Alum’s Short Stories Subvert Asian Stereotypes

Tuesday, June 3, 2014 - 3:15pm
Violet Kupersmith ’11, author of "The Frangipani Hotel"

When Mount Holyoke professor Valerie Martin sent three of her student Violet Kupersmith’s short stories to her agent, Kupersmith expected a pat on the head.

Instead, she got a call from Random House and a book contract—at age 22.

“I was overjoyed,” says Kupersmith, whose debut short story collection, The Frangipani Hotel, was published in April. Kupersmith graduated in 2011 with a major in English.

The New York Times said the stories “demonstrate a subtlety of purpose that belies her youth,” and Publishers Weekly wrote that they “shimmer with life.”

The daughter of an American father and a mother who came to the United States as a boat refugee from Vietnam, Kupersmith grew up listening to her grandmother’s stories about the ghosts that visited her in Vietnam. But she didn’t consider turning them into short stories until she “fell in love with the English department” at Mount Holyoke.

Professor Don Weber’s first-year English seminar introduced her to “a wonderful, intense way of reading literature” and to the “edgy short story writers who influenced my own writing.”

The next year, she took Introduction to the Short Story with Martin, a novelist and short story writer herself. Kupersmith appreciated the short story “as an art form” for the first time.

In contrast to the large English classes in her Doylestown, Pennsylvania, high school, Kupersmith says she loved the small classes at MHC and the opportunity to have close mentoring relationships with professors such as Weber and Martin.

In the summer after her junior year, Kupersmith received funding through the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives to work at a publishing house in Hanoi, an opportunity arranged by Lady Borton '64, who works in Vietnam.

Back at Mount Holyoke, she drew from her experiences and her grandmother’s stories to write her senior creative thesis: stories about war, family, love, betrayal, memory, tradition, and—always—ghosts.

She says she wanted her female characters to belie the Asian stereotype of the submissive woman. “From being at Mount Holyoke, I wanted to make sure the women in my stories were bold,” she says. “I wanted to create characters like the women I knew at Mount Holyoke. They’re fearless.”

Two weeks after graduation, Kupersmith got the book deal for publication of her stories and for a novel currently in progress that expands on her themes.

She had also received a Fulbright fellowship to return to Vietnam, so she spent her first year out of college in the Mekong Delta, teaching English and researching local folklore.

“I wanted to return to Vietnam, but I didn’t know that I would be blessed enough to have my career start simultaneously,” she says.

—By Ronni Gordon