In Trang Thanh Tran’s YA debut She Is a Haunting, 17-year-old Jade Nguyen has been made a promise. If she stays with her father while he renovates a house in Vietnam for the summer, he will cover the college tuition she has been struggling to pay for. However, the French colonial home they’re staying in is deeply intertwined with the Nguyen family’s history, and when ghosts appear with warnings, surviving her stay will dredge up devastating secrets long waiting to be heard. We spoke with Vietnamese American writer Tran about their horror influences, writing about the emotional costs of Vietnamese history, and developing a family story within a horror story.
Are you a longtime fan of horror stories, and if so, what were some of your influences?
I’ve always been a horror movie fan. Movies are where I got started as a kid, watching things that I shouldn’t be watching. Then in college I read a lot of Stephen King. But it wasn’t until 2020, when I was stuck inside my house, like everyone else was, and I was like, let’s write about abandoned houses. I had this thought that people spend so much time in their houses already, so what is going on with all these abandoned houses right now that no one is living in? And how does that feel? I feel like the best horror takes advantage of fears, what you’re actually scared of. It’s not so much the ghosts but what does the ghost represent? At that point, I was working with my own fears about identity and fitting in because my mom had been asking me for a long time to go back to Vietnam with her. I was born in the U.S., and I don’t speak Vietnamese that well, and I was like, maybe some other time. When I was stuck inside my house, I had to deal with all these [thoughts] like what does home really mean to me. I just worked with all these fears that I had, and combined it with this haunted house story, to talk about a girl who is forced to go back [to Vietnam] and deal with all these things about her family.
How did you develop your own twists on the traditional haunted house concept?
I didn’t quite approach it as a twist. It was more like a genuine love for haunted houses and asking myself, “How can I make this as unhinged as possible?” I drew a lot of inspiration from very classical haunted houses. I love the haunted house in The Haunting of Hill House, obviously, and how claustrophobic it is. So I took all the things that I really love about haunted houses and tried to make it as specific as possible to my book and situation.
The book really took off when I made the house a narrator. The house chapters are shorter so it almost [gave me] the freedom to write a little bit poetically, about what it’s like for this house having this experience and where it’s also becoming more and more like a person. I guess the differences to traditional horror that I’ve read or watched is thinking about the place, because it is a haunted house set in Đà Lạt. It’s a real place, where there are French colonial houses that have been abandoned for several decades. I drew a lot of inspiration from these photographs, from the history there. It’s a very specific story about this girl Jade Nguyen and her family, so the house had to be specific. All the history inside that house is very particular to it. I think that gives it its own twist.
The story opens with Jade in Vietnam, and it’s revealed that she’s only there to visit her Ba under a secret arrangement to pay for her schooling. What does that reveal about Jade and her father’s dynamic?
I knew from the beginning that I wanted it to be a family story. I wanted it to be where this teenage girl is forced to return to Vietnam, where she should feel some sort of connection and yet, she’s only there because she’s been coerced. And then once she gets there, it’s like, what is her father’s goal here? He promises her money, but what does he really want? And there’s this house that their family has a connection to that he’s never revealed to her. These people who have very different goals at the beginning, how does that change as they learn this history inside the house? And Jade realizing that her father is there because of a family. There was a hole in his life, about this part of his history, and now he’s trying to fill it. He’s trying to rewrite this history. And it’s not only for him, but it’s for her too. I really wanted it to be a conversation about a broken family that is haunted by their past, and now is being literally haunted by ghosts, and how do Jade and her father come together?
Belonging, whether it be to a country or to a family, is a theme in the novel that characters like Jade, Ba, and Florence all struggle to navigate. Could you talk about how you approached this theme?
For Ba, he is a refugee. He came over to the U.S. by himself on a boat as a child, and how does that affect your understanding of belonging when you were born somewhere but you grew up most of your life somewhere else without your parents? What does that do to a person? And then, for Jade her sense of belonging is about being born here [in the U.S.], and then growing up in two different cultures—her family’s culture, and then the American culture. Her sense of belonging is also related to her queerness, and how she’s not out yet at the beginning of the book. Everyone’s feeling of what it means to belong is a little bit different. I wanted to investigate how people try to belong or what makes them feel safe and feel like they belong. It was fun figuring out all the different pieces of what people are doing to get this sense of safety and community throughout the book.
She Is a Haunting by Trang Thanh Tran. Bloomsbury, $18.99 Feb. 28 ISBN 978-1-5476-1081-5