UCI Librarian Richard Cho Reviews Lisa Sees Latest Book

To understand everything is to forgive: On Lisa See's The Island of Sea Women

Richard M. Cho is a librarian at UCI.

Be sure to RSVP for our two events with Lisa See next week on March 11th at 1PM and 5PM.

Friendship, forgiveness, and the sea divers (haenyeo) of Jeju Island. These are three main themes of Lisa See's heartrending and meticulously researched new novel The Island of Sea Women. For hundreds of years, Jeju Island, located south of the Korean peninsula, practiced matrifocal customs: women, most of whom were haenyeo, were the breadwinners of the household while their husbands washed clothes and looked after the children. These haenyeos were respectful toward the sea, always performing rituals by pouring rice wine before diving deep down to the ocean floor to gather seafood. "The sea, it is said, is like a mother. The salt water, the pulse and surges of the current, the magnified beat of your heart, and the muffled sounds reverberating through the water together recall the womb." The island’s livelihood depended on these women.

Lisa See has written several historical fictions about China, but in this new novel, her focus is on Korean Island Jeju, a popular tourist attraction nowadays but for many centuries, a "stepping-stone" for conquerors and colonizers. Young-Sook, the main protagonist, says, "I remembered how Grandmother used to talk about the Mongols using Jeju as a stepping-stone to invade Japan and China. More recently, Japan had used the island as a base for bombing raids on China.” Later on, the Allies would use the island as a stepping-stone to bomb Japan and the Americans would use it to bomb Vietnam. The citizens of this island suffered the stomping by foreign boots for too long.

The novel spans some 80 years, from the 1930s when Korea was under the Japanese occupation, then the American occupation ("We were told the Americans would bring democracy and quash communism, but most of us didn't know the difference between the two. We wanted to be left alone to have control over our own lives"), through modernization forced upon the island, then to the year 2008 when the haenyeos are becoming extinct. Our heroine is Young-Sook, who is over 80 when the novel opens. On the shore, she is approached by the granddaughter of her once best friend, "her sister-in-heart", Mi-ja, and her reminiscing begins. The novel cuts back and forth in time, describing the hardships suffered by young women on the island ("We may have been stupid Korean country bumpkins in our homemade clothes dyed with persimmon juice, but we were young, and Mi-ja was extremely beautiful."), the friendship that bloomed between Young-Sook and Mi-ja, their sea-diving life in Jeju, their days in Vladivostok as hired divers, their arranged marriage and motherhood, the 4.3 incident in Jeju (the massacre that killed thousands of villagers)which was silenced for over 50 years, and the ultimate, seeming betrayal by Mi-ja. The lives of these women are ineluctably affected by the force of history: After the Japanese left the island, "We thought we were free, but so far the only difference in our lives here on Jeju was that the Japanese flag was lowered, and the American flag was raised. One colonizer had been replaced by another." Lisa See does a wonderful job keeping the research subordinated to the plot, which seamlessly flows through the Korean-specific customs (such as ancestral worship and shaman dance) and aphorisms endemic to the region.

In Jeju Island as in anywhere else, life is especially unfair for women. But they stay resilient and brave in the novel. The Island of Sea Woman is deeply humane, and the conversation among the main protagonists near the end of the book would shatter the heart of every reader. The haenyeos, now in their old age, look back on their tragic past, share their experiences and seek understanding from each other. One friend says to inconsolable Young-Sook, "Who can name a death that was not tragic? Is there a way for us to find meaning in the losses we've suffered? Who can say that one soul has a heavier grievance than another? We were all victims. We need to forgive each other."