Lisa See is the author of the new novel The Island of Sea Women. Her many other novels include The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. She lives in Los Angeles.
Q: Why did you decide to focus your new novel on women divers on the Korean island of Jeju?
A: In many ways I feel that they called to me. I was sitting in my doctor’s waiting room, leafing through magazines, as we all do. I came across a tiny article—just one paragraph and one small photo—about the diving women of Jeju Island. I ripped it out of the magazine and stuck it in my purse. I hung onto the article for eight years before I decided that now was the time to write about the haenyeo.
They have a matrifocal society—a society focused on women. The women hold their breath for two minutes and dive down 60 feet (deep enough to get the bends) to harvest seafood. They are the breadwinners in their families, while their husbands take care of the children and do the cooking. In the past, women would retire at age 55. Today, the youngest haenyeo is 55.
I was and am amazed by their bravery and persistence, as well as the camaraderie—sisterhood—that they share with each other. It’s said that in about 15 years, this culture will be gone from the world. I felt compelled to write about them while I still could.
Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?
A: I did all the usual kinds of research: I spoke with scholars, looked at the work done by scientists on the biology of the haenyeo, and I delved into the history of the island, including what is known as the 4.3 Incident.
I also went to Jeju, where I interviewed women in their 70s, 80s, and 90s—many of whom were still diving. I must say that this was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. These women have done not only dangerous work but they have also lived through extraordinary times.
To sit in their homes or on the beach with them as they gathered algae that had washed ashore and then listen to them reminisce about their lives was a great privilege. I particularly loved listening to them banter about who deserves to eat more food—men or women? The answer was women, because they work harder.
Q: As you mentioned the women you write about are part of a culture where women do dangerous jobs while men take care of the children. How did this society develop, and what is the situation on the island today?
A: Once upon a time, men were divers on Jeju. However, the Korean kings taxed men for their work. Women weren’t taxed, which is how and why women started diving. Then it turned out that women were better suited to the hardships of diving. We have a little more fat on us, which meant that women could stay in cold water longer.
Since the women were doing this dangerous work, the men of Jeju typically stayed home to take care of the children, do the cooking, and be responsible for the household.
This is interesting in part because Korea is considered to be the most Confucian of all the Asian countries. As you know, Confucius took a pretty dim view of women. One of his most well-known aphorisms is: When a daughter, obey your father; when a wife, obey your husband; when a widow, obey your son. But on Jeju, that was turned upside down.
Of course, times change. There are only about 4,000 haenyeo left on Jeju, and mainland beliefs play a far greater role in daily life.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for your character Young-sook, and how would you describe her relationship with Mi-ja?
A: Personally, I find it extremely exciting to read about female relationships through the eyes of women. We need to remember that women writers haven’t been getting published for all that long. Yes, there are the few women writers that we all know about—the Bronte sisters, Emily Dickinson, George Sand, Virginia Woolf, and a few others—but really they were few and far between.
This means that in literature most female relationships—mothers and daughters, sisters, friends—have been written by men. But now we have lots of stories about women that are written by women. And there’s such range to that, right? Chick lit women who shop, tough women detectives, flawed women, brave women, poor women, rich women, women from other cultures, religions, cultures, and traditions.
As a writer, I’m drawn to women’s friendship because it’s unlike any other relationship we have in our lives. We will tell a friend something we won’t tell our mothers, our husbands or boyfriends, or our children. This is a particular kind of intimacy, and it can leave us open to the deepest betrayals.
Young-sook’s mother is chief of a diving collective, which means that Young-sook is destined to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Young-sook’s roots in the haenyeo culture are deep, and her sense of responsibility about diving have been with her since birth.
Mi-ja, on the other hand, is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator. Even though she becomes a diver, she is always under suspicion.
I loved the idea of following these two friends from very different backgrounds (and pressures). I thought a lot about the idea of destiny. Are we stuck with who we were born to be or can we change our destinies? Do the sins of the fathers—or mothers—necessarily have to tar someone for life?
It’s not a secret to say that bad things happen between Young-sook and Mi-ja. This caused me to think about the nature of forgiveness, which I looked at on two levels.
First, there’s what happens between Young-sook and Mi-ja purely as friends. Can they forgive each other as friends? Then I thought about the larger picture—what happens in societies, cultures, and countries—when something terrible happens.
Jeju Island has some very dark history attached to it: the Japanese colonial period, World War II, the division of Korea into north and south, the red scare.
On Jeju, all this culminated in what’s known as the 4.3 Incident, when friends turned against friends, families against families, police and the army against the populace. It’s estimated that 40,000 people lost their lives, and entire villages were burned.
Jeju, as an island, has taken on the ideal of forgiveness. It is now considered an Island of Peace. Whether we are individuals or entire societies we need to try to find ways to forgive.
This isn’t easy! Our own country is divided right now, and one side shows little interest in communicating or negotiating with the other side, let alone finding a way towards rapprochement. On a personal level, I’ve been struggling with how to forgive and if it’s even possible.
But that’s what literature does. The fictional relationship between Young-sook and Mi-ja gives us an opportunity to see what can work, and why it should work, for the betterment of all of us.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: When my grandmother died, I found in her things her mother’s diary. My great-grandmother Jessie was born in the 1880s on a homestead in South Dakota, moved to Washington State with her family, got pregnant at 16, and ended up traveling the West—from Alaska to the Mexican border—as an itinerant worker.
I’m using the diary as a jumping off point to write about what it meant to be a poor, uneducated, white woman in the West during a period when women moved forever out of long skirts and petticoats and won the right to vote but were still very much at the mercy of society and cultural mores.
Right this minute, I’m on a plane to Everett, Washington, to do research. My great-grandparents lived there between 1916 and 1920, during which time there was a massacre, World War I, and the flu pandemic. And that’s just four years of the story!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Lisa See.