Lisa See is the New York Times bestselling author of The Island of Sea Women, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony in Love, Shanghai Girls, China Dolls, and Dreams of Joy, which debuted at #1. She is also the author of On Gold Mountain, which tells the story of her Chinese American family’s settlement in Los Angeles. See was the recipient of the Golden Spike Award from the Chinese Historical Association of Southern California and the History Maker’s Award from the Chinese American Museum. She was also named National Woman of the Year by the Organization of Chinese American Women.
Your novel The Island of Sea Women is a multigenerational family saga about the diving women of Jeju Island. Can you tell us a bit more about the book?
Young-sook and Mi-ja, two girls living on the Korean island of Jeju, are best friends that come from very different backgrounds. One is the daughter of the chief of the female diving collective; the other is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator. When they are old enough, the girls take up their positions as “baby divers.” They’ve joined a long line of women who live lives of excitement and responsibility but also extreme danger.
Despite their love for each other, Mi-ja and Young-sook’s differences are impossible to ignore. The Island of Sea Women is an epoch set over many decades, beginning during a period of Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s, followed by World War II, the Korean War and its aftermath, through the era of cell phones and wet suits for the women divers. Throughout this time, the residents of Jeju – and Young-sook and Mi-ja – find themselves caught between warring empires and factions. Ultimately, the story is one of forgiveness. How do we forgive each other? Can we forgive each other?
What inspired you to tell this story?
In many ways I feel that the haenyeo—the diving women of Jeju Island—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 these remarkable women. I ripped it out of the magazine and took it home. 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 sixty feet (deep enough to get the bends) to harvest seafood. They are the breadwinners in their families, while their husbands take care the children and do the cooking. In the past, women would retire at age fifty-five. Today, the youngest haenyeo is fifty-five. 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 fifteen years, this culture will be gone from the world. I felt compelled to write about them while I still could.
This book, whilst fiction, heavily references a tumultuous period of history. How much research did you conduct when writing this book? What resources did you draw on to capture the essence of the era?
Research is my favourite part of the writing process. For this book, research sent me in many directions. I did research on the haenyeo’s ability to withstand cold. Is this a genetic ability or an adaptation? I researched the special language of Jeju, the special clothes that are dyed in unripe persimmon juice, the influence of Shamanism on the island, and so much more. I interviewed people about the 4.3 Incident—a devastating massacre that took place over many years on Jeju. I also had a copy of the 755-page human rights report that was conducted over a decade on the massacre, which gave me additional first-person accounts of those years.
I ate everything that I wrote about. (Eating has to be one of the greatest joys of my research.) Last and most important, I interviewed haenyeo in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, many of whom were still diving. Some of those interviews were pre-arranged, while others were a matter of luck and happenstance. I would walk to the shore and talk to women entering or leaving the sea. I also spoke with many older women—retired haenyeo—who were sitting on the shore collecting and sorting algae. In fact, those encounters inspired the opening scene and all the present-day vignettes in the novel.
The Island of Sea Women illuminates a world turned upside down – one where the women are in charge. What do you want readers to learn or take away from this novel?
People can learn from the divers in many ways. First, these divers have physical courage and persistence. In the past, in addition to the ordinary day-to-day hardships they faced in their work, they would dive in winter off the coast of Vladivostok! Can you imagine how cold that water must have been? The haenyeo have the greatest ability of all human groups to withstand cold water, which amazes me.
Second, the older generation of divers lived through incredibly dark and difficult times: Japanese colonialism, World War II, the Korean War, and then the severity and hardships of how the Red Scare played out on Jeju Island. So, I’d highlight their psychological courage and persistence.
Third, these women work together and share their lives together. They are literally facing life and death together every day. Somehow they are able to do this will maintaining a really good—and wry—sense of humour. We all face adversity in our lives. Sometimes we rise to the occasion and sometimes we fail. What I think we can learn from the haenyeo is that no matter what tragedies or struggles we face, we must continue on for ourselves, for our families, and for the larger society that we’re a part of.
What was your favourite book of 2018? And which book are you most looking forward to reading in 2019?
In 2018, I loved Circe by Madeline Miller. It’s hard to say what I’m most looking forward to reading this year. There are so many books and authors to choose from! I love mysteries, so I always look forward to the new Michael Connolly. I’m a huge fan of Helen Oyeyemi’s work, so I’m looking forward to reading Gingerbread. I’ve seen a lot of buzz about Daisy Jone & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid, so I’ll want to check that out too.