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

Sumiko’s Daughters

Sumiko had no opportunity to wriggle into a  wetsuit until she was almost 30. Growing up, she dived in cotton shorts and a bandanna, imitating her mother’s straight-down dive, feet skyward shooting. Her mother taught her, as she’d learned from her mother, to live and dive and die in the current that commingled predators and prey and daughter-mothers, as it swirled and surged and flagged and swirled up again in time. Best day of my life, Sumiko would say, when she walked into the ocean with her mother and grandmother for the first time, a young teen with her own nomi,  mask, and barrel. They walked without mincing though waves towered over them. They laughed when the ocean slapped them in the face with the full force of its grandeur, three generations with their faces to the blue-on-blue. Sumiko’s mother  had a tendency to grumble later in life: 

Back then, I could catch 40 awabi a day. 10 years ago, I was down to 4 a day. Nowadays if you can find one, that’s really something. Even though there are no more feudal lords, it’s as if we’re ruled by numbers. How many,  how long, how short, how much . . . 

With chattering teeth, red eyes, and heavy barrels, the ama emerged from the water and huddled,  10 or 12 to a group, shuddering, kimono-swaddled,  around a small pit fire in the amagoya, their small bamboo hut. Later, goya were built with corrated tin sheets held down by rocks. They had showers and places to hang nets and floats, drying wetsuits, sodden underwear. Some even had doors, which the ama left open to keep an eye on the ocean. Though they sneaked emulous looks at other people’s catches, they would run back to the sea if anyone came into difficulty. 

The best thing about being an ama is the ocean. Second best: the snails. Third: the amagoya. That’s your real  home.  

It was a noisy place. Wood crackling, wetsuits  flapping, water hissing on the fire. Loud gossip,  singing, shouting fisherfolk tales (“The Big One”  or “The One That Got Away”), boasting about the size of the haul and the best and worst divers,  hollering bawdy jokes about husbands and which ama had better breasts.  

Outsiders thought the ama the opposite of beautiful. They were too brown from the sun,  too stocky with essential fat and muscle, coarse of hand and tongue, dirty with sand and slaughtered sea-snail slime, and always slithering into in-betweens. But their almost inhuman strangeness, the sense that their dolphinesque ability was some mutation, and the bareness that shocked  Mikimoto’s clientele, lured anthropologists, physiologists, and photographers to Kaiyōno. 

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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