The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

A fascinating read, an insight into a unique way of life by women known as ‘haenyeo‘ on the coastal, volcanic island of Jeju, in South Korea and a well-researched, thought-provoking work of historical fiction.

The novel is structured into chapters of time periods in four parts (Part 1 Friendship 1938, Part II Love 1944-1946, Part III Fear 1947-1949, Part IV Blame 1961), interspersed with chapters that cover four days in 2008, when a family of four from America come to Jeju Island and encounter a now aged Young-Sook, asking questions she turns away from.

The story follows the life of an elder daughter Young-sook, whose mother is the chief of their local collective of ‘haenyeo‘, women divers who harvest seafood (sea cucumber, urchins, abalone, octopus) all year round from the sea floor; they can stay underwater for sustained periods of time without breathing apparatus, wearing cotton garments that don’t protect them from the cold yet they don’t suffer hypothermia. As they rise to the surface, they emit a whistling noise ‘sumbisori’ an ancient technique to expel carbon dioxide from the lungs while also letting the other women know where they are.

The biggest risk is inattention, whether it’s abalone clamping down on a knife or a dangerous current sweeping them away (thus they always work in pairs). Before they enter the sea and when they return to land, they huddle around a fire in a seafront, stone enclosure called a ‘bulteok‘, share information, gossip, give advice and receive orders before going into the sea. Bulteok function as spaces for community life, changing of clothes by haenyeo, protection from weather, work activities such as repairs and storing their catch between dives and training.

In the 1960s, at their apex, there were 23,000 haenyeo women on Jeju, according to the island’s Haenyeo Museum. But now, only 4,300 haenyeo remain; many experts believe this generation will be the last, as young people flee to cities and pollution destroys the haenyeo’s place of work: the fragile aquatic ecosystem of the Strait. As of 2017, Jeju was home to only 67 haenyeo under the age of 50. In 2016, UNESCO awarded the divers a Cultural Heritage of Humanity designation.

A Typical Stone Bulteok Enclosure

They practice a form of Shamanism paying their respects to a Goddess, who helps them hold their breath and keeps them safe from danger. At certain times of the year, they hold ceremonies in honour of the goddess of the winds, launching mini straw boats out to sea, making sacrificial gifts of rice and other foods.

Although the Japanese had outlawed Shamanism, Shaman Kim, our spiritual leader and guide, our divine wise one, continued to perform funerals and rites for lost souls in secret. She was known to hold rituals to for grandmothers when their eyesight began to fade, mothers whose sons were in the military, and women who had bad luck, such as three pigs dying in a row. She was our conduit between the human world and the spirit world. She had the ability to go into trances to speak to the dead or missing, and then transmit their messages to friends, family, and even enemies.

Though the islanders live a simple life, they suffer the consequence of being a resting place for occupying forces, initially when the story opens, it is the Japanese military who occupy the island and create a bad feeling.

Young-sook’s best friend Mi-ja is an orphan, her mother died in childbirth and her father was believed to be a collaborator because he worked for the Japanese. She suffers from ‘guilt by association’, the villagers say she will be unlikely to find a good match in marriage despite her good looks. Young-sook’s mother teaches her to become a ‘haenyeo‘ and the two girls become firm friends.

A matrifocal society, it is the women/mothers who are the head of the household, who go to work, to sea, and the men who stay with the children and look after the home, or in some cases leave for the mainland to do factory work. When the girls are around 20 years old (in the 1940’s), they do ‘leaving-home water-work’ off the coast of Vladivostock. Apart from moving to Japan to do factory work, the only other legitimate way to leave the island was to work as haenyeo, diving from boats in other countries. The girls left for nine months at a time. They signed a contract for five years work.

During that time, the world – and not just our island – was shaken. For decades Japan had been a stable – if wholly hated – power on Jeju.

Back on their island, men and boys were being rounded up and conscripted into the Japanese army, sometimes without being given the chance to notify their families. At the end of WWII the Japanese occupying forces are replaced by American forces, and the country conducts it’s own elections, but people are preventing from voting and the incoming political party is mistrusting and treats people badly. Guilt by association leads them to kill indiscriminately, to burn villages, thus people leave in fear. The occupying forces don’t intervene.

This mid-section of the novel is subsumed by the changing political situation and the dire effect on the local population, nearly all of whom lose members of their family. Young-Sook’s family suffer severe tragedy, creating a deep resentment, causing her to abandon her friendship with Mi-ja.

We know that Mi-ja has an unhappy marriage, that she has one son, but with Young-sook’s unforgiving distance from her friend, the narrative around her life is full of gaps, we are witness only to Young-sook’s view, Mi-ja’s story is pieced together in patches until the end.

Rich in detail of the past and of the lives of Young-sook’s family, the story challenges the protagonist and the reader through the revelations of the interspersed four day narrative, when Clara, the young American great-grand-daughter of Mi-ja seeks out Young-sook. These short chapters drip feed the reader with insights into Mi-ja’s family after she left Jeju and bring the story to it’s thought-provoking conclusion.

It’s is a heart-breaking story of island women maintaining a unique tradition and way of life that has made them into unique humans, able to sustain the sea elements like no other and it is also a story of islanders at the mercy of inhumane political and military powers and policies, punished for expressing their opposition, for any form of protest and implicating everyone in their families if they do. It is a wonderful discovery and celebration of female partnership, collaboration and spiritual practice that has survived despite many setbacks, and a lesson in the necessity of forgiveness, and the sad consequence of stubbornly refusing it.

“To understand everything is to forgive.”

Highly Recommended.

 Further Information:

Haenyeo – a day in the life of a 12 year old Korean girl, learning to dive as a haenyeo on the island of Jeju.

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