Our March/April 2020 Book Club Pick is The Island of Sea Women, by New York Times bestselling author Lisa See. Few books can be called upon to so beautifully span decades and to delicately detail the relationship between two women who are inextricably linked. Lisa See provides us wiith a glimpse into the inspiration behind her latest novel below.
What made you want to write about haenyeo, Korean sea divers?
In many ways I feel that the haenyeo called to me. I was sitting in my doctor’s waiting room, leafing through magazines, when 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. Historically, they were known to have the greatest ability of any human group on earth to withstand cold water. They 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. About five years ago, UNESCO gave the haenyeo the designation of an Intangible World Heritage Tradition and estimated the culture would be gone in about fifteen years. I felt I couldn’t wait five, ten, or fifteen years to interview women who were in their seventies, eighties, and nineties.
Can you tell us more about the relationship between Young-sook and Mi-ja? What made you decide to write a story about these women? Did you base their relationship on anyone in particular?
Young-sook is the daughter of the chief of the female diving collective, while Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator. When they are old enough, the girls become “baby divers.” The haenyeo follow a kind of buddy system when they’re diving in which two women are literally putting their lives in each other’s hands every day, so friendship was the only way for me to go with this novel.
Young-sook and Mi-ja aren’t based on any two people in particular. As I already mentioned, I interviewed a lot of divers on Jeju. I was particularly interested in the women in their late eighties and early nineties, because they’d have memories of the Japanese colonial period. I certainly drew on stories that were told to me and some of what happens is based on eyewitness accounts of what happened during the 4.3 Incident, but then my imagination takes over.
What kind of research did you do for this book? Did anything in your research surprise you?
I researched the special language of Jeju, the clothes that are dyed in unripe persimmon juice, the influence of Shamanism on the island, and so much more. I ate everything that I wrote about. (Eating is one of the greatest joys of research.) I interviewed people about the 4.3 Incident. I also had a copy of the 755-page human rights report on the massacre, which gave me additional first-person accounts of those years. For example, I used the recollections of an ambulance driver, who overheard military officers debating what should be done to the people of Bukchon. I interviewed people who’ve been researching the haenyeo for decades. I also looked up scientific studies that ranged from research on the haenyeo’s breath capacity to whether their ability to withstand cold was an adaptation or genetic.
Most important, I interviewed haenyeo in their seventies, eighties, and nineties, many of whom were still diving. This was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. Some of the interviews were pre-arranged, while others were a matter of luck and happenstance. I talked to women as they entered or left the sea. I also spoke with many older women—retired haenyeo—who were sitting on the shore collecting and sorting algae.
When I’m doing research, what I find falls into one of two categories: something that is tied to a specific date or something that can be moved to the time and place of my choosing. I can’t move the date of the bombing of Hiroshima. I can’t move the date of the 4.3 Incident. (The date is right in the name—April 3.) Other things are flexible. When I learned that one of the main ways divers die is when harvesting an abalone, I knew someone in the novel would have to die that way. Would that happen at the beginning, middle, or towards the end of the book? I think of these things like signposts. Each day when I sit down at my desk, I know I’ll be writing toward a signpost, but I don’t know exactly how I’ll get there. That’s when imagination comes in. To me, that part of writing feels like I’m tapping into the magic of the universe.
What made you choose to write this as a series of flashbacks?
I had some truly great experiences interviewing women in their homes, but my favorite interviews were with the women who sit on the beach to gather and sort the algae and seaweed that’s washed ashore overnight. They’re retired, semi-retired, or getting over an injury. They’re loud, because their ears have been damaged by years of diving. They’re very direct. If a woman doesn’t want to talk, she’ll shout, “Go away!” They told me wonderful, funny, and sometimes very sad stories. They’re very aware of everything going on around them. This also comes from their years in the sea and having to be aware of all potential dangers.
On a purely personal level, I wanted to set part of the novel in the present, because I’d so enjoyed talking to the women on the beach and wanted to relive it in my writing. Far more important, the novel is about forgiveness—what happens when you don’t forgive, what does it take to forgive, what are the consequences for individual people, communities, and countries (or in this case an island) when you do or don’t forgive? I wanted to start with the consequences, which meant having scenes set in the present. They allowed me to reveal hints about the past but also lay the groundwork for what would happen in the next section.
What does your writing process look like?
I start with three basic ideas: the relationship that I want to write about, the emotion I want to write about, and the historic backdrop. For The Island of Sea Women, those were friendship, forgiveness, and the diving women of Jeju Island. Once those three main things are in place, I start to do the research which takes up the largest amount of time. Then I think, I daydream, and I wonder what if. Finally there comes a point when I feel ready to start writing. I write a thousand words a day, which is just four pages. Sometimes I can do that in two hours and sometimes it takes eight to ten hours. Some days the writing is good and sometimes it’s just awful, but it’s important to sit in the chair and get the work done.
Tell us about a challenge you faced in writing this novel.
A challenge? But there were so many! I mean that truly. The longer I sit here, the more things pop into my mind. Some were tiny and really have to do with logistical things like how to get someone from a small village to Jeju’s main port in the 1930s or how exactly did a diver get from Jeju to Russia in the 1930s and 1940s. Others are huge. For example, looking deeply at forgiveness was a personal challenge for me. But I’d have to say that the scenes which were the absolute hardest for me had to do with the 4.3 Incident. This book has the most violent scene of any I’ve ever written, and I hope never to write another one like it again. That scene is based on what actually happened in Bukchon, and I felt I had to honor the people who died by writing as truthfully as I could. Beyond that, that scene sets up the whole question of forgiveness. When the worst thing happens, can you ever forgive? I felt readers had to have a visceral understanding of what was lost that day. I wanted readers to think, what if that happened to me? That meant I had to go there, and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my writing.
Who is your favorite character in this book?
Another hard question! May I pick three? I love Do-saeng, Young-sook’s mother-in-law, because she’s practical in the face of disaster, she plays the long game, and, to me anyway, she’s quite funny. I love Young-sook’s husband, because he’s modern in his thinking to her continued frustration. I also want to mention Young-sook’s oldest daughter, who must travel a troubled road to discover how deeply her mother loves her.
What do you hope people take away from reading The Island of Sea Women?
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? 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. 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’re able to do this while maintaining really good—and wry—senses of humor. 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 has been the most difficult part of writing this book?
I think I answered that above in the question about the challenge.
What has been the most rewarding part of writing this book?
Once again, I can’t limit myself to just one thing. I feel extremely fortunate that I was able to meet and interview so many divers. Obviously they inspired me to write the novel, but they also inspired me for how to live my own life. I want to be as strong as they are when I’m in my eighties and nineties. The other wonderful thing that’s happened is that readers have either learned about the haenyeo for the first time or now want to delve deeper into the culture. I’ve been getting e-mails from high school and college students asking for advice on how to do more research about the haenyeo, and just the other day a documentary filmmaker from National Geographic contacted me for advice about Jeju, who to interview when she gets there, and the like. All of it is rewarding, and that’s what inspires me keep going deeper in my writing.
What can we expect from you next?
When my grandmother died twenty-six years ago, I found in her things a diary written by her mother, my great-grandmother. For all these years I knew I wanted to write about Jessie, but I didn’t feel like I was old enough or knew enough about life. Well, if I’m not old enough now and haven’t learned enough about life yet, then I’ll never be ready. The new novel is inspired by Jessie’s story—a girl who was born on a homestead in South Dakota, moved west with her family to homestead again in Washington State, got pregnant and “had to get married,” and then spent the rest of her life as an itinerant worker roaming between Alaska and the Mexican border. I’ll be writing about the same themes I’ve always written about: women’s stories that have been lost, forgotten, or deliberately covered up and women’s persistence in the face of extreme hardship. This time, the story is much closer to home.
Lisa See is the New York Times bestselling author of 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. She has also written a mystery series that takes place in China. Her books have been published in 39 languages. She was the recipient of the Golden Spike Award from the Chinese Historical Association of Southern California as well as the History Makers Award from the Chinese American Museum, and she was also named National Woman of the Year by the Organization of Chinese American Women. Ms. See now lives in Los Angeles. You can also follow her adventures on Instagram, Twitter & Facebook.