The Island of Sea Women by Chinese-American author Lisa See is historical fiction story about two women—Mi-ja and Young-sook—who developed a deep-seated friendship as children; one that would follow them throughout their lives, via every obstacle and awe-inspiring challenge that befell them, together and as individuals. Their journey is set on the Korean island of Jeju and begins during the 1930s to 1940s while Korea is occupied by Japanese soldiers. Even though they stem from different backgrounds, they come together because of their love of the sea and by working as a part of the village’s all-female diving community, also known as the haenyo, who are the main providers of their families, as well as the individuals who essentially run their respective households. As the story unfolds, it takes the reader through the Second World War and Japan’s defeat, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and the devastating ways that these periods of history have impacted haenyo culture, identity, and ways of life.
This novel was absolutely phenomenal. I wasn’t expecting to like it nearly as much as I did solely for the fact that it isn’t an #OwnVoices novel. Yet, I was utterly blown away by the depth of the characters, the richness of the culture, and the powerful nature of the strength of women. The Island of Sea Women is meticulously researched. Not one ounce is culturally appropriated. The way that See tells this story with utmost respect and care is positively astounding. I feel that many authors can learn how to write about people outside of their respective cultures and identities by reading this book because she truly does an incredible job, and illustrates that if the person is willing to put in the dedication and respect necessary to portray a group of people accurately, it can be done.
I’m one of those people who knew nothing about the haenyo, so when I saw that this was going to be the subject of See’s newest novel, I was intrigued.
The bulk of this story is about these women divers who resided on Jeju and their extraordinary way of life. These women deep-sea dove and collected nourishment from the ocean, which they then used to as a means to make a living. Some of the things they obtained, they sold for money and others they used for personal survival. The practise of diving and the rituals and beliefs surrounding their way of lives is filled with strength, independence, intelligence, and intense perseverance. One of the things that I found to be absolutely fascinating was how their cultural, shamanistic practises worked with the circle of life, to speak. They worked with the ocean, taking from it while respecting that it needs to replenish itself. Their gratitude and reverence, and this instinctively harmonious consideration of not being greedy, reminded me a lot of Polynesian tribes and our beliefs on the importance of maintaining a spiritual balance with nature.
Every woman who enters the sea carries a coffin on her back,” she warned the gathering. “In this world, in the undersea world, we tow the burdens of a hard life. We are crossing between life and death every day.”
Because the haenyo are people who are basically the breadwinners of their homes, we see them as a matrifocal society. But what astounded me the most was that regardless of being such, they are oppressed and treated with the same sexist beliefs that took place in other parts of Korea. The reasons behind their subjugation as it pertains to positions of power within the community (such as being in charge of regulating diving laws much later in life), can be chalked up to the decades of colonisation they experienced, first by the Japanese and then again by Americans.
War is a terrible, terrible thing. We hear about it and read about it in history books all of the time. In addition to educating readers about haenyo and their cultural significance, See also unveils the causes that inevitably led to their drastic decrease in numbers over the decades following the Second World War. There was strong opposition of having women in power, or in places of any authority whatsoever. Curfews were enacted and intense laws forbidding diving rose up to bottleneck the earnings of people in small villages like Hado (on Jeju, where most of the story takes place). As time went by and these laws changed and mutated with the arrival of a new coloniser or new battle, the number of women who could dive had decreased by nearly fifty percent in the span of a single decade, leading to the erasure of a significant aspect of Korean cultural identity.
The way that the characters undergo the loss of their way of life and their civilisation is heart-breaking and extremely difficult to digest. I know that as someone who has experienced oppression and what colonisers can do to a person’s faith in their heritage, this was something I had a difficult time reading. However, by that same vein due to my own history, I empathised with these people in ways that I wish I didn’t have to. The novel deeply examines how native people are constantly raped of who they are as a people, and always forced to conform to outsiders’ ideals of being “civilised,” especially where the younger generations are concerned.
In addition to being about haenyo, The Island of Sea Women is also about family and friendship. Mi-ja and Young-sook found one another as kids and developed a remarkable bond that helped them survive years of atrocities. They were closer than even sisters with a blazing intimacy and sense of loyalty that no one could usurp. But war does arrive in disastrous ways causing a rift between them. The foundation for this rift and the exceptionally emotional and provocative nature of overcoming loss and grief, anger and validation in order to find your way back to your family is the heart and soul of The Island of Sea Women.
Fall down eight times, stand up nine. For me, this saying is less about the dead paving the way for future generations than it is for the women of Jeju. We suffer and suffer and suffer, but we also keep getting up. We keep living. You would not be here if you weren’t brave. Now you need to be braver still.”
There is a vulnerability in having such a friendship, one that you don’t necessarily realise exists until it rises to the surface in the face of tragedy. The result of this vulnerability can be wholeheartedly decimating to a person’s willpower and fortitude, as well as their compassion. These parts of the book hit so close to home for me. I have been conflicted with letting go of my anger with regard to a personal relationship that I have for many years. On one side a logical part of me understands that life is too short and unpredictable to hold on to something so minuscule in the grand scheme of things, but then there is this other darker part. It is terrified of letting go for fear of the pain associated with it becoming obsolete. Sometimes I feel like if we allow ourselves to let go of the horrible things that have happened to us it shall lessen the impact of those moments/events. Yet, that isn’t true. It just means that we are no longer allowing it to control us, to ruin the beauty of our future, which doesn’t have to be an accumulation of heartache and disappointment.
They did this to me. They did that to me. A woman who thinks that way will never overcome her anger. You are not being punished for your anger. You’re being punished by your anger.'”
The Island of Sea Women is filled to the brim with a plethora of themes and wisdom for nearly every reader out there. It’s a part-educational and part-historical account of a prominent group of women that are becoming more and more obsolete as the years tick on by. It’s also a fictionalised story that reads like an intimate journal about two women who underwent things that no human being ever should and how they coped (or didn’t) with each passing year. It’s also a distinct commentary on the barbarity of warfare and its implications in obliterating cultural and ethnical identities, including (but not limited to) an entire belief system. Lastly, it’s about women being magnificently fierce and unapologetically self-assured in the love and life they instil within their families as well as within one another.
If you are a fan of historical fiction, particularly cultural fiction as it relates to Korea, and if you aren’t dissuaded by a story that is as paced and precise as it is poignant and purposeful, then I highly recommend The Island of Sea Women to you. It is one of the best novels that I’ve read in 2019, and positively one of the best works written by Ms Lisa See yet.
4.5 octopi outta 5!
Triggers: Scenes of graphic violence via soldiers. References to rape, domestic violence, and mass deaths.
For more information on haenyo, you can visit Ms See’s website here, as well as visit the two articles listed below.