just as the elderly vendor in “Skin and Bones” explained to young Thuy. There are ghosts of all kinds in Vietnam, from ancient times, the French colonial era, and the war, and all seem restless.

“Guests” concerns twenty-something Americans working in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), in a reversal of the “land of opportunity” theme. Mia works in the immigrations department of the U.S. Consulate and dislikes Vietnam, to which she has been able to adapt. Her boyfriend, Charlie, teaches English at the Australian International University and has adapted exceptionally well; he had a Vietnamese girlfriend prior to meeting Mia. While Charlie and many Americans like him explore the many sides of Vietnam and take advantage of the uninhibited and inexpensive night life, Mia becomes increasingly preoccupied, both with a feral cat that keeps climbing up to her apartment window, crying and scratching the window frame, and a young Vietnamese man named Tuan, who is enamored with her. Their attitudes and actions take them in opposite directions, with Mia finding that part of Vietnam will always be with her, for one cannot leave even the new Vietnam without being deeply affected.

In “Turning Back,” a young Vietnamese-American woman from Houston who works the night shift in a small Asian market meets a very strange old man with a story that will take her places she never imagined existed. And once again, the spirit of Vietnam is shown to be a shape-shifter with seemingly unlimited powers.

The closing story, “Descending Dragon,” is a short but pithy observation on the power of immigrant grandmothers to maintain and wield their power to great effect even when it appears to others to be long gone.

2014 was a banner year for short story collections, including debuts. Of particular note were Phil Klay’s Redeployment, which won the National Book Award, and Molly Antopol’s The UnAmericans, which was nominated for an NBA. Violet Kupersmith’sThe Frangipani Hotel is a powerful and persuasive opening statement from a young writer we are certain to hear much more from; the only question is whether she will be able to move beyond her personal connection to Vietnam and the Vietnamese-American immigrant culture to wider concerns. I’m willing to bet she will manage that transition.

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THE FRANGIPANI HOTEL’s haunting tales of Vietnam announce the arrival of a gifted young writer

Frangipani Hotel  Violet Kupersmith

The Frangipani Hotel

By Violet Kupersmith

Spiegel & Grau (paperback): Feb. 17, 2015

$15.00, 240 pages

Vietnam. Most Americans of a certain age are still haunted by the Vietnam War all these years after the war that nearly split the country in two. The Vietnamese are undoubtedly confronted with the ghosts of the Vietnam War as well, 40 years after the U.S. military left Saigon. A third group is also dealing with that conflict, even though they were not even alive at the time: the children of the Vietnamese refugees who emigrated to the U.S. after the war.

Violet Kupersmith is the daughter of a boat refugee from Da Nang and an American father, who met in Houston, where many Vietnamese were resettled in the 1970s. Her bicultural upbringing eventually led Kupersmith, while a student at Mount Holyoke College, to begin writing stories about the experiences of her mother and grandmother, and the folk tales the latter told her.

The premise of Kupersmith’s debut story collection is that a Vietnamese-American high school student has asked her grandmother from the Old Country to help her with a class project by telling her about her experiences as one of the “boat people.” The grandmother is at first reluctant to revisit this physical and emotional territory, but when she is eventually persuaded to share her stories, she tells a series of what can best be described as Vietnamese ghost stories.

In The Frangipani Hotel, Kupersmith has managed the impressive feat of seamlessly blending these timeless Vietnamese folk tales with a contemporary approach to storytelling. The result is eight stories that seem both ancient and modern simultaneously.

Although the stories are always intriguing, the collection’s strengths are its mood and voice. Kupersmith manages to maintain a sense of mystery and foreboding throughout the book’s 240 pages, holding the reader’s interest with stories that explore the parallel worlds of the real and the supernatural, and the frequent occasions on which they intersect. Whether set in the streets of Saigon and Hanoi — crowded with a cacophony of people, scents, and sounds — or the fecund Vietnamese countryside, these stories are sticky with the oppressive heat and humidity of Southeast Asia. But Kupersmith’s greatest gift is her facility with the voices of all these characters, young and old, Vietnamese and American, as they tell their stories within her stories.

The opening title story is set in a faded early 20th century hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. It is narrated by the young front desk clerk, Phi, whose Uncle Hung owns the hotel (and has recently taken to calling himself “Mr. Henry”).

“The Frangi itself is a seven-story deathtrap, with four-footed things scurrying around inside the walls and tap water that runs brownish. If you slammed a door too hard the entire thing would collapse.”

A blustery American businessman intent on seeing the real Hanoi checks in and slowly befriends Phi, who speaks enough English to serve as his interpreter. Phi then encounters a beautiful and mysterious woman staying in one of the rooms, although she cannot be found on the guest register and no one else seems to know she is there. When the American and the apparitional woman meet, the American’s desire to know Vietnam takes an unexpected — and yet somehow fateful — turn as the past claims its hold on the present.

“Skin and Bones” tells of two adolescent sisters in Houston who are sent by their frustrated mother to spend part of the summer with their grandmother in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Thuy has become one of those all-too-common overweight American girls, and her older sister, Kieu, is sent along to keep an eye on her. When Grandma Tran fails to show up at the airport to pick them up, they’re not overly concerned, and they find their way to her house. Grandma is unusually distant and quiet, so the girls, resolutely American and utterly bored, find ways to entertain themselves.

Thuy sets off to explore the neighborhood and finds herself drawn by an irresistible scent of cooking food. The source is a run-down stall on wheels selling Banh mi, “the Vietnamese sandwich [that] was one of the more positive souvenirs of the French colonial era.” The proprietress is an old woman whose face is hidden beneath a large conical straw hat and who speaks softly accented English.

Over the next few days they develop a friendship of sorts, although the woman’s side of their conversations is often cryptic. She is particularly interested in Thuy and her mother and whether they identify as Vietnamese or American, at one point saying, “She is far away, isn’t she? In another world, you could say. And there are many, many worlds within this one. Worlds alongside each other, worlds that overlap each other; you might not even know if you wandered into one that wasn’t your own.” You should be hearing the theme to The Twilight Zone about now.

In “Little Brother” a loquacious long-haul truck driver tells the riveting story of the strangest trip he ever made. While making a delivery at a hospital in Saigon, he is persuaded by an alluring nurse to take a dying patient, Minh, with him on his return trip south so the man can die back home in his village. He is advised that it would be best if he didn’t speak to Minh on the long drive. Needless to say, the irrepressible driver is unable to bear the quiet – or his nearly catatonic passenger — for long. When he asks what the hospital was like, Minh lifts his head and replies, “Filthy. Vile. Foul. There were no healthy people to talk to and I was always hungry.”

Minh then persuades the driver to share his life story, since he has undoubtedly seen so much in his twenty years on the road. As darkness descends and they drive through a seemingly endless stretch of desolate countryside, one of Vietnam’s “many worlds” makes its presence known, just as the elderly vendor in “Skin and Bones” explained to young Thuy. There are ghosts of all kinds in Vietnam, from ancient times, the French colonial era, and the war, and all seem restless.

“Guests” concerns twenty-something Americans working in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), in a reversal of the “land of opportunity” theme. Mia works in the immigrations department of the U.S. Consulate and dislikes Vietnam, to which she has been able to adapt. Her boyfriend, Charlie, teaches English at the Australian International University and has adapted exceptionally well; he had a Vietnamese girlfriend prior to meeting Mia. While Charlie and many Americans like him explore the many sides of Vietnam and take advantage of the uninhibited and inexpensive night life, Mia becomes increasingly preoccupied, both with a feral cat that keeps climbing up to her apartment window, crying and scratching the window frame, and a young Vietnamese man named Tuan, who is enamored with her. Their attitudes and actions take them in opposite directions, with Mia finding that part of Vietnam will always be with her, for one cannot leave even the new Vietnam without being deeply affected.

In “Turning Back,” a young Vietnamese-American woman from Houston who works the night shift in a small Asian market meets a very strange old man with a story that will take her places she never imagined existed. And once again, the spirit of Vietnam is shown to be a shape-shifter with seemingly unlimited powers.

The closing story, “Descending Dragon,” is a short but pithy observation on the power of immigrant grandmothers to maintain and wield their power to great effect even when it appears to others to be long gone.

2014 was a banner year for short story collections, including debuts. Of particular note were Phil Klay’s Deployment, which won the National Book Award, and Molly Antopol’s The UnAmericans, which was nominated for an NBA. Violet Kupersmith’s The Frangipani Hotel is a powerful and persuasive opening statement from a young writer we are certain to hear much more from; the only question is whether she will be able to move beyond her personal connection to Vietnam and the Vietnamese-American immigrant culture to wider concerns. I’m willing to bet she will manage that transition.

Guest blogger Paulette Livers: How Not to Write a Political Novel

Paulette Livers   Cementville

Paulette Livers is the author of Cementville, a 2014 novel about the impact of the Vietnam War on a rural Kentucky community when seven local boys are killed in one battle and a POW returns home to rebuild his life. Her debut novel has received strongly positive reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Elle magazine. Livers is the owner of Mighty Sword, a design and writing studio in Chicago. She blogs at http://paulettelivers.com/journal/.

“Fiction is stone deaf to argument. . . . The bad thing about arguments: they carry the menace of neatness into fiction.”  —Eudora Welty, in her essay “Must the Novelist Crusade?”

The secret about writers that non-writers don’t know is that every time we start a new text, most of us feel as if we’re doing it for the first time. I begin from a place of confusion and move to timid exploration, bushwhacking a new path through the wilderness, certain (hoping!) there’s a glimmer of an idea somewhere in all the undergrowth. The glimmer for my novel Cementville came from events that happened in my hometown a long time ago. I was a child when our country was experiencing the rumblings of major change—the burgeoning Women’s Movement, the Civil Rights Act—changes after which nothing would ever be the same. And we were in the middle of a war from which no one seemed capable of extricating us.

Families in my hometown were dumbfounded when the local unit of the Kentucky National Guard was called to active duty at a distant firebase. Sons of farmers trooped off to defend a nearly defenseless Vietnamese hillside stashed with Howitzers and ammo. On the night of June 19, 1969, a thunderstorm fell hard on Firebase Tomahawk. The racket of that middle-of-the-night storm allowed the North Vietnamese Army to overrun the base. Once the fighting was over, Battery C had also lost nine men. The loss to our tiny town was palpable, as if blunt force trauma had been committed upon the communal body. No one seemed immune to the mourning. My older brother was a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne. He sent photographs: a sky raining young men hanging from their silken parachutes like baby spiders released from their mother’s egg sack; a close-up of his ear, bloodied by the debris of an exploded grenade. Eventually discharged, he wandered for a time on the streets of some Cali­fornia city. I put notes in my father’s letters to him, begging him to come home.

Among 1973’s returning POWs was an officer who came back to his rural community to settle. Having returned to a hero’s welcome, he purchased acreage from my aunt and uncle in the bucolic bottomlands and knobs of central Kentucky. He won the hearts of neighbors along Wilson Creek, digging them out of winter storms, pulling out stumps and clearing the land of old trash. Our own hometown hero. He was a godsend, my aunt and uncle said. It was a story that seemed almost too good to be true.

Four years after he came home, our decorated hero shot and killed his neighbor in an argument over tractor parts. The young man who died, a father of four small children, was a factory worker who repaired farm equipment and cars for extra money. I listened to my aunt and uncle talk about this heartbreaking experience, their anguish tangible and ripping. I tried to wrap my head around what had happened, to reach inside the heart of someone who was little more than a flat hero character in my aunt’s kitchen stories until the day he murdered a young man who had become his friend. Even at 18, I knew better than to expect to find meaning in what had happened, something almost never imparted by tragedy. Still the event—which seemed to be the distillation of the wages of war wrought on this tiny community—continued to haunt me.

Years later in a writing group I began working on a series of vignettes. The group suggested the vignettes were part of a bigger canvas; that I might be writing about a community. I might be writing, they said gently, a novel. As the material took shape, multiple voices clamored like a chorus, begging not just for the story of an unhinged war hero or of boys cut down too young, but an elegy for a town gripped in mourning.

In the course of researching and writing Cementville, I discovered my adolescent sense of the magnitude of local suffering had not been an exaggeration. In the 1960s, my community of Nelson County, Kentucky had a population of around 30,000. By war’s end, we had suffered the highest per capita loss of any community in the United States. Was possible to contain such loss and grief in a package as feeble as a bundle of words?

But one thing I did not set out to do was to write a political novel, notwithstanding Toni Morrison’s declaration that all art is at some level transgressive—i.e. political—or better be! Forster’s epigraph for Howard’s End, “Only connect,” best sums up what I was after. I sought connection, entry into the psyches and the adversities of people I was not at all certain I could ever understand. Like the tragically murderous decorated hero. Absent understanding, I hoped at least to approach his struggle with something like empathy. I was trying to illustrate the human spirit in the face of unfathomable grief, and rage.

Novelists are often asked whether a work is autobiographical. With varying degrees of equivocation, we like to respond, No. Eudora Welty, in the essay quoted above, said that novelists take from life “not to report it but to make an object . . . and offer it to the reader. . . . What distinguishes [the novel] from journalism, is that inherent in the novel is the possibility of a shared act of the imagination between its writer and its reader.”

It does seem, though, that we tend to trail after the ghosts that haunt us. We are dogged by the urge to revisit old territory, recheck the status of old wounds. There’s a saying that applies here, one that’s been stated several ways: The past is another country. What I have come to believe is that one gift of the passage of time is the ability to see with the eyes of the traveler visiting a country for the first time. I don’t believe I could have written this book at twenty-five. Even when I was forty, this particular piece of the past would not have been past enough to feel like another country. Distance from that adolescent self steeped in the stew of grief and unable to place anything so large into a manageable framework, allows the writer I have become through years of lived life, to enter her country and see it with the eyes of the traveler.

When I started writing those vignettes of grief-struck families and an unhinged POW I didn’t know I was embarking on the seven-year-long creation of a requiem for a lost time, a lost community, a lost country. As I was arriving at the end of Cementville’s writing and wondering how I would wrap it all up, I thought of something I heard Irish writer Colm Toibin say. He often finds himself stuck in an uneasy helplessness in his work, seeking to rectify the lack of meaning in tragedies. His solution is to find for his stories endings that hover between uncertainty and closure. In the years since adolescence, when I watched the forces of war and social change enact a sort of baptism by fire on my rural community, I have let go any belief I once had that the universe promises us any moral accounting of itself.

Still. We do feel the weight of the cargo of war, and some of us feel the need to bear witness. We look around and say Here we are again. Or Here we are still. Storytelling is my tool for witnessing, a narrow and twisting path toward radical empathy, a bushwhacking exploration into what it is to be human.