I found Mandy-Suzanne Wong in that two-decades-or-so-old method of amateurish, un-peer reviewed, research: Google. I was looking for contemporary Bermudian writers in print. Near the end of crafting a syllabus on Bermudian Literature, I was missing a current text - that I didn’t have to break an arm and leg trying to hunt down on Abebooks. The fact that I was teaching a literary tradition, (of which I am a part of and haplessly indebted to) whose texts are largely out of print, made the business of teaching almost inefficacious. And then I happened upon Mandy, with whom, at first, I was astonished that there existed an actuality of which her literary existence evaded me. That there was a Bermudian writer, I didn’t know.
We met twice - via the lens of Zoom, which has become our method of social interaction. We talked about identity, home-ness, and moving. There were stretches of conversation that left their initial thought trail and went down - what seemed like, endless rabbit holes. In excavating the ideology of home, we circled the changing form that is Bermudianess. What does it mean to be Bermudian - in the sense of tribe, home, community, what does it mean in the personal?
Mandy was born in Bermuda with Chinese/Jamaican heritage. She learned to love books and classical music before she was 2. Getting a first degree in Music Performance and a career as a multi-disciplinary writer. When she speaks of her identity she does so compassionately, as if it’s a dear friend she comforts. Giving way to express the othering that being Bermudian, but looking, quite unlike any other Bermudian around - especially in the late 90s when she was skipping through Primary school. There isn’t much mystery to the reflex of othering in Bermuda. The country has had a bristled relationship with the demographic makeup since the island was colonized. And - it should be said - sought to colonize other Caribbean islands.* A sum of islands that we in turn, culturally and autocratically distanced ourselves from - until it served us best (shoutout to dancehall, reggae, and Bermuda Carnival).
For Mandy, growing up in Bermuda as a child of Asian likeness meant to be faced with her identity as seen through everyone else’s eyes. She speaks of a recital she performed in as a youth, that was written up in the newspaper, identifying her as a child who emigrated to Bermuda with her family. Mandy Wong came to Bermuda, not Mandy Wong, born in Bermuda. The outright stripping of the coveted birthright was enraging. Which leads to the crux point. What exactly does it mean to be Bermudian? And for Mandy-Suzanne Wong, what does it mean to be a Bermudian writer?
She left the island - like many of us do - to find home elsewhere. Between the ages of 15 and 20 years old she lived out of a suitcase in boarding school, taking out what she needed as she went along. Never really unpacking so that at a moment’s notice, she could go back home. The America that she expected to be a melting pot, where she would blend, was all but. She didn’t fit in with the Chinese people in University because they felt she was too dark. Then, she was a jazz musician for a while, but turned heads and roused a distrust from African Americans who did not understand her place in their music.** In 2001, she was again, even in a space that felt like hers, an other.
So she came back, like many of us do, and in the space of comfort tried to find home. When I asked her, more pressingly, about how she navigates her identity, as a Bermudian, and within the personal, she responded, “With great difficulty.” Noting that she had to grow up, before realizing how much of an outsider [she] was. It was here, in the midst of her outlier, that she regained a wielding of her self.
The book that I eventually added to my syllabus was her first novel, Drafts of a Suicide Note. Here, her character Kenji existed consistently in some form of habitat. Mandy remarked that she put Kenji, “...in his apartment and that’s where he stayed. For Kenji, every space is a hiding place.” Mandy used Kenji and his remarkable adaptation to the spatial imaginary as a way in which to engage with her own Bermudianess. Kenji, of Bermudian and Japanese heritage, exists in a world of Bermudian things, Bermudian customs, and most conspicuously, Bermudian dialect.
Her forthcoming title with Graywolf Press is a work of fiction, with six narrators. She cites Dostoevsky’s, Crime & Punishment, Marlon James,’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, and Terry Pratchet as a literary lineage that the manuscript invariably springs from. A literary family tree that is almost confounding, and that she was sure would hate each other in real life. But therein lies the intricacy of being, we come from something, if even mixed, misread, or misunderstood.
Mandy-Suzanne Wong is an interesting Bermudian character. She writes for eight hours a day, she can play strange, nonsensical experimental music. She is often mistaken for a foreigner when she reaches a cashier’s desk and then is the recipient of a bemused face when that same cashier hears the intonation of Bermudian inflection. She uses archaic Bermudian slang, (she said words that I all but forgot at least twice during our calls). She loves the written word and studies it, pulls it apart, translates it consults, re-consults, respects and deifies it dutifully. She immerses in the various houses of herself, trying new keys, building new wings, and at times, even showing identification of her own rights to ownership. She exists in the temporal space of what Gaston Bachelard highlights as of utmost importance; the future. With which he elucidates as being, “better built, lighter and larger than all the houses of the past.”*** Bachelard further expounds that, “Maybe it is a good thing for us to keep a few dreams of a house that we shall live in later, always later….It is better to live in a state of impermanence than in one of finality.”
With Mandy we see her personal arm extend with her first protagonist Kenji. How they both lived out of suitcases of sorts, both Bermudian and somehow, to someone, not. Both living in and out of their own built homes. Ever existing in a state of impermanence, with ready tools to build the next home.
Mandy lives now in Bermuda, her from and her to. If there is any finality to be observed, it’s in the hope that she habitually harvests. To be here, on this island, means already to be a strange thing. An island of mystery, of 17th-century malalignment, of constant misinterpretation. We don’t all look like Gray Malin portraits or the vintage posters of the 1940s. We are such a strange collection of family. At once following behind an iridescent and gyrating folkloric legacy that encompasses West Indian, West African & a British snare drum. And then we eat shadeesh but don’t adequately honor our Portuguese heritage. I recently told a friend how I hoped we’d introduce Portuguese as a second language in Bermuda soon - to which she replied, another colonizer’s tongue. Which is of course, true, and also, our own tongue. As remarked by Shakespeare’s Caliban, as a language given to us so that we may curse.
Which, when we do, is the most colorful of cursing I’ve ever seen. The most - if possible- beautiful swearing on this earth. I sat at that same friend’s house recently and heard two Bermudians yelling and swearing at each other. This mouth, with which we speak, with which Mandy honors to write, is such the most hallowed home. Even when blaspheming.
*The Eleutheran Adventurers were a group of English Puritans and religious Independents who left Bermuda to settle on the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas in the late 1640s. This group represented the first concerted European effort to colonize the Bahamas.
1673 - Bermudians came to the Turks Islands to rake the salt and take it back to Bermuda.
**Of course now, we have Japanese Jazz players such as Takuya Kuroda who doesn’t so much as draw an extra eyeblink.
***Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space. 1958
Mandy-Suzanne Wong can be found at http://mandysuzannewong.com/
otherwise, I'm sure, she can also be found. in some sort of nook - reading, writing, sliding in and out of your immediate periphery, but ever present on this little vexed rock.
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