A Vampire Hungry for Blood and Intimacy
Claire Kohda on vampirism as a metaphor for colonialism, consumerism, and mixed-race identity in her novel "Woman, Eating"
In Claire Kohda’s Woman, Eating, the protagonist Lydia, a 20-something Londoner and artist, is a frustrated foodie. She salivates over the idea of the delicacies of her Japanese father’s homeland, and reads labels of food with interest and desire. But for all the intent, Lydia can’t eat or drink—she is a vampire and can only stomach blood. Her British Malaysian (vampire) mother, a mysterious and forbidding character, has been feeding Lydia pig’s blood since she was a kid.
Lydia not only craves food. She wants a normal life of connection with others. She can’t share dinners with the other artists in the loft building she works out of. She can smell blood everywhere but because she eschews human blood, she is starving. Life should be beginning. Her troublesome mother is tucked away in a nursing home; she’s starting a new internship at a London gallery. But her severe hunger and her unusual constitution (plus some creepy men) get in the way.
I spoke to Claire Kohda, who is a violinist who’s played with the likes of dance music legend Pete Tong and the English Chamber Orchestra, about vampirism as a metaphor for colonialism, taking otherness to the next level, and comparative vampire perceptions across cultures.
J.R. Ramakrishnan: You take “otherness” to the extreme in the novel. A mixed race young woman who is a hungry and conflicted vampire! How did you dream her up?
Claire Kohda: At the time of writing Woman, Eating, I was wondering a lot about how I belong in the places and systems I exist in, wondering whether it’s possible to belong when you are also different. A year earlier, I had been to Japan and felt very foreign there; soon after I came back, we went into our first lockdown, and there was a huge increase in hate crimes against Asians, and that emphasized to me the fact that many people in England believe I’m a foreigner here, too. Being mixed race, the feeling of difference follows you everywhere, even into your home where you are ethnically different to both of your parents. I think all of this was what drew me to writing about a vampire—a creature that is in between so many things: in between life and death, good and evil, human and demon.
All of this happened very organically, almost subconsciously, though. I think of all the themes in Woman, Eating as having been percolating—strengthening and becoming richer—through that first year of the pandemic, without me realizing. I felt so helpless while all the awful things were happening to the Asian communities in the US and UK and elsewhere; but, I think a part of my mind was fighting back, and creating this vampire with Asian heritage, this expression of all those feelings of otherness I’d internalized and struggled with.
Then, one day, Lydia essentially just appeared in my head, fully formed. She appeared sitting at a large dinner table, surrounded by food, watching the other dinner guests breaking bread, sharing wine, and wishing she could eat with them. Food is central to this novel and to Lydia’s life. Asian cuisines are so often used to other Asian people. Names of Chinese dishes have been shouted at my mum and other people I know of Asian heritage, as if our cuisines are so different or weird that they can be used as slurs to dehumanize people. Asian cuisines are also often perceived as cruel too; I often find myself being asked about whaling or dog meat, despite being vegan; It can be hard to not internalize the monstrousness other people (mis)place onto you when they associate the cruelty of a specific food industry with your racial identity. Lydia is, in part, that racism made manifest. She is what many people would consider to be a monster, even though, when it really comes down to it, the only thing that sets her apart from us is her diet; the only thing that sets her apart from humans is what food she can eat.
JRR: I am especially interested in the choice of making her mother have both British and Malaysian roots while Lydia herself is part Japanese. Can you tell us about how you came to this decision?
CK: Traditionally, vampire narratives have been used to tell stories about colonialism. Dracula is thought to have reflected Victorian guilt about imperialism; the colonized other (Dracula) consumes the colonizer (his victims). The vampire is very often a metaphor for consuming, for taking—and that is true in Woman, Eating too. Lydia’s mum, Julie, believes vampirism is a curse inflicted on colonizers as a punishment for taking what was not theirs. She describes this curse as having spread like a disease. I wanted the roots of the vampire to lie in an act, not just a specific person—for vampirism to have come from a kind of imbalance in human society, from something that took place that was so wrong that it manifested a monster.
The way Julie sees it, her vampirism is a legacy of colonialism; it’s trauma that was caused when Malaysia was colonized by Britain, and then again by Japan, that has lasted—because Julie is immortal— for several lifetimes-worth. She is intergenerational trauma made flesh. And Lydia inherits that trauma too; she can’t see the humanity in her mother; she can’t access her Malaysian heritage for so much of the book. Only when she essentially takes it from a British man, does she realize what she was missing.
Vampires are fascinating creatures – they’re kind of timeless things, un-aging, yet ancient. Colonialism is ancient. We’ve always taken from each other. And I wanted the vampire to have come from that. In England, the fact that Western countries colonized so many East and Southeast Asian countries is not a part of our education; so many people don’t know that this happened. When I started writing Woman, Eating, I recognized that I had an opportunity to reinvent the origin of the vampire, to center it around this part of history. I wanted Lydia’s own identity to be complex too. Lydia’s own ethnic heritage contains colonized and colonizer. While growing up, I was always conscious of being two ethnicities that were enemies during the WWII; narratives that positioned one side as the heroes and the other as villains were confusing for my identity. Lydia’s entire identity is divided between sides that seem to her to be opposed to each other.
There’s a lot of taking and taking back in Woman, Eating–a lot of the book is about ownership. The book is partly about colonization, yes, but also about consuming culture through food and through collecting art, consuming and taking lives, and about how sexual assault can be like a kind of colonization of the body, a kind of taking of ownership. These are all examples of types of vampirism. But the first vampire in the world of Woman, Eating was always, in my mind, a colonizer.
JRR: To understand herself, Lydia looks up langsuyar, the female vampire of Malay folklore on Google. I didn’t recall this character from my childhood (I grew up in Malaysia) but remember being terrorized by the idea of the pontianak (apparently the daughter of the langsuyar). You have Lydia observe that vampires in Asian cultures are not revered as in the West and that women vampires are “blamed for their monstrous states.” Yet, poor Lydia has no fault in her condition.
CK: “Poor Lydia” I feel could easily be the subtitle of Woman, Eating! I wanted people to feel for Lydia—to really, deeply feel for a vampire, a creature that we might normally consider a monster. I also wanted people to feel for a character who actually does a lot of things wrong; who is selfish and flawed.
The Langsuyur and the pontianak both are born from really traumatic experiences—the loss of a child or the death of a woman in childbirth. When Lydia looks up vampiric creatures on Google, she reads all the things she finds in a way that is quite negative; by this point, some of Julie’s self-hatred has passed onto Lydia already. And, so, it felt right that she would take from her research only something negative–that women creatures are blamed for their monstrous states. This is true, to a degree. Many folktales from East and Southeast Asia depict women unable to deal with trauma, or unable to deal with other emotions, and becoming evil or vengeful monsters. Yet, what Lydia misses is that, in the case of the langsuyur, the woman became a vampiric monster because of grief, because she felt so much love towards her daughter, and couldn’t deal with her death. Lydia completely misses that aspect of the story. She’s blind to it. And for a lot of the book she is blind to the love of her own mother, too, whose story mirrors the langsuyur’s. Julie, confronted with the possibility of losing Lydia when she was a baby, turned her into a vampire. So, Lydia’s vampiric state is the result of her mother’s love.
I really wanted to step away from the kind of reverence for the vampire we see in Western vampire stories. I didn’t want to create something that was titillating, or revering of power, or of youth. Lydia, in this novel, isn’t really aware of her power, and she recognizes how terrifying and monstrous humans with power can be; how power itself can be dangerous. This novel isn’t really horror either. The vampire exists mostly in the horror genre in the West; but, in a lot of literature from Asian countries, the supernatural appears in otherwise very grounded novels and doesn’t result in those novels being pigeon-holed as horror or fantasy. I wanted to remove the vampire from the horror genre and look at a vampire in a very grounded way, and see what I could learn about what it is to be human by observing Lydia trying to just simply live her life in our world.
JRR: You take us on quite a tour of London through its contemporary art world. I want to ask about the conversation Lydia and Ben have after The Otter show where he expresses his disenchantment with the art business. Lydia herself reflects on how her artist father’s paintings are owned by other people who can look at them at any time while she cannot. She says, “I think art comes to mean something different to people when it becomes something they can possess.”
I wonder what you think about this concept of visual art (as something to be possessed and boasted about) v. books (which are only owned in a lesser and milder way and people are less impressed by book ownership/boasting, I think) and/or music (which as a non-musician, seems to me to be unpossess-able)?
CK: This is such an interesting question! Art collecting has long been tied to colonialism, and war; once we take an art object and lock it away, it becomes something that no one else can see, that no one else can possess, and so it makes sense, I think, that it is something that is tied to the taking of other countries and cultures. So many museums in the West have in their collections items that were looted during wars, or during colonial “missions.” Gideon, in Woman, Eating, collects art and has a particular interest in what he calls “world art.” He buys art as if he is buying parts of the respective culture that art has come out of; the colonial history of art collecting is reflected in his style of collecting. There’s a part in the book where Julie explains how Western collectors described Lydia’s dad’s art, and those descriptions use language that is based more on stereotypes about Japan (“refined”) than on what his art is actually like (“brutal and violent”).
There is something unique about collecting visual art–how the more limited a print is, for example, the more expensive it is; or how a one-off is even more expensive. In cases like that, value is ascribed to exclusivity. The less we have a chance to see an artwork, the more value it has. If we are the only one who can see it, that means we have something special. For the artist, that means that selling work is always linked to loss. When an artist sells a piece, they no longer can have it; they have to let it go entirely, and maybe they’ll never see it again.
With music and literature, there isn’t an object that the maker creates. It’s more ephemeral. There’s no sculpture or painting that can be held or touched. When we create a piece of music or literature, it’s automatically shared between the maker and the reader or listener. Even though we can hold books, a book is only a stack of paper with ink, bound together. The novel itself just exists in the mind. And exclusivity doesn’t come into it at all.
This doesn’t mean I don’t love visual art though. I still love making art; and I love working on a sculpture, owning and changing its shape, and being in control of that process; and I understand how people can desire to possess something, to keep it for themselves and themselves only–that’s a very human thing to want I think. But it can get tangled in the terrifying desire to own and possess another person, or another culture. Visual art is such a pure and beautiful thing, until you buy it.
JRR: Finally, Lydia gets to taste all the human food she can’t have and has been hungry her whole life. This (and maybe her revenge was a tonic too?) seems to give her new life. She seems reborn. Can we expect more of Lydia?
CK: Yes, it was definitely a tonic. We get so much from food, not only sustenance. Food helps us connect with friends, family, ancestors, our cultural heritages. We share food together, we cook for each other; we pass recipes down through generations; recipes travel with immigrants and refugees to new countries—they’re a part of home we can take with us anywhere. This is such a huge part of Lydia’s and her mum’s experience of life that is missing, because they can only digest blood, and it stands in the way of Lydia really being able to engage with her heritage.
The Malaysian food Lydia tastes for the first time comes from two real businesses in the UK: the Chinese Malaysian Scottish chef Julie Lin in Glasgow who runs Julie’s Kopitiam and Ga Ga—her food is tied to her exploration of her cultural heritage, and on Instagram she posts often with her mother—and the Malaysian kaya (coconut curd) business Madam Chang’s Kaya, whose kaya recipe was passed down to founder Ae Mi from her grandmother when she was just four. In both these instances, food connects different generations of a family, and connects two countries: everything Lydia has been missing.