Gateway Gazette

From My Bookshelf: The Island of Sea Women

By Lynn Willoughby

The Island of Sea Women ~ Lisa See

While this is a novel about female friendships, life in a village where everyone knows your business and your family secrets, much of it was also about the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1930s.  Then it moved through the years of American occupation after the Korean war.  What I was most interested in reading about was the unforgettable female divers of Jeju Island.

The haenyeo are legendary.  These women divers inherit their position in the diving collectives through their mothers and grandmothers.  Often there are three generations of divers working in this very dangerous occupation.  Unlike most Asian cultures, girl children are highly valued as they make the money for the family.  These women are the best in the world at what they do – collecting sea urchins, abalone and octapus all while holding their breath in the very cold and dangerous waters where these sea creatures flourish.

The men in the village are in charge of cooking and caring for small children while the women are the wage earners and the diving collectives are the political structures which drive the villages in this matrifocal society.  

Mi-ja and Young-sook come from very different backgrounds but become close friends and diving companions.  But war and its brutal and destructive forces will forever change their “closer than sisters” bond.

There is a lot of historical research in this book and I learned so much – not just about the haenyeo, but about the brutality and genocide that took place in Korea – first by the Japanese, then by the Americans.

  • The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane
  • Shanghai Girls
  • …………..and others

Who Knew?

In the early 1960s haenyeo harvests accounted for 60% of Jeju’s fisheries revenue!

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