The 2021 NPR Books We Love list is here. NPR’s Ari Shapiro shares one of his favorite books from this year, Build your house around my body by Violet Kupersmith.
ARI SHAPIRO, HTE:
Today, NPR unveiled a tool that book fans look forward to every year. We used to call it the Book Concierge. Now it’s Books We Love – hundreds of titles recommended by NPR staff and other reviewers, sortable with tags like The Dark Side or Tales From Around The World.
These two filters describe a book that I have chosen this year. “Build your house around my body” is first-time novelist Violet Kupersmith. She’s already written a short story collection, and the two feature ghosts. So I asked Kupersmith earlier this year why he’s interested in the supernatural.
VIOLET KUPERSMITH: When I wrote “The Frangipani Hotel,” the short story collection, I was very interested in the ghost metaphor as some kind of immigrant surrogate because I thought, oh, that’s a so perfect figure, the ghost, who is sort of trapped between worlds and really doesn’t belong anywhere. But with the novel, I was more drawn to the ghost as a means of revenge and as a figure who has this agency that has been denied to them in life.
SHAPIRO: “Build Your House Around My Body” begins with the disappearance of a young woman named Winnie. Then it goes back in time. Winnie has a lot in common with Kupersmith. They are both Vietnamese American women of mixed racial origin who moved to Vietnam in their early 20s.
KUPERSMITH: I wanted to explore the dread of being hurt in any way and how it occupies a little corner of you. It’s your personal little ghost in the haunted house of your mind. And I felt haunted when I came back to America after living in Vietnam for about three years, mostly by the violence against women that I have seen perpetrated against my friends, against me, the everyday misogyny that wears you out. And it was like a spirit inside of you. And so the book was kind of my own way of doing an exorcism on myself.
SHAPIRO: This is a sprawling novel that spans generations, and it contains settings familiar from Hollywood horror movies and the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, like an exorcism and a haunted forest. But because this book is set in Vietnam, the forest is an overgrown rubber plantation. The exorcism does not have a crucifix or holy water. Kupersmith told me that she actually benefited from the experience of witnessing a Vietnamese exorcism.
KUPERSMITH: But in real life it was a lot less intense. And the ghost, it turned out, was, like, a vegetarian. And so he was bowled over by the chicken offerings that was – that was left to him.
KUPERMITH: And that’s why it was causing problems.
SHAPIRO: You know, you’re sitting in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and I’m in Washington, DC And you say the ghost was vegetarian and upset with the chicken offerings, which sounds easy to chuckle. But I imagine that at the time it seemed very real. Maybe it still feels very real. How do you do this kind of bridge?
KUPERMITH: Oh, that still feels real to me. And ghosts and ghost stories was something that I grew up with. And I believe in ghosts, and I don’t think I would write so much about them if I didn’t.
SHAPIRO: Violet Kupersmith on her novel “Build your house around my body”. This is one of hundreds of NPR recommended books that you can find at npr.org/bookswelove.
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