“It’s my hope that Sumiko and Ayuka embody the tremendous strength that women who are different—whose perspectives refuse to dance to the canned music of the status quo—must cultivate within themselves, often alone and against all odds, in order to keep their ideals alive.”
Awabi (Digging Press, 2019)
How did you first come up with the idea to write Awabi? How did you first learn about the ama and become inspired to write about them?
For me the project began not with the ama but with their prey: sea-snails of various kinds. Google images of living awabi (abalone), and you’ll find that they’re both beautiful and adorable. I also love the Japanese legend of the sazae snail (Turbo cornutus), which in reality can live for several decades and in the legend transforms upon its hundredth birthday into a sazae-oni: a snail-demon, part snail, part vengeful mermaid. The ama are among the sazae’s primary predators. In fact, in my earliest ama story, which does not appear in Awabi, the narrator is a sazae.
In your acknowledgements, you write, “Every day I am inspired by the courage and tenacity of Sumiko, Sanae, and Shizuka Nakagawa” (55). Are these ama you have met and interviewed? What was it like to speak with them?
I have not yet met the Nakagawas, lacking the money to travel to Japan; but their tireless efforts to preserve the ama’s traditions and attitudes, in part by educating the rest of the world about them, are discussed online and in documentary films. Shizuka, in particular, describes how difficult it was for her as a young woman to watch everyone of her generation leave her village for the cities even as she made the decision to persevere as an ama, so strongly does she believe in their way of life and their devotion to conservation.
Was it difficult to write about such a specific group of Japanese women? How did you handle authenticity and agency while writing these stories? What were the difficulties you encountered while writing these stories, and what inspired you to persevere? What advice would give a writer trying to write a story that feels (and is) authentic?
“Authenticity” in fiction is a huge, complicated, and crucial question; one about which I have agonized again and again. It’s one of those great questions that spawns so many other questions and even calls the entire practice of fiction writing into question. What is “authenticity”? Is there such a thing among humans, objectively speaking? Especially when we live in layers and layers of socially constructed simulacra? The question of what “authenticity” entails may not even be an objective question but a subjective one: something every writer has to decide for themselves, which may change with every project. Fiction writers are in the business of making stuff up. Aren’t we? In which case “authenticity” isn’t our affair. Or is it? Do we also somehow reach for truths? These are questions I think each writer has to ask herself.
Your chapbook is set up as a duet of short stories that speak to each other, reinforcing the same ideas and themes while also filling in spaces left blank by each story. (For example, “Sumiko’s Daughters” explores the relationship between an ama and her daughter and granddaughter, while “Ayuka Breathes” explores the competing relationship between an ama, her husband, and the ocean.) Could you discuss how these two stories interact with each other? Why did you choose to have only two short stories?
It was exactly as you say: I wanted to explore how different kinds of love might feel to an ama and generate unique conflicts in her life. Mother-love for Sumiko. Lover-love for Ayuka. Though I didn’t exactly plan it this way, as it turned out, the ocean—or some personal, ill-defined but keenly felt idea thereof—seemed to cause upwellings of both love-kinds, even though I think of them as distinct and specific. Two stories? That was a practical decision. I wanted very much to submit to Digging Press, and any more than two stories would have exceeded their word limit.
One theme of these stories seems to be the idea that love both sustains and feeds off the loved one. You write, “Ama followed the awabi as they followed their human mothers into the ocean, devoured the sea-snails as they fed on their mothers’ milk. Predator-daughter-mother of the deep, where all was slippery, shadowy, roving, waving, Sumiko understood the flowing blending of visible and invisible life” (13). I was wondering if you would elaborate on this theme?
I’d love to! In fact, I’m planning to do just that in my novel-length expansion of Ayuka’s story, which I’m working on now. Stay tuned!
Something I noticed is that the reader rarely gets to be underwater with the ama. The reader most often sees the ama breaching the water after a dive, or on land. In a book where so much of the characters’ lives revolves around the ocean, why keep the ocean so mysterious and separated from the reader? Is this to keep the reader from romanticizing the ama?
Great question. Especially for Ayuka, the ocean is her private realm, which is why she doesn’t want Hiroki to strap a camera on her. Especially since “Ayuka Breathes” tries to explore several characters’ points of view, I wanted us to share Hiroki’s mystification and frustration with Ayuka’s secretiveness.
Your stories deal with issues like climate change and femininity, yet never come off as preachy. You focus the stories on the characters so that the reader is left remembering Sumiko and Ayuka along with the acidification of the oceans. Was this difficult for you to do? What advice would you give a writer to help them focus on their characters’ humanity and avoid sounding didactic?
Thank you! That’s a terrific compliment for me because this is exactly what I was hoping to achieve: as one of my favorite artists —Kathryn Eddy, who’s also an animal activist—says art cannot be didactic or else it isn’t art, it’s propaganda. For me, I think, the key was to make each individual character as unique and specific as possible with lives chock-full of dreams, activities, and details and with personalities that couldn’t possibly be generalized. I tried to fill myself with every character, to glut the story and my perspectives on the story with the characters’ specific conflicts and emotions, making it obvious to myself that a paragraph full of climate-change factoids that anyone could find on any search engine just wouldn’t fit in.
Something else I noticed about these stories is how you weave fiction with historical and scientific facts. Specifically, in “Ayuka Breathes,” you mix lyrical prose with science through the character of the physiologist Riku Hayashi. I especially enjoyed the part where you write, “In his small room and awestruck tones, Riku told her that on a daily basis she was diving far deeper and longer than all the other ama, their ancestors, and every funado in every record he could find” (44). How much of Riku’s findings have been proven today? What was the process of research for creating Riku’s character and his findings? Like Riku, were you struck by what you learned?
We’ll hear more about Riku’s research in Ayuka’s novel. 🙂
In your preface, you explain the Japanese characters (kanji) in the words “awabi” and “ocean,” and later, you give the meanings behind the names Namako and Hana. In the acknowledgments, you thank Michelle Rosquillo for helping you with the kanji. How did learning kanji affect your perception of the stories you were writing and the people you were writing about? When you were naming the other characters, like Ayuka and Hiroki, did you name them with specific meanings in mind? Why did you choose to explain Namako and Hana but not any of the other names?
I love that within their pictorial bodies, kanji imply the relationships between real beings: the kanji for both “awabi” (below) and “ama” (see book’s Preface) both contain the grid-like shape that’s part of the kanji for “ocean,” and this is a relationship I could see even without being able to read Japanese properly. It means the ocean is right at the heart of Japanese people’s perceptions (whether or not they’re conscious of it) of both a human animal and a nonhuman one—which suggests in turn that the ocean itself could be imagined as partly human, partly nonhuman. So the fluidity of these categories is much more evident in Japan’s kanji for them than in our words for them. Coming to realize this influenced my thinking a great deal.
I chose to explain “Namako” and “Hana” because Sumiko, the protagonist, had a hand in or at least influenced the selection of those names; and the names in turn influenced her feelings about her daughter. Ayuka, Hiroki, and Tomoki didn’t get to choose their names for themselves, so they don’t really play a part in the characters’ experiences, which is why I didn’t explain them. “Ayuka” in particular, however, is a very strange name with an amphibious and ambiguous meaning which I will explore in her novel.
Throughout Awabi, I noticed themes of feminism weaved in. Your book is about powerful Japanese diver-women who defy the usual cultural expectations of women (having pale skin and being thin); Awabi also brings to light objectification and violence when western visitors were appalled by the women’s “thick, brown, naked bodies” and also when Sumiko is dancing and being violated by men. Awabi also shows the oppression of women: “Highborn women had to be sweet and agree with the men in everything. And they were often afraid…” It was also “unheard of for feminine concerns to override husbands.” There were basically two “feminine subcultures” a young woman could choose from and belong to, and one was vanishing. Finally, we see that Ayuka seems to trust the ocean more than her husband. This book gives light to women’s voices, how powerful and wise the voices of women can be. Could you discuss how it is a call to action, to listen to the stories, wisdom, and concerns of women?
Thank you for the amazing way you’ve pulled together all these instances of Awabi’s feminism! These stories are most definitely a call to bear witness to the unique concerns of women, especially when they ring dissonantly against what society-at-large thinks women’s concerns ought to be. For Sumiko, having a stable domestic lifestyle with a steady income just isn’t what matters most. For Ayuka, appeasing the men around her—her husband and the doctor whom everyone believes possesses the power to save the village—just isn’t what matters. Both my ama are unusual in that it’s nonhuman ecosystems that matter most to them. It’s my hope that Sumiko and Ayuka embody the tremendous strength that women who are different—whose perspectives refuse to dance to the canned music of the status quo—must cultivate within themselves, often alone and against all odds, in order to keep their ideals alive.
Much of Awabi reads almost like a poem to me. It is very lyrical. It is beautiful and each statement seems to have many underlying meanings. I absolutely love your use of metaphor and concrete images. Do you also write poems? Are there poetic techniques you use in your prose?
Again, thank you so much for this tremendous compliment. I haven’t written poetry in a long time, but I read a lot of poetry, and poetry has a great deal of influence on how I craft my prose styles. Where prose writing these days takes many of its cues from everyday, popular speech, the best poets make a point of using language in ways that are deliberately weird, deliberately unexpected. As Clarice Lispector says, poetry “sensitizes language.” I have a lot of fun trying to do that with my prose, trying to make my word choice, syntax, and imagery extra-sensitive to the content as well as deliberately surprising.
Another huge theme in your book is environmentalism. Over the course of generations with these Ama, we see the Ocean growing warmer, more polluted, more acidic, and over-fished. At the end, we see Ayuka throwing “herself overboard as if into a lover’s arms, maskless and weeping.” Is this symbolic of a last attempt to save everything? If so, in your mind, is this final attempt successful? Do you think there is hope?
Wow, that’s a great interpretation—one which I hadn’t actually thought of but which suits everything in the story perfectly. Thank you! As for whether or not there is hope for the oceans: sometimes I like to think so because it seems to me that humans should be unable to reach the oceans’ deepest depths and therefore unable to ruin them. But I’ve been reading that some ocean scientists fear that there will soon be no more “wild” oceans, that humans will have soon contaminated everything after all, that even which oceanic animal species remain alive will depend solely on what humans want to eat. That prospect scares me to no end.
When writing about the fictional village of Kaiyono, did you have an actual, real-life village in mind?
Kaiyono is a sort of composite of the several ama villages I’ve researched in the Mie and Shima Prefectures of Japan. “Kaiyo” is a Japanese word for “ocean.”
In your book, we see the rise of commercialism and pollution. Do you think there is a good way to combat commercialism or a sustainable way to develop regions commercially?
I don’t have any answers; but commercial capitalism is unsustainable. I read in Immaterialism by the American philosopher Graham Harman that structures like commercialism and capitalist extractivism, foundations of “Anthropocene civilization,” have become so entangled in so many human lives, providing jobs and so on, that there is no easy way to undo them.
In your book, you speak a lot about mothers and daughters and how the ocean is also the mother of the Ama. Does this connect to the idea of “mother earth”?
I do love the idea of the daughter-mother as the earth/ocean-mother; it suggests a caring relationship between humans and the Earth which, as humans are all too eager to forget, goes both ways. At the same time—and this is a tension in my thinking that I have yet to resolve—like several feminist eco-critics today (e.g. Isabelle Stengers), I do have reservations about the whole concept of a “mother earth” aka Gaia. The Earth is not a human; it’s a unique being and system of beings that is absolutely nothing like a human or indeed like any kind of earthling mother. Thinking about loving the Earth as akin to loving a human mother or goddess risks affirming anthropocentrism all over again: it risks putting just another humanoid figure at the center of our priorities.
The marriage relationship between Ayuka and Hiroki is obviously strained. I see parallels between this relationship and the relationship of humans and earth. Did you have this or something else in mind when writing about Ayuka and Hiroki’s marriage?
Thank you for bringing this up! I’m really so grateful for your multi-leveled engagement with my work! I definitely agree that it is vitally important for humans to think about what we’d call “ecological” relationships as having the same level of complexity, intimacy, and priority as interpersonal relationships such as parent-child and partner-to-partner relationships. That said, I think it’s a matter not of fostering a relationship with “The Earth” as some kind of huge goddess-like abstraction but of particular persons caring for particular earthlings in close proximity—as the ama care for awabi babies, for example, or as Hiroki struggles to learn to care for his wife as a not-just-human being.
In an interview with eyelands, you talk about your story “Coconut Octopus.” You say, “the coconut octopus’ ingenuity was just too wonderful for me to ignore. This diminutive species really does make body armor out of discards – even out of garbage that humans cast into the ocean. It’s this kind of flexibility that will give nonhuman animals the best chance of surviving what we’re doing to the Earth.” I was wondering if there is some connection between the adaptability of these ocean creatures and the adaptability of women in Awabi. In a way, we have all been affected by some sort of trash, even the Ama women (commercialism, strained relationships with men, etc). They seem to be flexible, but are still dwindling in numbers. Could you say more about this?
Great point. It seems to me that the most flexible among my ama is Ayuka, and this is because she is partly nonhuman (or, better, more nonhuman than most humans!). Scientists are finding that some nonhuman species can actually thrive in the seemingly impossible situations we humans are creating. According to the research I’ve done so far, it’s the invertebrates who stand the best chance: a good example is the coconut octopus who uses garbage to its advantage; also certain jellyfish species thrive in polluted, deoxygenated waters where boned fishes can’t survive. Humans, on the other hand, are unlikely to survive what we are doing to our own home planet. Nearly all of the recent epidemics which have killed so many people have begun with humans encroaching on wild habitats and there contracting diseases; and nearly every such disease is exacerbated and spread by factory farming. We like to think that we are the smartest therefore the most adaptable species, but how smart is it to deliberately destroy one’s own habitat? What other animal does that? I can’t think of one.
In Awabi, the Ama see the ocean change so much just in the course of a lifetime. Do you think that by the time you are the age of the Ama, the ocean will have changed as much?
Wow. That’s a huge question. And I have to start with the caveat that I don’t write fiction in order to prophesy, really just to imagine the world from odd or marginalized angles. One thing I’m learning from my research on ocean animals is that it’s impossible to generalize about Earth’s oceans. A single corner of an ocean, say, around the Shima peninsula, contains a wealth of ecosystems; and a different corner, say, the reefs around Bermuda, contains a wealth of totally different ecosystems. Each ecosystem has been subject to different anthropogenic stresses at different times and to different degrees. In Bermuda, my native country, the reefs and the parrotfishes who are their caretakers are protected by rigid laws; so our surrounding waters haven’t seen the amount of devastation that, for example, the Caribbean waters have. Nor have we experienced anything like the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, with its devastating ecological consequences. In addition to that disaster, given that many of the national and international regulations that once tried to protect nonhuman ecosystems are being overturned by governments around the world; given that global warming is accelerating unchecked; and given the extent to which Japan engages in overfishing, whaling even in international waters, and polluting its local waters with heavy industry—it seems likely to me that the ocean in the ama’s vulnerable locales could well be unrecognizable in a few decades’ time.
Is there a question that I didn’t ask you that you would like to answer?
These questions are really amazing. They go way beyond what I dare to hope for from any reader. Some of your questions affirm ideas that the stories didn’t really make explicit; others go beyond the stories to make valuable new connections. Thank you again so much!
Mandy-Suzanne Wong’s chapbook Awabi (Digging) was the winner of the Digging Press Chapbook Series Award. Her novel Drafts of a Suicide Note (Regal) was a finalist for the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award, American Book Fest’s Best Book Award, the Permafrost Book Prize, and the Eyelands Book Award as well as a PEN Open Book Award nominee. Her nonfiction work includes the award-winning Artificial Wilderness (Selcouth), Listen, we all bleed (New Rivers, forthcoming), and Animals Across Discipline, Time & Space (McMaster). Her work appears in Black Warrior Review, Entropy, The Spectacle, her monthly column at Manqué, and elsewhere.