Sometimes Research Bites…

A review of Kelley Armstrong’s The List in Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing (ChiZine Publications, 2012) and Evolve Two (Edge, 2011).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Photo of Derek Newman-Stille and Kelley Armstrong at Trent University’s Alumni House

In The List Kelley Armstrong re-introduces Toronto vampire Zoe Takano (from Broken, “Zen & the Art of Vampirism,” and “Learning Curve”) with her characteristic wit and sarcasm. Zoe finds herself (fortunately) absent from a researcher’s list of ‘vampires’ in the Toronto area. When Zoe discovers that the anthropologist who wrote the paper (a combination of anthropological studies on vampirism and a study of the disease porphyria) is giving a lecture in Toronto, she decides to take her friend and former attempted murderer/vampire slayer  Brittany (yes, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is certainly lurking in this character’s formation) to the lecture to help to stir her interest in higher education.

Armstrong explores what happens when real vampires meet ‘wannabes’, youth who have taken on the identity of the vampire to form their notions of selfhood and create themselves from creative fiction. This particular story focuses on the idea of identity formation and its importance for youth both with Zoe trying to help Brittany find a path for the future, and with the general desire of the attendees to the lecture (mostly young adults) to find their identity in the fiction of the vampire.

With Ms. Armstrong’s classic Joss-Whedonesque humour, she intertextually mocks Twilight when one of the characters asks Zoe “Can you sparkle?… I hear that’s what real vampires do these days.” This itself is a commentary on youth culture and the role of fiction in identity formation, interacting with the main plot of the story around Brittany’s quest for identity and a future. Unlike those around her, Brittany is not interested (any longer, since she used to want to be a Vampire Slayer) in constructing her identity based on fictional archetypes like Buffy, but is rather interested in finding her own role in the world and exploring the truth of the fantastical world around her.

The role of identity in this tale is not limited to Brittany’s experience. Zoe also engages in a dialogue of identity when she discusses the role of heritage in the lecture. She mentions that this lecture on the vampire (her people) reminds her of hearing samurai stories in her youth as her grandfather explained her heritage:  “Vampire folklore is the same – thrilling, vaguely accurate accounts of my race’s history”. Armstrong illustrates that notions of identity from heritage are significant, but are always going to be partially idealised and laced with fiction.

The context of the story around an academic lecture is significant itself as university has become, in many senses, Canadian society’s ‘coming of age ceremony’ and the quest for self-discovery that youth engage in to become considered adults. But this story also explores another role of academics: the role of academics in shaping and creating notions of heritage through their research into history (and in this case folklore). She reminds academics of the role that they play in identity formation and notions of selfhood, but she makes that risk a real threat on the body of the professor by having him encounter a student who is violent in their assertion of a vampiric identity. Armstrong reminds us that identity is a big issue for youth and that our discussions of identity questions can have harmful effects.

This story reminded me of an encounter after a lecture I gave on the topic of the werewolf, where, following the lecture I was asked by a biology student “So, how do you conduct your research… Do you set up a blind and go into the field like a biologist would.” I replied “Well, since werewolves are fictional, I suppose I do a lot of fieldwork in books. They sort of serve as a blind because the characters can’t actually see me…” I realised after this encounter that it was basically a plot starter for a horror film – where the researcher says “I don’t believe in monsters” and almost inevitably the monster proves their existence.” From that moment on, I started introducing my lectures with “I don’t believe in monsters, but if there are any monsters in the audience, please accept my apologies for this statement and understand that I am willing to re-assess my opinion without needing to be bitten”.

Note to other researchers: beware of putting yourselves into plot lines for horror movies by accident.

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