How does it feel to be the winner of our international flash fiction contest?
Honestly, I still can’t quite believe it. When I received The Email, I clicked it, looked at it. Closed it. Then I opened it again. And closed it again. And I kept doing it half expecting The Email not to be there the next time I clicked. In fact to have never been there. That seemed to me a much more likely thing. Nothing like this has ever happened to me before. I know my reply to you, Gregory, was completely nonsensical. I still have daily attacks of gushy excitement.
When did you start writing?
I was 15 years old when Rich Andrew, who is now a screenwriter, visited Bermuda and we spent a summer co-writing a novel. He was 15 too. The following year, my first solo story was picked up by a magazine in the USA.
You have seen your work published and your stories shortlisted quite a few times. Tell us more about this.
Sure! Thank you for your interest! Most of my published stories appear in US-based venues such as Quail Bell, The Island Review, The Spectacle, The Hypocrite Reader, Conclave, Five on the Fifth, and Dark Matter. Almost all these pieces are now online at www.mandysuzannewong.com, as is my fantasy story which was shortlisted for the UK’s Aeon Award in 2015.
Last month, my debut novel Drafts of a Suicide Note was named a finalist for the 2018 Permafrost Book Prize in Alaska. This happened literally one day after I signed a publication contract for this novel with Regal House Publishing, an independent publishing house based in North Carolina, USA. Elsewhere in the US, Drafts of a Suicide Note was awarded an honorable mention in the 2017 Leapfrog Fiction Contest, named a semifinalist for the 2016 Conium Review Book Prize, and shortlisted for the 2015 Santa Fe Writers’ Project Literary Award.
Submitting to the Eyelands International Flash Fiction Contest was a big step for me – my first attempt to offer my fiction to Greek readers. I’ve had a soft spot for Greece for some years now.
What was the inspiration for your story, “Coconut octopus”?
Several of my published stories are about the amaof Japan. These incredible women, most of whom are at least 60 years old, dive without the aid of scuba gear to depths of up to 30 meters in search of food. I’m in the very early stages of a novel about them. So I’ve been researching not only their traditions but also the nonhuman animals they might meet in the depths. That’s how I came to learn about the coconut octopus (amphioctopusmarginatus). I found that this octopus tends to live too far south to encounter any ama. But besides the fact that octopuses tend to be very emotional beings, which gives them great potential as protagonists; 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. If anybody has a chance. Learning about your contest, the theme of which was “Dreams,” got me thinking about this animal on another level. Because of course nonhuman animals have desires – but in addition, how could someone as creative as an eight-armed architect not have dreams, aspirations, and frustrations?
Do you think it is a strange coincidence that an octopus was the … vehicle to carry you from one island to another at the other side of the world?
Absolutely. Especially since neither Bermudians nor Greeks are likely to have ever met this mostly Indonesian octopus!
You are a native of Bermuda. Now you won holidays on another island almost at the other side of the world. What do you know about Greece and Crete?How do you feel about having to travel so far? Have you ever been in Greece before?
A few years ago I had the fantastic opportunity to participate in an academic conference in Thessaloniki. I spent a week hanging out in Aristotelous Square, watching the sun set over the Aegean, and visiting the historic places of that great city full of Byzantine beauty – where the earliest known example of written music had recently been discovered. Everyone participating in the conference got to visit beautiful Kavala, the architectural site at Philippi, and an ancient amphitheater in the hills where we listened to a concert of avant-garde Greek music in the company of bright stars and eager mosquitoes. I went on to Athens and Delphi; even now I remember vividly the lush beauty and crisp air of Mount Parnassos. Later on I read IoannaKarystiani’s novel Back to Delphi; and thinking back to Delphi itself it’s easy to see why Karystiani’s contemporary, totally non-religious protagonist thought a visit there might help her to discover hope.
I spent a too-short day on the gorgeous island of Chios, munching tsoureki in the village of Pyrgi. There’s no other place like that in the world. The gray and white buildings are painted all over by hand in such lively designs they look ready to get up and dance. Meanwhile, the streets, when I was there, were absolutely silent. Since then it’s been a dream of mine to spend time among the Greek islands. I know little about Crete – besides the Minotaur of Knossos – except that according to Google, Crete is about 160 times the size of Bermuda and gorgeous, covered in mountains and lush forests as well as beautiful beaches. I am so grateful for the opportunity you’ve offered me to learn more about your island and then see it for myself!
You have published a novel and you are under contract for a nonfiction monograph with the University of Georgia Press, USA. What are your plans for the future?
Drafts of a Suicide Note will be released in 2019, hopefully in time for my Cretan holiday! You can see how taken I was with Greece. When I got home, I found myself writing a novel about Mona, a homeless and severely traumatized American so desperate for hope that she looks for it in a most unlikely book; a misinterpretation of the Greek philosopher Anaximander. She herself misinterprets Anaximander’s 2500-year-old text for proof that she has magical powers. These powers are nowhere in evidence. But when she tracks down the author of the mistaken exegesis, Mona manages to make him question everything he thought he knew about Anaximander; about himself, his failures, his one true love, whose name is philosophy; and about the Greece he remembers from afar. That novel, Of Elements and Separations, is in the final stages of editing. After that will come my novel of the ama, based on my short story “Ayuka Breathes.”
Are you already dreaming of your holidays on Crete?
Oh yes. I’ve got my dictionary and phrasebook out again. Χταπόδι: octopus.
Thank you so very much again for reading my story and for the amazing opportunity to visit your country.
Mandy-Suzanne Wong’s stories and essays have been recognized and published in the USA, UK, and France. Her novel Drafts of a Suicide Note, which is forthcoming from Regal House Publishing, USA, was a finalist for the Permafrost Book Prize, a semi-finalist for the Conium Review Book Prize, shortlisted for the Santa Fe Writers’ Project Literary Award, and awarded an honorable mention in the Leapfrog Fiction Contest. Under contract with the USA’s University of Georgia Press is her first creative nonfiction book; an exploration of radical artworks that use sound to do animal activism. She was born to Jamaican parents in Bermuda, where she still resides.
Ιnterview: Gregory Papadoyiannis
Photos: Heather Kettenis