Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Thursday, January 19, 2023

Thursday, January 19, 2023: Maximum Shelf: She Is a Haunting

Bloomsbury YA: She Is a Haunting by Trang Thanh Tran

Bloomsbury YA: She Is a Haunting by Trang Thanh Tran

Bloomsbury YA: She Is a Haunting by Trang Thanh Tran

Bloomsbury YA: She Is a Haunting by Trang Thanh Tran

She Is a Haunting

by Trang Thanh Tran

She Is a Haunting by Trang Thanh Tran is a grippingly macabre YA horror novel about the sinister hold of colonizers, the potential power of the ancestral dead and the labor of remaining oneself under malicious influences. It's a brilliant turn on the Southern gothic, using the racist relics, sweltering heat and decrepit villas of Vietnam to build a suffocating setting.

Seventeen-year-old Jade Nguyen is spending five weeks at her dad's house in Vietnam for one reason: get the college tuition money Ba promised. Then, get out. "You don't get a chance to try again," she tells Ba, remembering pre-divorce days being ignored by him. And she's fiercely protective of Lily, her 13-year-old sister, who came with her and who seems to Jade too eager to advocate for peace. Still, the pangs of nostalgia wear on her--when fishing like they once did every other weekend, when pressing hands into the freshly poured concrete of the patio and especially when eating his cooking: "the smell of crisp crepe, yellow with turmeric and heaped with glistening pork belly, shrimp, and bean sprouts, makes the acid simmer down in [her] stomach."

Ba, however, is focused on transforming his French colonial home into a bed-and-breakfast called Nhà Hoa, and his only expectation is that Jade build the booking website with his business partner's niece, Florence. "She's a distraction" but Jade can't resist flirting with the motorbike-riding, self-proclaimed boarding school delinquent. "She reminds me of something real," Jade thinks of Florence, "my neighborhood's concrete-broken streets and sunlight over the dashboard." It's Florence to whom Jade turns when Ba accuses her of lying about terrifying occurrences: waking up paralyzed, a darkly grinning white woman reflected in a window, a ghost warning "dừng ăn"--don't eat. "I am the girl who cried wolf, the liar" who Ba thinks is simply "ruining the fun." Jade is determined to prove Ba wrong and protect Lily. Jade's plan: haunt the haunted house. "I want to be terrifying, so much of a terror that Ba can't close his eyes." It's already been two weeks, after all; Jade refuses to walk away without getting anything from Ba, whether it's the money or the satisfaction of being right. Together, Jade and Florence stage signs of a haunting, writing mirror messages and planting hidden speakers to frighten Ba.

What truly disturbs Nhà Hoa, though, isn't a spooking by a restless spirit; it is an assault fueled by the still blazing malignity between Jade's ancestors and the cruel colonizers who employed them. As these remnants of the past--and Nhà Hoa itself--intensify hostilities, Jade battles to keep her sister safe, sleeping beside Lily and plotting to get them out. At night, Jade enters a limbo that is not quite dream nor memory. She is dropped into the volatile world of the house's first days--of the vicious white madame of the house and her animalistic treatment of her Vietnamese servant. When Jade wakes, she checks her teeth for bug legs and finds nail indents where a ghost has pressed her into the mattress. Faced with steadily increasing dangers, she must redouble her efforts to defend what she knows matters--"this place as ours, this place as healing"--or instead give the house what it now seems to want--her body.

Tran crafts a richly layered ghost story. The house itself is a character; its disquieting perspective in interluding chapters is chilling: "The house is tickled whenever a body's split between rooms.... Pliable meat and soft minds, tucked safely in its hold." Tran's clarion prose personifies Nhà Hoa's unsettling idiosyncrasies, such as "a large rib cage" of a ceiling, air that "caresses the back of [Jade's] neck" and floorboards that rasp and let out "phlegmy squeak[s]." Mutated zombie ants, writhing maggots and hordes of insect corpses augment Tran's skin-crawling atmosphere.

Tran also carefully portrays a fraught father-daughter bond. Years ago, Ba forbade Jade's bisexuality--"Girls like boys, you understand? That's it."--a blow that still pains Jade. "That hurt," she shares. "Your dad betraying you is one of the worst feelings in the world." Now, her earnest efforts to connect ("Con thấy ma"--Your child saw a ghost) are met with insensitivity ("Are you going to stand there and cry?"). Their unspoken desperation for the other's acceptance is tenderly and tactfully interwoven with their hope for the same from Vietnam. "I'm not Vietnamese enough to have an opinion on anything other than what makes a good bánh mi," Jade notes. Similarly, her father laments being seen as Việt Kiều--a term for Vietnamese people who "don't belong" because they lived overseas: "I remember our roots here. Why can't they see that?"

A feminine strength also underlies the book. When Lily gets her first period, Jade shares what she has learned, not the lies their mom told Jade--that "a girl's body is like a jar.... Once you open it, the inside's spoiled." Jade wants Lily "to stay unafraid of herself and savor the power in that." Florence and Jade similarly tackle stereotypes, joking about "final girls" in horror films or about the abundance of women ghosts in stories ("even dead, we're the scariest thing").

Amplifying all the paranormal problems is Jade's anxiety, a characteristic Tran smartly tucks into the moments between scares. "I'm so tired of being afraid of myself. The monsters I create. The anxieties I conjure." Jade is wholly aware of her intrusive thoughts and develops a routine of breathing and counting, yet she cannot always quiet them, especially in this house. "That's the thing, isn't it...? Sometimes, there might actually be something for you to be worried about."

She Is a Haunting is a spectacularly nightmarish YA debut that will entrap readers. It is shudderingly creepy, summoning easily to mind the ghosts, the house and Vietnam with arresting imagery. An achily enticing slow-burn sapphic romance and empowering feminist undertones round out this sharp and horrifying tale that will have readers wondering who is haunting whom--and who will remain in the hungry house. --Samantha Zaboski

Bloomsbury YA, $18.99, hardcover, 352p., ages 12-up, 9781547610815, February 28, 2023

Bloomsbury YA: She Is a Haunting by Trang Thanh Tran

Trang Thanh Tran: Ghosts Real and Imagined

(Heather Wall Photography)

Trang Thanh Tran writes speculative stories with big emotions about food, belonging and the Vietnamese diaspora. They grew up in a large family in Philadelphia, then abandoned degrees in sociology and public health to tell stories in Georgia. When not writing, they can be found over-caffeinating and watching zombie movies. Shelf Awareness spoke with them about their gothic YA horror debut, She Is a Haunting (Bloomsbury YA, February 28, 2023).

The book's underlying focus is the lingering harmful effects of colonization in Vietnam. When did you know you wanted to write about this?

It wasn't intentional at first! I found out my grandma spoke some French as a young girl, so I started wondering, what other things don't I know and probably will never know about my family because of traumas like colonization? That inspired me to write this very close look at one Vietnamese American family's past haunting their present.

How does the friction between Jade and her father help set up the plot with the vengeful ghosts?

Jade and her dad have such a hard time having honest conversations and, like secrets, unsaid things fester. The ghosts have their own wants that may overlap with the Nguyens', and it's almost a game in taking advantage of their deep wishes.

Jade doesn't believe she is accepted as truly Vietnamese and feels like a stranger in Vietnam. What inspired you to write a character who has this disconnect with a place where she knows she should belong?

Jade and I are part of the Vietnamese diaspora. A lot of inspiration came from my broken Vietnamese, because it's harder to connect when you don't have the words to express yourself. At the same time, this disconnect isn't limited to Vietnam; she's treated as a stranger at times in the United States, too, so I wrote from this in-between place of feeling like you are never enough to fit in anywhere.

It's even hinted that college--the reason Jade is in Vietnam--isn't something she is sure she necessarily wants.

As the eldest daughter in an immigrant family, Jade has this inner expectation that she must do something that's worth her family's sacrifices. It's a pressure point that makes her put self-discovery on the back burner.

Being herself is something Jade struggles with, partially because she's reluctant to explore her own identity when she fears being rejected by others.

Yes. There's this interesting transition from middle to high school where many teens are shedding their younger interests and trying to figure out how to present themselves to the world. Jade chose what she thought was the safest path for her at home and in the community at the time, slipping on "roles" that were already immediately around her.

Yet Jade almost immediately is befriended in Vietnam by Florence, the cool boarding school delinquent. Why is Jade able to open up enough to let Florence in?

There's a lot to admire in Florence, who is completely her weird self and doesn't try to fit in. Ultimately, Jade is a teenager who has a weak spot for cute, irreverent girls. Nothing's more intoxicating than the "what if?" stage of a crush!

In almost every description of the house--called Nhà Hoa--you have thoughtfully and beautifully ascribed to it human qualities. How did you decide to make the house its own character?

We spend so much time in our homes, and this was particularly true in 2020 at the height of the pandemic when I was writing this book. Sometimes a house is the only witness to an event or a person's behavior, and I seriously considered how lonely abandoned places must be, particularly the French colonial houses in Đà Lạt--built, then left behind. It made sense to build the house out as a relic with its own intentions. And honestly, the story didn't take life until Nhà Hoa's voice landed on the page.

The house begins the story with its own chapter: "This house eats and is eaten.... when a door opens, it is this: the first page of a menu." Why does the house hunger so fiercely?

Okay, so not everything is a metaphor, but everything is sort of a metaphor! We're told to savor moments with our loved ones, much like we're told to savor every bite of food--it nourishes us. I think loneliness is a type of hunger that goes very deep, and the house needs to sate itself to survive.

Jade and her younger sister share a bond that is rocked by the haunting, and cracking that support system for Jade added so much emotion and tension to the story. How do you hope this inspires teens who relate to this dynamic on a day-to-day basis?

Even when siblings grow up in the same household, they can have very different relationships with their parents. Sometimes just understanding where your sibling is coming from, even if you disagree, is enough to leave your relationship open to healing.

What do you hope young readers take away from She Is a Haunting?

The universe is already mysterious enough with all of its 200 billion trillion stars. You don't have to be a mystery to yourself or bound by others' expectations. Finding your happiness, whatever that looks like, is within your power. --Samantha Zaboski

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