The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: AWABI by Mandy-Suzanne Wong

Sumiko’s Daughters

She searched for snails: sazae with silver shells  like inverted whirlpools and their mother-of-pearl  abalone sisters, awabi, with such expressive eyes.  She also hunted their cousins: octopi, urchins,  spiny lobsters, sea stars, seaweeds, and sea cucumbers, the chubby and slimy namako. But  awabi were above all. Noshi awabi was the sacred sustenance of the divine kami Amaterasu,  ancestress of all Japan, and luxury markets paid  ¥8,000 per pound for awabi sashimi. 

Even men followed awabi into the water when prawns were scarce or finned fishes weren’t biting. But men preferred fishing from boats atop the sunlit surface. Grubbing in the sand between light and dark, air and water, life and death; turning over rocks and plunging hands into black crevices, the secret lairs of biting eels and stinging puffer fish; battling the cold, the currents, struggling mollusks, and the fighting urge to breathe:  that was women’s work. Sumiko learned from her grandmother, who’d learned from her own grandmother, that throughout the Edo period no community incurred greater disdain than the ama. They were hinnin, strangers who dirtied themselves with death’s dirty work. But from her mother and grandmother, Sumiko inherited the belief that all ama shared. It wasn’t that women  and snail-seeking were ignoble:  

Women and the ocean, we are a natural match. Only women can bear it when the ocean’s touch goes deep. Only women have enough of the right kind of body fat to withstand the biting cold. Women needn’t fear the ocean’s chilling love. And ama mustn’t be afraid. That’s why ama are women.

This selection comes from the book, AWABI, available from Digging Press.  Purchase your copy here! Our curator for this selection is Alex DiFrancesco.

Winner of the 2018 Digging Press Chapbook Series Award. Mandy-Suzanne Wong deftly explores the complex world of the ama—ocean women, mostly elderly, who eke out a living while diving deep to capture abalone, snails, and otherworldly sea creatures for food. Suffused with lyrical imagery and profound longing, Wong creates evocative moments of love, pride, jealousy, misunderstanding, and sacrifice in this duet of short stories. She’s also the author of the novel Drafts of a Suicide Note (Regal House, Oct 2019), which was a a finalist for the Permafrost Book Prize, a semifinalist for the Conium Review Book Prize, shortlisted for the SFWP Literary Award, awarded an honorable mention in the Leapfrog Fiction Contest, and nominated for the Foreword Indies Book Prize. Her stories and essays appear or are forthcoming in Waccamaw, Little Patuxent Review, The Island Review, The Spectacle, Quail Bell, and other venues. Her work has also been shortlisted for the Aeon Award (UK) and taken first prize in the Eyelands International Flash Fiction Competition (Greece). I’m an Afro-Chino-Cuban woman, a native of Bermuda.
Alex DiFrancesco is a multi-genre writer who has published work in Tin HouseThe Washington PostPacific StandardVol. 1 Brooklyn, The New Ohio Review, Brevity and more. In 2019, they published their essay collection Psychopomps (Civil Coping Mechanisms Press) and their novel All City (Seven Stories Press), which was a finalist for the Ohioana Book Awards. Their short story collection Transmutation (Seven Stories Press) is forthcoming in 2021. They are the recipient of grants and fellowships from PEN America and Sundress Academy for the Arts. They are an assistant editor at Sundress Publications.


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