The South Korean island of Jeju is home to haenyeo – women divers who harvest shellfish, plants, such as seaweed, and other seafood. “The Island of Sea Women” is a historical fiction book about these women, the bonds built among them within their diving collectives, and the burdens these women shoulder throughout their lives. It is a story of love between friends, grief from loss, and how we choose to find forgiveness in one another.
Grandmother Seolmundae -the volcano also known as Mount Halla that sits at the center of Jeju – serves as the island’s backdrop with slopes changing from yellow, red, and orange in the fall to magenta, purple, and crimson in the spring. Grandmother Seolmundae watches over the women of the island as they toil in dry and wet fields, as the brave and bold breadwinners of their families. It is in the wet fields, in the sea, where we see the incredible strength, determination, and the way of life of the haenyeo women.
The book begins with the narrator’s first day as a baby diver. This is her first of many days being part of the diving collective of which her mother is chief. We can hear and feel the three deep breaths taken before submerging under water, we feel the calm of being underwater. We can almost taste the seasoned sliced sea cucumber and sand crabs stewed with beans, a meal enjoyed by the collective under a roofless bulteok following the dive. We play witness to the important and dangerous work of a haenyeo when she is in the water, and find ourselves amid the social interplay of the women between dives.
Relationships between women abound in “The Island Of Sea Women,” but none is so prominent as that between Young-sook, the narrator, and her closest childhood friend Mi-ja. Their lives are tightly intertwined and over the course of decades we see how friendships evolve and change us.
In addition to relationships between women, the book shows us the connection between haenyeo women and the sea. They build their independence, they secure their livelihoods, and they pay respect to the life that grows underwater. “For her, life is better when she can live in harmony with nature – the wind, the tides, and the moon.” It is said by the haenyeo that the sea is better than one’s own mother, forever there.
The story takes us back to one of the most transformative and tumultuous times in Korea’s history, when the country was at war and divided between the north and south. The Korean perspective expressed by the narrators and other characters in this book are less-known among Americans and worthy of our consideration.
I found myself lost in this book, not wanting to pull myself away from reading about life on Jeju island or in the waters surrounding it. I recommend this book to those interested in learning about different cultures, especially those who can appreciate the bonds between women.
Research, photos, video, and a look at Lisa See’s trip to Jeju on her website
Photos and video coutesy of the Haenyeo Museum on the UNESCO website