Mandy-Suzanne Wong is a Bermudian writer of fiction and essays. Her novels include The Box, a Bustle Best Books of Fall 2023 selection, and Drafts of a Suicide Note, a Foreword INDIES literary-fiction finalist. She’s also the author of Listen, We All Bleed, a PEN/Galbraith-nominated essay collection, and Awabi, a duet of short stories, winner of the Digging Press Chapbook Award. Her work appears in Adroit, Arcturus, Black Warrior Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, Electric Literature, Literary Hub, Litro, and Necessary Fiction and has won recognition in the Best of the Net and Aeon Award competitions.
“Frightful Impenetrability of Mundane Things,” an interview with Mandy-Suzanne Wong
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Carolyn Combs. Of the process she said, “Mandy-Suzanne Wong has a fascinating perspective on the influence of ordinary objects and how they can affect us. Her novel is truly unique in its object-centered storytelling, playing off of the curiosity, the environment, and the world that encapsulates those who participate in the box’s journey.” In this Interview Mandy-Suzanne Wong discusses her inspiration for object-centered narratives, the complexity of humans and their relationship to material things, and the questions that arise with material influence.
Superstition Review: In your works you’ve tended to write in a less human-centered way, focusing on the forces and objects that affect humans. In this story, the central motivating object is a small, white, woven paper box with no way of opening it without it being destroyed. Why did you decide to use a box as the center of this story? What were some challenges you had in making the story more object-focused?
Mandy-Suzanne Wong: A little paper box: fragile, voiceless, unable to move its own body or accomplish anything under its own power. As the protagonist of a novel, such a vulnerable thing is anti-heroic in the extreme. To maintain that voicelessness, that inertia, in the protagonist, to resist every self-propulsive impulse that a protagonist must have; that was my challenge. To insist that the box remain simply a box. For only a box that is no more than a box can invoke the paradox of its own powerlessness. When a human meets a box, the helpless box exerts an irresistible power, and this is true for all boxes but all the more so when a box is plain and undecorated: suddenly the human’s vast and multiple intellectual capacities are reduced to only one; suddenly curiosity occupies the human’s whole intelligence. The box, by being a box, reduces the inventive and destructive powers of the human mind to the simple ability to wonder. What does the box hold, what stirs inside that other being, what is it holding close with its whole body? The box summons the question within the intellect for a moment perhaps fleeting but certainly undeniable, and in that moment the human must submit to not knowing. We do not know it all: the box unopen, however ubiquitous and ordinary, throws the knowledge of unknowing in the human’s face.
SR: I love the interconnected storytelling that happens through all these different voices. Will you talk more about your formatting for this work?
MSW: The narrators’ voices color and are colored by their own situations and personalities, but they are also inspired by literatures from other times and places, primarily by writings translated into English from other languages, with the result that none of them sound like the everyday Englishes to which we are accustomed; all of the narrators, each in their own ways, come across as foreigners to contemporary Anglophone cultures, which can give them an unauthoritative air, the air of the unauthorized. After all, none of them is telling their own story, they’re rather spreading rumors; and this precludes the novel from being governed by any definitive, linear narrative.
SR: In an interview with The Scales Project, you discussed writing with the idea of eco-consciousness, debunking the idea of anthropocentrism. Can you talk more about what these ideas mean to you? What were some of the eco-conscious decisions you made when writing The Box?
MSW: Thank you for reading that interview. More than just awareness that humans co-exist with other beings, ecological consciousness must also include awareness that those other beings are in many cases as complicated and sensitive as humans believe ourselves to be, equally capable of affective action and deserving of respect. When we consider that a plastic bag has the ability to outlive all humans and to travel the world’s oceans wreaking untold havoc—that furthermore we humans are doomed to underestimate every plastic nurdle, light bulb, cardboard carton, and paper box in existence, having failed to imagine the world they would create when we created them—our attitude towards such “mere things,” such “inanimate objects,” deserves to approximate dreadful awe. The Box tries to evoke this complicated affectivity and frightful impenetrability of mundane things.
SR: One of the driving factors in the narrative is not just the box itself, but the environment of the city. Throughout the narrative, many characters comment on the strange continuous snow, some even making extreme conspiracy theories by the end. Can you describe your motivation for setting the story in such an environment?
MSW: I wanted to imagine an utterly nonsensical environment which in its evasion of common sense is completely plausible; because everything about climate collapse is in every sense deranged, a great derangement, as Amitav Ghosh says. For example, although to humans it would seem sensible for a warming planet to experience less snow, the opposite is equally likely. Exactly how insane the current ecological moment is; how irrational we humans are as a culture, obsessed with extractivist consumerism and the myth of our species’ immortality, insisting on perpetuating these ideologies despite how catastrophic they have been for our own home—all of this is madness, and the city of The Box embodies it.
SR: Although there isn’t exactly a main character, there is a character who is tracked throughout the story: the woman with the crooked teeth, who desperately tries to take possession of the box, although she at no point gets a name or POV. What was your decision making process with keeping her character so distant?
MSW: I’d rather that each reader gauge this character’s distance and imagine her purposes (if any) for themselves.
SR: There is a sense of desperation among the characters upon encountering the box, and it is sort of unclear whether the driving factor comes from the characters themselves or if it is some sort of effect from the box. Can you explain your process when it came to developing the reactions of each character to the box?
MSW: Thank you for this question! By observing and calling attention to the ambiguity in cause and effect, you get right to the point, which is: the question itself. To what extent do the things of the world create us and vice versa? When you travel somewhere on a train, it isn’t solely your own actions that cause you to arrive at your destination; the qualities of your journey are really not for you alone and the humans around you to determine. As a very slow art—a good book may take years for a reader or writer to wholeheartedly enjoy for the first time—literature is in the unique position of being able to look long and hard at the ambivalences that enrich each fleeting moment. Each long look at a moment discovers more perspectives within it; and from each of those perspectives, the driving factors of what is happening will be different. The Box tries to engage and celebrate such ambiguities.
SR: There were parts in the story that gave me a strong sense of magical realism. I felt this was especially prevalent in the htl-esc story, in which an employee tends to the htl-esc hotel correcting 'irregularities.' This all culminates into him experiencing increasingly strange incidents in the hotel. What inspired you to incorporate these magical elements? What is your relationship to magical realism in novel writing?
MSW: Literatures of the fantastic are lifelong, beloved influences on my writing, but more important to me than any genre or tradition, such as surrealism or magical realism, is what I can only call magic: uncanniness and strangeness as a sense or a sensation or a presence (all of which are different things, for straightforwardness here would miss the point). “You are in the presence of something radically different from yourself, and the experience could upend your perspective, could turn your ways of thinking inside out”—great fiction guides me to that feeling, to the sense of possibility widening its frontiers into dimensions I’d never before conceived. The expansion of possibility unto questioning inevitably open-ended: that’s what magic is. It is language, I think, its flexibility and depths, that enables fiction to be magic, not generic tropes. If a story’s language declines to reach for magic, then the story will not reach it, however farfetched the plot and setting.