If you visited Jeju Island and the Haenyeo Museum today, you would learn about the tradition of scuba diving and fishing that is about fifteen hundred years old, and the fact that this tradition, this dangerous business, has been performed on this island exclusively by women since the eighteenth century.

They are called “haenyeo” (sea women), and they are also called “Korean mermaids”.

 “Every woman who enters the sea carries a coffin on her back,” she warned the gathering. “In this world, in the undersea world, we tow the burdens of a hard life. We are crossing between life and death every day.”

Lisa See, The Island of Sea Women

If you can’t get to Korea, don’t let your soul hurt – Lisa See in her latest book, “The Island of Sea Women”, will bring you a stunning history of these amazing women, told through an unusual, turbulent friendship and difficult growing up of two young women, Young -sook and Mi-je.

The moment we meet them as girls, Young-sook and Mi-ja come from two completely different families, from two different social classes. If a tragedy had not happened in the life of one, the two would probably never have met, let alone become so important to each other.

 “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.”

Lisa See, The Island of Sea Women

Although in a poor fishing community, Young-sook and Mi-ja grow up surrounded by a group of proud, vital women of soft heart but also steely will; their only desire is to one day become worthy of “haenyeo” status.

Every family in this community hopes and rejoices in their daughters; having a daughter or daughters means your family will never be hungry. Being a “haenyeo” is an exceptional, though very dangerous, honor. But the excitement and freedom that come with that role is deeply intoxicating; women who once become “haenyeo” never want to stop being that; they can never stop being that.

 “Children are hope and joy. On land, you will be a mother. In the sea, you can be a grieving widow. Your tears will be added to the oceans of salty tears that wash in great waves across our planet. This I know. If you try to live, you can live on well.”

Lisa See, The Island of Sea Women

I devoured with admiration the story of the lives, beliefs, personal mythologies, and exclusive rituals of these amazing women whose lives are inherently difficult. But when Lisa See considered the lives and destinies of these women in a very cruel historical period – during the Japanese occupation of this Korean island – I was left so small and humble in the face of the incredible courage with which people live and die in the face of horrors many of us not only never will not experience, but for the existence of such human cruelty we will never even know it existed.

This is one of those books that is read slowly, thoroughly and close to Google; you will want to expand your knowledge of the many terms mentioned, check some dates (caution – some things you will learn will break your heart and blow your lungs out), watch some videos, listen to some music…

Needless to say, I’ve added Jeju Island to my list of destinations I’d like to visit someday, and I’m sure many of you will do the same. A girl can dream, right?

 “They did this to me. They did that to me. A woman who thinks that way will never overcome her anger. You are not being punished for your anger. You’re being punished by your anger.”

Lisa See, The Island of Sea Women

For centuries, there have been matrifocal communities on Jeju Island made up of families for whom scuba diving is their only source of income, and this work has been done for generations – the reasons why it can only be guessed – only by women. In order to emerge shells, sea cucumbers and other sea urchins that are on the sea floor, while taking care not to take too much from nature and the sea, these women dive to a depth of 20 meters and stay under water for 3-4 minutes.

 “We suffer and suffer and suffer, but we also keep getting up. We keep living. You would not be here if you weren’t brave. Now you need to be braver still.”

Lisa See, The Island of Sea Women

Today, says author Lisa See in her guest appearance at The Poisoned Pen Bookstore, there are about four thousand of these women left; the youngest among them is a little over fifty years old. Women in their 60s, 70s, even 80s are still diving.

What these women do, what they are, what they live, in 2016 was added to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

In addition, this book was among the nominated titles for the Goodreads Choice Awards 2019, in the “historical novel” category.

Once again, I wholeheartedly recommend it to you. Really memorable book.

35 thoughts on “THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN by Lisa See”

  1. That must be so dangerous having to dive 20 meters deep and stay without breathing for like 2-3 mins. That takes a lot of practice and these sea women famous or I say notorious for doing this all their life. This is a must-read, just to let us understand one of the practices of Korean women.


  2. It intrigues me the quote about women and the coffin. I would like to read more. Thank you for bringing this into my attention; interesting review.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m especially intrigued by many of these quotes above. “You are not being punished for your anger. You’re being punished by your anger.” Lot’s of wisdom in this story and history.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The Author (See) leaves the question unanswered, but it still resonates powerfully today: What will we stand for and how will we make the choices that we need to make? That is good thought to ponder

    Liked by 1 person

  5. More and more wonders by women! I wonder what their men do, but I believe women are the strongest, bravest and mist kind creatures that ever set foot on the face of the earth. What they do is incredible! And all for their families! Amazing story.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I have seen a documentary about these women divers from Jeju Island in Korea. Some of the women are already in their 50s and/or 60s but are still strong and physically fit to carry on with their job.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. .This is a very sad and at times brutal tale of what happened in Korea in the 1940s. I never heard of these specific events but now I am curious to learn more about this unique group of women divers

    Liked by 1 person

  8. A good friend of mine is a diver. She took it up as a means to help her anxiety and has been recommending I give it a try for years. Ironically, I have the perfect instructor. My big brother is a free diver on the island of Grand Turk. He’s also explored the waters of Mexico. I think this book would be a great gift for both as they are avid readers and lovers of the craft.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Sounds like a remarkable book. The quotes you mentioned are certainly helpful. It gives an idea of how deeply and clearly the book has been written.

    Liked by 1 person

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