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Woman, Eating

A Vampire is Eaten by the Human World: A Review of Claire Kohda’s Woman, Eating

Bram Stoker and Ann Rice were my literary springboard into vampire fiction. Cinematic vampires followed a similar route, starting with the creatures of black and white – Nosferatu and Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula – and jumping to the early nineties: Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, and Antonio Banderas with impressively silky, long hair.  (If you’ve never seen Interview with the Vampire watch it, if for no other reason than to experience pony-tailed, vampire Tom Cruise.)

Despite the wealth of other excellent vampires on the page and screen, this little collection was my initial building block. It’s one that also highlights a certain adaptability of the European vampire. Unlike their non-western counterparts temptation, bloodlust and desire are given human nuances. Often there is beauty within the monstrosity.

What ends up being secondary is the vampire’s positionality within time and history. Woman, Eating by Claire Kohda highlights just how monstrous the human world that the vampire inhabits can truly be. It’s also a food lover’s delight that gives us a peek into the complicated identities that can inhabit individual bodies and how time and history can affect them, but it’s not intimidating. There’s also plenty of delightfully macabre incidents and dare I say squirmy moments packed into this compact novel.   

Lydia is a mixed-race vampire and recent art school graduate. Shortly after her mother Julie is diagnosed with dementia, Lydia leaves her in a nursing home and sets out for London to conquer her own slice of the art world. Armed with a rucksack, a suitcase, and the grizzled end of an old blood sausage, Lydia rents an artist’s studio space in a converted biscuit factory. There she meets Ben, a fellow artist and someone  she constantly describes as pink, warm, and full of life. A string of misfortunes quickly throws a bucket of cold water on her plans. Even then, it’s not enough to prepare her for her anticipated checklist of accomplishments joining the crumpled heap of an increasingly bleak, messy life.

In the studio, surrounded by other artists, she feels like an imposter. The others may live fragile, human lives that will inevitably come to an end, but the art they have dedicated themselves to, touches immortality in a way that makes Lydia’s endless existence feel even more flat and empty. On top of that London is proving an impossible place to source fresh pig’s blood, her only source of food. With every passing day Lydia is becoming increasingly, achingly hungry.

This isn’t Sally Rooney-esque millennial fiction with a blood-sucking twist thrown in for fun. Certainly it is a refreshing take on the vampire trope, but Lydia is deliberately a European vampire. Her mother Julie was turned into a vampire centuries ago by a white, British man who was part of a colonising force. Born of colonial violence, Lydia is never allowed to forget that as a vampire, she represents death and infinite darkness. Because her and her mother’s bodies are sin, Julie will only nourish them with pig’s blood because she believes their apparent filth is the only thing their bodies deserve. Ironic, considering that pig’s are only ‘filthy’ because of human mistreatment.

Nourishment and consumption are at the core of this story. Lydia, who cannot eat human food, is nonetheless obsessed with food and cooking. In the dark safety of her windowless studio, she spends hours on the hard concrete floor, watching videos and cooking series, scrolling through food posts until her anxiety and jumbled thoughts are numbed by the repetition.

Food is the anti-vampire and at least she has the high resolution, digital content to imagine that – just as pig’s blood nourishes her static existence – that consuming different foods will strengthen different parts of her identity. If she eats soba , ramen, and udon, she can strengthen the Japanese half of her from her father. If she eats locally grown vegetables and fish caught off the coast, maybe it will enhance her British identity.

Descending further into dementia, Julie asks for Malaysian sweets from her childhood – for kuih talam pandan (steamed coconut pandan cake), cendol (a dessert/drink), and pandan kalamae (a sticky candy made primarily with coconut milk). But, the only ingredient Lydia recognizes is pandan because of social media. There’s definitely a humorous bent to the  ‘you are what you eat’  cliche, but the ragged links between food and identity are also what drew me strongly to this book.

If pig’s blood is what keeps her demon under control, then we quickly find out what happens if she consumes other blood. When she sucks Ben’s blood for the first time – from a towel, Lydia feels her senses strengthening and expanding. She consumes his emotions and takes brief possession of his memories. She drinks the blood of a duck and feels the thrill of flight, the elemental touch of water against silken duck feathers. With everything she scavenges, the desire to consume becomes overwhelming.

Lydia’s slow transformation into the vampire, the creature who wants only to consume and possess, is fantastically grotesque. It never feels as if Claire Kohda is simultaneously shoving an academic paper and social media quotes about trauma down the reader’s throat. Instead it manages to capture a very unique positionality: female, mixed-race, clawing for recognition in a white, male dominated discipline, bodies which carry a confusing mix of the colonised and the coloniser, through the very simple desire to eat.

In spite of some of the more harrowing descriptions, this book will make you hungry – or at least it made me hungry. But then, Lydia and I both consume an unholy amount of cooking shows and food-related content. Pig’s blood, rather than being the food of sinners, is in fact a traditional ingredient in cuisines around the world.

An article published by one of the giants in food magazines, published an article which praised chefs across North America for bringing back blood to cuisine. Like most western publications when writing about non-western ingredients, the article gave that classic flip-flop sales pitch. Using blood is common and shows respect because it utilizes the whole animal. But, only the most rockstar chefs can handle this ingredient, and only the adventurous diner will order it from the menu.

If only Lydia had known that blood was in.

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