Anxieties, Alienation, and Vampires: A Review of Woman, Eating by Claire Kohda
Woman, Eating. Claire Kohda. HarperVia, 19 April, 2022.
Claire Kohda’s debut novel Woman, Eating interrogates some of the conventional paradigms of the ‘vampire’ trope by re-envisioning them from the vantage point of a mixed-heritage female vampire. The 23-year-old Lydia, a recent art graduate, engages with the experiential world from her uniquely fraught position of a half-human, half-vampire liminal being. Her feelings of being othered are amplified by feelings of alienation from her friends and neighbors due to her non-humanness and mixed ancestry (her mother is a Malaysian-British ‘vampire’ and her father is a Japanese ‘human’). Through Lydia’s first-person narrative, we enter into her eternal and morbid interior world. Her subjective anxieties and desires bring new perceptions into various contemporary issues across different fields, e.g., racial hatred, workplace sexual harassment, and the ethicality of food habits.
For the first time in her life, Lydia is navigating adulthood and establishing her independent identity as a performance artist, away from her vampire mother’s surveillance and intervention. From a nascent stage, her identity was constantly defined and controlled by her mother’s own guilt-projection and self-hatred at their vampiric nature. As a result, Lydia has struggled with unabated feelings of isolation, anxiety, depression, and suicidal tendencies since her adolescence.
Her subjective self is caught between her vehement desire to express and to be accepted as her truest form: “[her] body to be seen for what it is: this un-decaying, eternal thing—familiarly human, but also not”; and also, the desire to escape from her liminal monstrous self “into the life of a particularly attractive human.” In her reprehension at her own cursed vampiric nature, undertones of the 1936 film Dracula’s Daughter come to the forefront, where Dracula’s daughter, Countess Marya Zaleska, also wants to cut off the curse of vampirism from her life but eventually fails to overcome her innate nature.
Lydia spends her spare time watching YouTube videos of Japanese cuisines or observing others purchasing diverse fare in fast food outlets. We witness her unique relationship with food, or to be precise, with a certain kind of animal blood, which her mother tried to imprint on her psyche as the only “deserving” sustenance she could have due to her godforsaken nature: “Do you think God would feed a body like yours?” Even after consuming enough of that “deserving” sustenance, Lydia remains constantly “hungry”. For Lydia, hunger is not just a physical experience, but also symbolic of her spiritual hunger for freedom and power which was previously undercut by her mother’s constant censoring.
Instead of the supernatural happenings present in typical vampire tales, the atmospheric tension is built in this narrative by Lydia’s uncanny feelings of constant supervision from strangers, experiences which often result in racial and sexual violence. This pattern persists from her repeated experiences with objectifying male gazes in public spaces; to a threateningly xenophobic, “I see you”, from a patient in the care home who labels her as “disgusting” and a “monster” for her Japanese ethnicity; and finally, to the eerie, unnerving experience of her workplace superior watching her from the dark, ultimately leading to a sexual assault.
For me, the most riveting part of the narrative is Lydia’s reinterpretation of famous artworks and artifacts of taxidermists, painters, sculpture artists and different myths and legends from all over the world in her search for self-representation. For instance, Lydia traces the genealogical roots of vampirism to the colonizing endeavors of a British person in Malaysia, connecting his greed for unnatural power to the beginnings of the disease of vampirism. She also identifies herself with the figure of Baba Yaga from Slavic folklore—a mischievous monstrous female in myriad folk-narratives who sometimes helped lost travelers in finding the right direction, and sometimes ate them.
Although Woman, Eating has some structural problems, such as repetitiveness and uneven pacing, the novel remains a powerful intersectional feminist re-envisioning of the fantastical space of vampires as one that has the subversive potential to bring forth radical change. It was certainly an interesting journey to follow Lydia’s coming-of-age story, with all its nuances and complexities. In Kohda’s enthralling debut, the unpredictable ending serves as a felicitous denouement to this strange and transgressive narrative of liminal identities. From restrained non-eating to assertive woman eating, Lydia takes narrative control of both her life and the systemic injustices she has faced by radically proclaiming her vampire female self.
Oohini Samanta is a first-year MA student of English literature in Presidency University, Kolkata. She lives with her family and a lifetime collection of books.
This review was commissioned from an emailed pitch from our monthly calls for review. It was edited by Summer van Houten and copyedited by Misha Grifka Wander. The author and editors had no previous acquaintance. A review copy was arranged by ARB from HarperCollins.