Korean Literature
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Korean Literature

A breath, a breath, a breath…” — Review of Lisa See’s ‘The Island of Sea Women: A Novel’.

Off the southern coast of Korea lies Jeju, a chubby little island of volcanos, seafood, and women. Still deep in their traditional lives, these woman are the men of their families — earning all the money, bringing home all of the food, and moaning loudly to each other about their lazy husbands back at home raising the crying children (“My husband drinks my earnings”… “Mine gambles away the allowance I give him”). They carry happy ocean-monikers like dolphin or mermaid, the fatter few are porpoises, the skinniest are eels; in all shapes they are the haenyeo, literally translated to “sea women”.

Territorial and protective of their beaches, the haenyeo dive in deep, frozen water for oysters, sea slugs, conch, sea urchins, octopus, abalone, and anything else that can’t swim fast or far enough from their knives and nets. But why women? The traditional answer has to do with subcutaneous fat and the challenges of staying warm during long periods at sea. The truth, like so much else in Korea, has to do with the Japanese.

During the colonial period, the sight of local men gathering along the coastline in the dim morning hours, heading-out together in a convoy of small boats, was much too much freedom and risk for the invaders to handle. So the men went home, sat in their gardens, and with defeated looks and loss of purpose, gazed away into the empty horizons; while the haenyeo took over their jobs, the ocean, the island.

Yet one can’t help but to wonder how many of those husbands, as they marched up the beaches — and away from their livelihoods — with bayonets at their backs, couldn’t believe their good fortune. The diving on Jeju is done without any kind of modern equipment, the ocean floor is sometimes 30 meters down, and the animals they hunt are hidden and protected by rocks and reef. So as you might imagine, every time anyone blinks or a page is turned in Lisa See’s The Island of Sea Women, some poor haenyeo is drowning, passing-out under water and desperately being rescued, or getting unpleasant medical news about what a lifetime of oxygen deprivation and extreme cold does to the human body.

With every tragedy, large and small, Shaman Kim becomes a wealthier lady. Seafarers of all stripes are a superstitious bunch, but down there in Jeju everything goes a step or two further than just reading omens, praying for good fortune, or even personifying the ocean and its moods. Throw-backs to lost dynasties and fearful empires, the sea women of Jeju talk to, and beg the forgiveness of, ghosts.

Greedy and generous in equal measure, the spirits demand money, gifts, and ceremony (in that order) to calm their anger. And they always insist that it be handed over to the welcoming arms of Shaman Kim… for safe keeping. That Kim is also the only person who talks to these needy ghosts, and who translates their intentions back to the haenyeo, is a conflict of interest that no one ever makes much of a fuss about.

See’s novel runs through generations of family and change and modernisation. The Japanese invade, and then they invade a little more thoroughly. Then they lose and the new foreign faces are Americans; the country divides; war starts again; the authoritarianism of Syngman Rhee becomes the authoritarianism of Park Chung-hee and then Chun Doo-hwan…

At each step, as an island — separated from the rest of Korea — Jeju suffers through suspicion and bleeds through massacre. And with it all, our novel both finds its purpose and loses its way!

After independence, the first and only rumours about Jeju were that it was ‘turning red’. That the North Koreans had infiltrated the island, were arming people for rebellion, and that those damn haenyeo with their collectivist fishing habits, and ethereal ideas about ownership and income, were the problem.

Yet with so much life and tradition along those shorelines, it was the inland mountains that authorities lost most of their sleep over. “On November 17, 1948, President Rhee placed Jeju under martial law and issued the first order: ANYONE FOUND NOT WITHIN FIVE KILOMETERS OF THE COAST WILL BE UNCONDITIONALLY SHOT TO DEATH.”

Then, as every Korean knows, came the arrests, the executions, and the butchery. And it is stories like these that See is desperate to rinse-out onto the page for us. What is left is a story that screams and repeats, berating the reader with a simple sounding message: bad things happened on Jeju, and no one then, nor since, has cared nearly enough about them! Bukchon village is where the worst and most complete violence was found:

There are those who say no one survived the Bukchon massacre. Others say that only one person lived. Still others will tell you that four survived. Or you’ll see accounts that say 300 people died. Or maybe it was 350, or 480, or 1,000 people…

It was 300! Enough has been done and said and dug and excavated and argued and investigated since to know that 300 is about right. And 300 is plenty! 300 men and boys killed because they represented a threat, not because they were one. Stains like this ran thick across the peninsula in the days, weeks, months, years after liberation, and it’s no wonder that Koreans have preferred not to think about it too much since.

Imagine if, after the defeat of Hitler’s army, the few Jews who survived the worst horrors of the holocaust, staggered from the gates of Auschwitz and Dachau, took a few deep breaths of free air, turned on their heels, walked back inside with purpose and determination, fired up the gas chambers again, reignited the human incinerators, and continued on with the Final Solution, driving their fellow Jews back to their deaths.

I too would like Koreans to wrestle more maturely with this difficult history of theirs, this moment when they picked-up the whips of their oppressors and continued on with the flogging of their own people. But by forcing an extra 150 pages into what was (until that point) a wonderful little novel, is not the way to achieve it. Instead, most readers will likely get through about half of The Island of Sea Women and then stop, realising that the book has long-ceased to be about those sea women at all.

They are still there! Each year a flood of tourists fly or ferry their way down to Jeju, rush to the sandy beaches, and listen for the sumbisori,the special sound — like a whistle or a dolphin’s call — a haenyeo makes as she breaches the surface of the sea and releases the air she’s held in her lungs, followed by a deep intake of breath.”

Walking-talking members of an “intangible cultural heritage”, the haenyeo are now, oddly, sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and have to fight their way past holiday-goers and camera lenses in order to hunt in their traditional waters. But once there, away from the sand and rock, and underneath the slosh of waves and noise, everything becomes suddenly, delightfully, meditative.

As the depth and pressure increases you can feel the rhythm of your own heart, your pulse resonating softly in your larger veins. The cold water and the worries of life weaken with all other nervous sensations, and slowly with each dive, the nag of air and existence become less important too. Fading slowly away, until, finally:

“A breath,

a breath,

a breath…”



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