Likely Stories: The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

Jun 6, 2019

A story of Korean women who dive in dangerous waters to gather food

A few years ago, our book club read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See.  That novel told a story of the horrific practice of “foot-binding.” Several others followed along similar lines. (more)

Lisa See has written another story of the brave women who dive to dangerous depths by holding their breath.  The Island of Sea Women tells a story—spread over several decades—of these courageous women—some quite young.  See has won the "History Makers Award from the Chinese American Museum.  She was named National Woman of the Year by the Organization of Chinese American Women."

The story begins in 1938.  See writes, “My first day of sea work started hours before sunrise when even the crows were still asleep.  I dressed and made my way through the dark to our latrine.  I climbed the ladder to the stone structure and positioned myself over the hole in the floor.  Our pigs gathered, snuffling eagerly.  A big stick leaned against the wall in the corner in case one of them became too enthusiastic and tried to leap up.  Yesterday, I had to hit one pretty hard. [,,,] I returned to the house, tied my baby brother to my back, and went outside to draw water from the village well” (11).  This part describes in great detail the heavy work these women faced every day.  Her mother was a “haenyeo” or a woman who dives to dangerous depths to find food for their families.

Ironically, the men stay home to care for the children, unless the men find employment in China, Japan, or Russia.  The women carry the largest burdens along with the most dangerous work.  See writes, “I now understood how carefully Mother had orchestrated […] my education.  When I turned ten, Mother had given me an old pair of goggles, which I shared with my friend Mi-ja.  When I turned twelve, Mother had taught us how to reap underwater plants without damaging their roots so that they would grow back the next season, just as we did in our dry fields.  Now my ability to reap the seabed for things I could harvest increased daily.  I could easily recognize the differences between brown algae, sea mustard, and sea weed, while my skills at sensing prey—the poisonous bite of a sea snake or the numbing sting of a jellyfish—improved too.  ‘You’re not only painting a map of the seabed in your head […] you’re learning where you are in space’” (57).  Sharks also patrolled the same water, and a slip of a knife can draw predators from miles away.

These women suffered a great deal from diving.  The never-ending dives to treacherous depths damaged their hearing.  Lisa writes, “Now, when I looked at my mother, her body seemed worn from worry, from the pain of being under the sea, and from caring for so many others.  She never had a chance to rest, because when we went home after out wet- or dry-field work, she still had much to do, including nurse Fourth Brother, now a chunky baby of eight months.  The sun rose in the morning, mouths need to be fed, and life went on, laboring from dawn until after dark was taking a toll on Mother” (59). 

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See, is an adventure story of bravery, humility, family, and ancestors.  I have a few more novels by See, and I think I will be adding more of her splendid novels to my collection.  5 Stars.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!