Hunger — Fickle and Radical: Claire Kohda’s Woman, Eating

Lydia is just another twenty-something year old living in London. Fresh out of art school and trying to hazard a trajectory through the world, she finally washes her hands of her mother, who’s in ailing mental health, by committing her to a home in Margate. She nabs an internship at a prestigious gallery, the OTA, rents a studio in a collective artists’ space and wills herself to refine her aesthetic practice. She yearns for community, but more often than not finds herself alone, scrolling food videos on Youtube. So far so familiar. Only there’s a catch. Lydia is a vampire.

Now, our cultural histories of the vampire are as diverse as they are innovative, commenting in varying ways on predatory otherness—as erotic fetish, foreign threat or as byproduct of societal corruption and trauma. But they all have one thing in common. It’s funny but not a joke to say that I believe the question ‘to eat or not to eat’ to be the crux of any vampiric characterization. Sustained only by the blood of the living, vampires always serve as rich allegories for exploring the ethics of appetite and consumption.

Personally though, I’ve always found the most interesting facets of this issue to arise within a minor figure of the genre—that of the young female vampire. Stuck in eternal adolescence, the young female vampire struggles to negotiate her naïvete and urge for independence within the conventions of both life and undeath. Her desire, whether petty or grandiose, emotional or physical, is amplified by vampiric instinct, making her volatile. One only has to look at classic characters like Claudia in Interview With a Vampire and her petulant demands for a fresh kill; the seduction shining feral from True Blood’s Jessica Hanby’s eyes, to glean that more than her mature counterparts, the young female vampire is indiscriminately, uncontrollably hungry—and therein lies both her power and her shame.

Claire Kohda would probably agree. But Lydia, her protagonist in Woman, Eating, doesn’t share the urgency of young female vampires of yore. Instead, she’s altogether more ambivalent—“so, now, I’m pretty hungry. This happens quite a lot, I suppose. Maybe it’s laziness, or maybe it’s something else,” she thinks listlessly to herself, but that doesn’t mean Lydia isn’t hungry. She is. All the time actually. And sure, a large part of Woman, Eating is centered around Lydia’s meandering search for food that isn’t dried animal blood or black pudding. But eating is not the same as hunger. How could it be, when what we hunger for is undergirded by larger questions of what we want; how we identify with, or are shaped by the systems around us?

Still, Kodha doesn’t get dragged down by these abstract existentialisms. She renders the banal details of Lydia’s grumbling belly in prose that’s droll and evocative at once. And as we follow her journey to the butcher’s, within the shadows of the art world, and through romantic tribulation, it becomes clear that hunger, for Lydia, is an unsolvable cipher that nonetheless directs her life. A frustratingly locked door, behind which unattainable knowledge lies. Will she ever reach it, and what might fracture inside her if she does? Ultimately, Woman, Eating is compelling less as a new spin on the vampire genre, and more as an incisive charting of Lydia’s changing relationship to her hunger—fickle and radical—as a means towards self-knowledge.

Spoilers follow

After leaving her mother and their usual sources of food, Lydia wants a new life. But unsure of how to get it, she dithers. Her hunger throbs like a growing pain, or a guiding light; its emptiness inextricably linked to her sense of overwhelming alienation.

Because Lydia is half-human, half-vampire. She was born to a British-Malaysian mother and Japanese father. But with her father dead and her mother on the brink of dementia, Lydia is alone. She’s never tasted the heady flavors of those cuisines that connect other mixed-race children to their cultures. She’s never known the taste of human blood either—her mother’s shame at their monstrosity means they’ve subsisted on ‘dirty’ pig’s blood, which she deems all they deserve. Lydia’s not sure who her people are or where to feed. Her unsophisticated palate taunts her, a symptom of her inability to fully access her multiple identities.

Indeed, Kohda’s greatest accomplishment in Woman, Eating is her ability to twine ambient feelings of lack with potent and visceral fantasies of eating, making them contiguous across a sensory surface. Shifting nimbly from Lydia’s curiosity about the texture of boba to her ruminations on the colonial roots of vampirism in South East Asia, Kohda reminds us that identity is not so much an imposed label so much embodied—transmitted in familial touch, formed by collective experience, lived in vertiginous currents. But having existed in relative isolation, Lydia’s understanding of each of these identities is limited. She’s left only with a partial, unreacheable phantom of “something distant, something that was from so long ago that it didn’t feel like part of my life, something that felt ancient, like a memory passed down through generations.” She can only speculate about that ancestral knowledge; barely imagine the taste of it.

In other words, Lydia is still hungry.

And when a racist slur is flung at her by an addled veteran at her mother’s nursing home, Lydia doesn’t feel rage, or shame. Rather, “I guess it must be weird to be in this place but to also think it’s the Second World War,” she muses. Stronger than Lydia’s identification with her racial markers is her understanding of this man’s feeling of being unmoored. Stronger than her desire to feed, is Lydia’s impulse to cling to her dislocating hunger because it’s all she has; it belongs uniquely to her.

If that sounds a little troubling, it’s because it is. There’s an easy link in Woman, Eating between eating disorders and Lydia’s valuation of her hunger. But focusing on such a connection would be too shallow. Lydia does languish in moments where denying herself sustenance feels “light and optimistic,” but much of the driving force behind the book is Lydia’s indelible impulse to find out what she really hungers for. To locate the correct nourishment for herself (blood or milk? Udon or British veg?), as a means of figuring out who she is—not simply via food, but by filling herself with fresh forms of relationships and experiences.

In fact, some of the more poignant moments in Woman, Eating are Lydia’s encounters with art and other artists, which function as restful digressions between the relentless cycles of food-finding and gut-emptiness that make up the narrative. Unlike the vacant feeling that lingers after she haphazardly ingests a dead duck, impulse-purchased clothing or flirty interaction, Lydia finds calm recognition in art objects such as a puppet of Baba Yaga, which she promptly steals from the gallery. Kodha is skilled at integrating emotionally resonant and conceptually generative artworks throughout the book. Ben, a cute boy in the studio above shares a piece he’s been making around Carl Linneaus’ clock and his mom’s mortality; Lydia contemplates the paintings of Amrita Sher-Gil, finding kinship in a depiction of three girls who could be vampires. She has dinner with other artists in the warm, communal space they refer to as The Place, staring at a plate of eggplant pooled in red harissa oil that she can’t eat. In the low light it might be blood.

But of course, Lydia’s relationship to her artistry is not untainted by the art world as a larger capitalist structure, notorious for eating its young. She’s berated by her supervisor at OTA for failing to accomplish tasks she was never really assigned. She’s overlooked by rich celebrity patrons at a gallery opening, who don’t care about the art around them apart from as commodity. Gideon, the owner of the gallery, is a collector of her father’s work, and lays his lecherous hand on Lydia’s ass in the same way he might greedily covet a rare painting. Not to mention, these dynamics of ownership and scarcity trickle down into Lydia’s new friendships too; how she’s jealous of Ben’s successful girlfriend, Anju, newly minted by a profile in the art magazine frieze.

Indeed, if Woman, Eating has a flaw, it’s that the granular, zoomed-in quality of Lydia’s interior landscape prevents us from fully connecting the diffuse nodes of colonialism, misogyny and exploitation that Kohda depicts; how these pervade not just the art world but what’s beyond it. Instead, these problems feel too-easily saturated within the single figure of Gideon, who Lydia realizes, is “just a man—I felt his warmth as I’d squeezed past him the other day.” Gideon, who in all his devouring entitlement, turns out to be more vampiric than she—emblematic of what’s truly monstrous.

Throughout the book, Lydia sees the necks she’s compelled to feed from as aesthetic material—“rice paper… expensive calligraphy paper, or cold-pressed Fabriano,” surfaces upon which she might inscribe herself in blood as an individuated artist and vampire. But when she views a captivating performance piece in which a decorated slither of the artist’s neck is put on display, Lydia is overcome by satisfaction. She ceases to be hungry. The urge to bite doesn’t come.

It’s a striking moment, one that exemplifies what’s most moving about Woman, Eating to me—Kodha’s understanding of art as subjective and slippery but soul-sating nonetheless. Something integral; living and breathing, that slides through our fingers, in and out of our lives and signifies differently to every person. Something powerful, that’s inevitably hungered for in our desire to make or possess it, but yet can never, ever be owned. And notably, at the climax of the story, when Lydia does finally feed and find herself, it’s not as human or vampire, monster or victim. Instead, what she discovers is a whole different mode of inhabiting her existence; a method of learning, experiencing and thriving that’s distinctively hers.

Isn’t that what making art’s meant to be?

Woman, Eating is published by HarperVia

Trisha Low is the author of The Compleat Purge (Kenning Editions, 2013) and Socialist Realism (Emily Books, 2019). She lives in the East Bay of California.

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