On her third dive, her mind begins to relax. She tunes in to the thrum that connects her to the earth, to those she’s lost, to love. The way the blood pounds in her head makes her feel alive. When she’s in the sea, she’s in the womb of the world. – Lisa See Island of the Sea Women

Sometimes a work of fiction can give insight into history and present experience. It can teach us about little known historical events and give insight into remarkable and little known cultures that can surprise and inspire. Lisa See’s novel Island of the Sea Women is one such book.

The novel tells the story of the haenyeo or sea women of the Korean island of Jeju. These remarkable women and their matriarchal culture offer an interesting and unique perspective on Korean history and experience. The story revolves around the friendship of two girls: Young-sook and Mi-ja, through whose stories and relationships, the story of modern Korea is told; from the Japanese occupation, though internal conflicts and modern independence. Interestingly, the novel captures not just the geopolitical conflict but the cultural conflict between masculine and feminine, rural and urban, agrarian and industrial society, making this a thought provoking read.

Young-sook’s mother is the leader of the local haenyeo diving collective. The haenyeo have both sea fields and dry fields which they care for and harvest. The men care for the children. while the women work their fields, sea or land.

Mi-ja is the orphaned daughter of a Japanese collaborator, mistreated by her Aunt and Uncle and distrusted by the community at large because of that collaboration with the hated Japanese. It is when Mi-ja is caught stealing from Young-sook’s family fields, that the girls begin a friendship which sees them initiated as “baby divers” into the collective. I found the story of the haenyeo particularly fascinating. These remarkable women enter their diving profession as young women, teenagers and progress through age and experience within the collective. They have a democratic culture, that lets them collectively care for and harvest the bounty of the sea while also collectively supporting each other. It is a dangerous profession, the women free dive in all temperatures and sometimes to great depths to harvest their bounty, which may be, abalone, octopus or sea urchin or any other useful commodity from the sea: “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.” Their ability to work in extreme environments, sees the girls take on ‘working away water work’, in Russia where they dive in Vladivostok, even in winter! That work gives the women even further independence, making them financially independent.

Ultimately the girl’s friendship is challenged by politics and masculine power and violence. Abuse damages Mi-ja and causes a tragic rift between the women. Before reading this novel I knew very little Korean history, only a general awareness of the internal, civil conflicts that marked the end of the second world war and Korea’s emergence as a conflicted modern nation. I had no previous knowledge of an incident referred to as the 4.3 Incident. I must confess that reading those sections of the novel were confronting in the portrayal of violence and brutality. Made even more intense by what we are currently witnessing in the Ukraine, where again, civilians are being horrifically targeted. It made the reading experience even more relevant in a way, but not enjoyable. It did leave we with some greater insight into Korean history, both the facts of the conflict and the lived experience of it. What was enjoyable was See’s honest, exploration of the complexity of female relationships, and strength.

It is a minor element in the novel but the emphasis on the importance of connection to your environment and the cyclic nature of production is worth noting. Even the placing of household latrines is important, not a pleasant thought to our modern sensibilities, but in such a culture it is important: “The three-step farming system that gives our pigs food from our behinds, fertilizer for our dry fields from the pigs’ behinds, and a pig that can eventually be eaten.” Just as it is important to recognise the seasons of production in the sea and to harvest only when you do not risk irreparably damaging your crop, always working in harmony with the environment: “Everything we do must be natural,’ she’s told the collective, ‘otherwise we’ll harvest too much, deplete our wet fields and earn nothing.’ There, again balance.” The novel celebrates female strengths and the natural world, challenging us to think in more harmonious, sustainable ways. The novel is a fascinating and compelling piece of historical fiction but it was the cultural aspects of haenyeo life with that inherent connection to the environment that particularly appealed to me. The explanation of shamanistic religion was intriguing, as were all the cultural intricacies of haenyeo life. The research, cultural and historical made this a particularly rewarding fiction read. Not really an overt nature read, but it was certainly an element, so I will count this as another Gaia/nature read for the challenge.

At the same time as reading this one, I was also reading Salt on Your Tongue: Women and the sea by Charlotte Runcie as my non-fiction read. A nature memoir with a distinctly Scottish focus, I enjoyed Runcie’s thoughts on the dramatic coastal regions of northern Britain/Scotland. A bit of a meandering memoir that washes up against mythology, history and literature regarding women and the sea, but it is pregnancy that seems to direct Runcie’s thoughts mostly, as she discovers she is pregnant in the process of writing the memoir. Sea journeys become a metaphor for the journey of pregnancy with all the inherent unknowns and dangers. This may have been a very different book if the author was not pregnant at the time of writing. I suspect Runcie would agree with See’s description of the sea as the “womb of the world”. It is pregnancy, that seems to draw her to the ocean and it’s stories; “The call of the sea is the call to the absolute strength of women, telling their stories and making music of beauty and imagination, and eternal mothers and grandmothers making eternal daughters and rocking them in the night as they sing while the tide comes and goes.”

Salt on your tongue is a lyrical, easy read, it meanders along in short chapters, is easy to dip in and out of. The book is structured around sections named for the stars of the Pleiades, those sisters in the sky, the stars have long guided sea journeys. Perhaps a great read if you are on a pregnancy journey but maybe not so compelling if that is not your current concern in life. It is a pregnancy memoir as much as a nature memoir but a lovely, lyrical read regardless of your point of interest.

Both of the above books fit the criteria of nature reads, so I will add these titles to the master list. Over at Brizzy Mays Books and Bruschetta there is a review of The Water book by Alok Jha for the Gaia/nature challenge so check that one out. A bit of a water theme at the moment, maybe all that rain has had us thinking about wet stuff. I guess these reads also let me cross of the deep dive square on the nature book bingo, Salt on your tongue was a deep dive into women and the sea and The Island of the sea women involved some literal, deep free diving, something that always amazes me, an activity filled with danger.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s