You have to tell Namako to go into the city. She has to believe it’s what you want. Otherwise she won’t do it, she’ll stay here and waste away.
And Sumiko’s own mother saying this, the ama who once dove naked and taught Sumiko to move her legs like fins . . . Sumiko couldn’t have been more dismayed if her mother had told her to take the net bag she’d inherited and tear it with her hands.
Besides, it would be a lie: a lie to pretend that even one hour shape-shifting in the blue-on-blue wasn’t worth the strain; that predator and prey face-to-face and intermingled wasn’t what living was; and that Sumiko hadn’t lived, dived, and survived so that she could pass on that existential truth and the sheer joy of oceanic living to her daughters.
She felt hemmed in and divided: torn between her ocean-daughter who needed ama-mothers to fight for her life and her Namako-daughter who just wanted to be a woman. The indecision seemed to dry Sumiko up. She went into menopause. She pretended nothing was the matter. She avoided serious conversation for a year, never quite acknowledging that what had wrapped her in itself like a cannibal starfish was double-headed fear.
Fear that she couldn’t lie to Namako. Fear that if she didn’t lie, Namako would corrode like awa bi in an ailing sea.
She did it, finally, or there would have been no Hana (b. 2007). Namako became the housewife of an Osaka salaryman. And then Sumiko no longer knew who she, Sumiko, was. She felt like a broken tile in a vast and ancient roof.
There was no outward change in her laugh ing personality. But she was guarded with Hana, the cybernetic granddaughter who learned to use a smartphone before she learned to read. Sumiko couldn’t understand why Namako didn’t at the very least take the baby to a public pool so that the water could teach her to swim. Sumiko reminded her that as an infant she, Namako, had learned to swim from the ocean just as Sumiko herself had done; and Namako dithered, she seemed almost squeamish or perhaps lazy. But besides the fact that Namako and her husband selected such a dry and bewildering name — Hana (花), meaning “flower” or “nose” — Sumiko found herself baffled every time she looked around. There was the Fukushima disas
ter. The ama had declined 80% in number since her childhood. Awabi had diminished by 90%. Kaiyōno, with dwindling snails and proliferating storms, slid into disrepair. The divers, whose average age was 60, felt the ocean warm as their joints stiffened. And before Sumiko died, she would see tropical fishes, refugees from an equator grown too hot, come to pluck the last awabi from their rocks with beakish mouths.
In her grandmother years, Sumiko still dived daily as her mothers dived. She breathed as whales breathed, carrying the nomi she’d carried all her life. Some of what she caught went to the shrine, for kami craved awabi even after all this time, but hotels bought the lion’s share: the words “dying way of life” won publicity for Kaiyōno. The Ama Preservation Association also did its best to piggyback on the trending idea that to “return to ancient ways” was to “embrace sustainable living.” And so Sumiko found herself in a white amagi dancing “traditional” dances in the widow’s restaurant, babbling of better days to anybody who would listen, cackling at her own jokes while some man found reasons to pinch her, and announcing that ama-diving was an “intan gible cultural heritage” as though she belonged behind glass in a museum.
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 House, The Washington Post, Pacific Standard, Vol. 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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