Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching – The Vampire as Subversion

Helen Oyeyemi is my new literary obsession.

There’s this debate that occasionally flares up on Wattpad about experimentation in fiction and telling a story straight vs. prettying things up. All of that really boils down to the same litfic vs genre conversation we’ve been having for decades.

Frankly, I’m bored of having that argument. I love when writers play with what they have. I think an awareness of what the medium is, how it’s different from other media and the monopoly that differentiation gives us is something every writer should be obsessed with. What separates fiction from comic-books, screenplays and video-games? I think it’s the words and only words thing. The power of writing with an awareness of that is something we’ve largely forgotten outside of LitFic.

Probably because so few of us actually read LitFic.

With that on one side, let’s take a look at the Vampire phenomenon, such as it exists. Culturally and especially within literature, it has been interesting to see Vampires morph from the older myths and legends (which seem to exist everywhere in some form) to Carmilla to Dracula to Lestat to Twilight to The Vampire Diaries to whatever the fuck is hot right now.

While their essential characteristics have been in a constant state of flux from the word go, something thematically very uniform has remained. The idea of the vampire as a symbol for predatory sexuality.

You can’t really find this being so pervasive in the myths that surround vampirism, which is not to say that the idea wasn’t there, of course. Succubi and Incubi and curvaceous Ekshis from South India have been around for a long time. But I think the real idea of the sexual vampire emerged full force into the public consciousness with literature.

Carmilla is incredibly sexual and in a very adventurous way, given the time it was written. The story follows the titular Carmilla, a lesbian vampire who preys on the protagonist, Laura.

In Stoker’s Dracula, the sexual element comes as a surprise and is written with an incredible amount of power.

“I was afraid to raise my eyelids, but looked out and saw perfectly under the lashes. The fair girl went on her knees, and bent over me, fairly gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the white sharp teeth. Lower and lower went her head as the lips went below the range of my mouth and chin and seemed to fasten on my throat. I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the supersensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in a languorous ecstacy and waited – waited with beating heart.”

The whole Twilight phenomenon and its obsession with sexuality has already been documented many many times. I think Roger Ebert said it best in his review of the first Twilight film.

Should a woman fall in love with a man because he desires her so much? Men seem to think so. It’s not about the woman, it’s about the man’s desire. We all know there is no such thing as a vampire. Come on now, what is “Twilight” really about? It’s about a teenage boy trying to practice abstinence, and how, in the heat of the moment, it’s really, really hard. And about a girl who wants to go all the way with him, and doesn’t care what might happen. He’s so beautiful she would do anything for him. She is the embodiment of the sentiment, “I’d die for you.” She is, like many adolescents, a thanatophile.

Oyeyemi also plays around with this idea but she tackles it from a point of view of confusion. Which is , I think, what makes it so much more valid as the definitive teen vampire text than anything else. Teenage sexuality and teenage romance (which are inextricably linked and always will be) can both sort of be boiled down to confusion. Do I really love him? What is love? Does love make it worth me giving myself to him? Is ‘giving myself’ really even a thing? Is sex important? Is it purely athletic? Is it purely spiritual?

Miranda, the heroine of White is for Witching, is also confused: Do I love her or do I just want to eat her?

The novel is in itself a curious little amalgam of genres. It is only very surreptitiously a vampire story. It is a sort of ghost story. It is definitely a haunted house story. And it is unabashedly literary.

Miranda has pica, an eating disorder. She enjoys eating only what doesn’t nourish her. Dirt, chalk, plastic. Her father, her twin brother and her are all trying to grapple with the loss of their mother. They live in a an (obviously) sentient Gothic mansion that has absorbed Miranda’s great-grandmother, grandmother, mother and now is waiting for her. And the whole line prefer to eat what the rest of us don’t.

This is all tied in to the myth of the soucouyant, a sort of Caribbean vampire.

I have mentioned this novel in The Weird and Structure, because it does play a lot of games with the way it is told to us. In its brief 250 pages, it gives us around four perspective characters (one of whom is the house), random intercuts between them and a story that tries to be impenetrable and then grabs you by the throat with the humanity of its characters. It is structurally as confused as its protagonist. It is a difficult read, despite its small size because it is one of those books that (on a micro level) very actively wants to disgust you.

It is running two distinct horror processes at the same time, I think. It wants to juggle the weird and also the gross-out. And it succeeds.

The idea of pica is something naturally repulsive to those of us who don’t suffer from it. This is one of the ideas the story constantly harks back to. Does Miranda really like eating chalk? Her chef father presents her with a variety of tantalizing culinary delights, all of which disgust her. She chews on her sticks of chalk and rolls of plastic with resignation. The only time she delights in the idea of consuming something is when she is kissing Ore, the girl she loves. She bites her and converts those bites into kisses. She is, much like her literary predecessor Edward Cullen, confused. Do I love her or do I just want to eat her?

This is possible one of the most powerful vampire stories I’ve read. It takes the impending sexual metaphor at face value, dispenses with it and looks at other things. It looks at the parasite in a parasitic relationship with a sympathy they have never been dealt before. It also looks at the organic, cobbled-together join between girlhood and motherhood. “A girl isn’t a woman until her mother dies,” one of the more ambiguous narrators says at one point and I think that is the focal point around which this story revolves.

You can purchase White is for Witching here

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