- Helen Oyeyemi’s White Is for Witching and the Discourse of Consumption
I am very hungry. I am incomplete.—Gwendolyn Brooks
In a 2009 interview for The Sunday Times, Helen Oyeyemi explains the impetus behind White Is for Witching, the tale of “a starving girl and a xenophobic house” (Machell). “I wanted to write a vampire story,” Oyeyemi recalls:
After I graduated, I volunteered in South Africa for a few months. I was staying in this town called Paarl, and everyone wanted to talk about race all the time. I started to feel strange … I got this flu-like illness and spent a lot of time in bed with Dracula in the dark wing of this big house. I was feverish. I started thinking that vampire stories were a lot to do with the fear of the outsider, because you’ve got this foreign count with this unnatural appetite … I thought, what’s an unnatural appetite? A girl who eats chalk, but probably with a desire to eat something else.(Machell)
White Is for Witching is by no means a conventional vampire tale, and it exploits not the familiar European vampire but the Caribbean soucouyant to represent the fear of the outsider and unnatural appetite. At the same time, however, it subverts the conventional and metaphorical associations of vampirism with the “foreign” other, as the British Nigerian Ore draws upon her knowledge of the soucouyant in order to try to understand and explain the dangerous matriarchal line of Miranda Silver’s British ancestors. White is established as the marker of evil, a whiteness that embodies British nationalism.
The Caribbean soucouyant is a witch who transforms into a ball of fire after she removes her skin. She flies as this ball of flame, going through keyholes and crevices until she finds her human victim and sucks his or her life-blood. Joan Dayan appropriates this pre-colonial myth in order to analyze the colonial past and the European exploitation of the slaves. For Dayan, “these ‘monsters’ are the surfeit or remnants of an institution that turned humans into things, beasts, or mongrels” (258). The vampire functions as a metaphor in the Caribbean to stage the nightmarish consumption of the bodies of the colonized and to interrogate the relations of consumption between white and black bodies.
Oyeyemi relocates these violent relations within contemporary British culture: the soucouyant here crosses borders, linking memories of a colonial past to a present which [End Page 1245] still struggles to shed its white supremacist ideology and which still revolves around unnatural consumption. The soucouyant, as Miranda’s friend and lover, Ore, observes, is an “old woman whose only interaction with other people was consumption”; she is “not content with her self. She is a double danger—there is the nightmare of meeting her, and the danger of becoming her” (Oyeyemi 155). Miranda Silver, who both meets and becomes her, is also “not content with her self.” Following in the maternal line of the Silver family, Miranda suffers from the eating disorder pica, the appetite for unusual, improper, and indigestible substances. Consumption consequently becomes the major preoccupation of White Is for Witching, and Oyeyemi interrogates the relations of consumption on both a personal and a national level.
The choice of the Caribbean myth of the soucouyant and the chief protagonist’s name, Miranda, are not accidental. The conjunction is suggestive and draws attention to William Shakespeare’s The Tempest as a structuring myth for writing on and from the Caribbean. From Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks (1967) and George Lamming in The Pleasures of Exile (1960), to Edward Kamau Brathwaite in his poetry volume Islands (1969) and Aimé Césaire in his A Tempest: Adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ by a Negro Theatre (1969), critics and writers have used the trope of Prospero/Miranda to critique the colonial project in the New World. In addition, the title White is for Witching conjures up Herbert George De Lisser’s classic Jamaican novel The White Witch of Rosehall (1929) which offers a critique of British colonialism in the West Indies through the evil female power of the plantation mistress. Borrowing from the legend...