There is no doubt that Island of the Sea Women, by Lisa See, is an incredibly powerful, potent book, a heart-rending story of tragedy, separation, hardship, and forgiveness. What a magnificent work, of how cruelty, pain, death, divide and separate a people and friends, how they leave scars and pain which burn for generations, of how tragedy brings out both the best and the worst in humanity, how it drives both the desperate unity of survival and suspicions, hatred, anger, and betrayal, imagined or real. It is hard to read a book like Island of the Sea Women and not be drawn, moth-like, to these burning embers of pain, of pure distilled human emotion and agony, which sprawl across the page in such gripping misery, consuming the self in dark tears.
Behind it is what makes the book so powerful - its vision onto people. See has a great gift for writing characters and giving the reader a deep-seated emotional connection to them, with their struggles, dreams, and hopes: Mi-ja's desperate dream to simply be accepted, to escape from the shame of her past, Young-sook to be able to achieve mastery, security, assuredness, out of a guilt that she is responsible for the suffering and death of friends and family. Sometimes the alien Korean names may make it difficult to recognize all of the characters, but the rewards are rich when one holds fast to them all: the intensely human nature of them, from the step mother's salvation (a common theme so far in Lisa See's book it seems, is to have a step parent undergo a dramatic character arc from initial mistrust and rivalry to ultimate firmness and love), to the annoying American girl with a noble heart, to the good-hearted and kind Jun-Bun - it is this feeling of humanity which pervades the book and makes it so touching.
These characters are deeply embedded in their own world, customs, and traditions, a crystal window onto the world as it once was for the Haenyeo of Jeju. Their life was a hard one, diving in the freezing chill waters of Jeju for the fruits of the sea, one which generated a social structure of female preeminence in work and earnings and the resultant relegation of men to mostly domestic duties. It is dramatically different, strange, even unnatural, to the average American reader. It is a reminder of just how different society and social structures can be around the world, how each people carries with it its own traditions, way of life, beliefs, their own logic and sense of what normal is. These, at least before the modern day, were nor cosmetic differences: they were profoundly deep rooted and shaped every part of one's life. Nowadays, culture is often thought of in terms of largely cosmetic differences: what one eats, what one wears, the style of architecture or the content of literature, films, art. But before modernity's crushing equalization, cultures such as the Haenyeo were the bearers of a culture that impacted every element of how people lived, how they thought, how they worked, how they loved and their souls.
The evolution of society and the pressure of modernity is one of the key themes of the book: the way real, genuine, tradition is first ossified and destroyed by state power and economic development, and then feebly attempted to be preserved, as a way to promote it as a pale shadow of what it once was for a comfortable, non-threatening version of pittoresque tradition for tourism and national distinction. Traditions are displaced, destroyed, annihilated, whenever the needs of the market and "progress" require it. Bars and hotels get rid of the traditional houses of the sea women, and their pigs and latrines which once furnished fertilizer for their fields replaced with toilets, to prevent tourists from being appalled by such "uncivilized" practices. The state crushed the organic, natural, timeless authority and prestige of the Haenyeo female fishing collective chiefs through the appointment of male fishermen overseers, and concerns itself with the most private parts of life through its regulations preventing more than one woman per family from being a sea-woman, marshals tremendous forces of economic modernization and female education which draws away women from the sea, promotes a tourism boom that sends dangerous motor boats to disrupt harvesting - and then it laments, ever so hypocritically, that the old traditions were dying, and harangues the women to guard their traditions. Hollow protests and guilty words!
In this sense, examining a dying world, where the Haenyeo age and their daughters no longer join them in the search for the ocean's riches in the icy waves, where traditional Shamanism is obliterated, where the historic division of labor and social customs collapse, the book is an ethnographic lament. I don't think that this is in of itself a bad thing: after all, the story of the sea women, unique as it is, is one which deserves to be told. But it is the religious-spiritual side of the story, with its prominently Christian theme of forgiveness (which seems to be a constant theme throughout the works of Lisa See, at least judging by Shanghai Girls), which changes it from a purely local, provincial one, to one of universal vocation. The clash between Shamanism, the older faith and the soul of Jeju, and Christianity (as well as to a lesser but significant extent Confucianism), is both displayed in the story and in the history which it tells. It is the suppression of Shamanism which leads to the spiritual void that brings forth the advance of Christianity, and it is Christianity which represents the side of unconditional forgiveness, as shown by Mi-ja and Young-sook's daughter Joon-lee - who despite the legacy of pain and suffering upon them, despite their own betrayals and abandonment, nevertheless are defined by their ultimate acts of forgiveness. Shamanism too, does carry its own counsel of forgiveness, as when Young-sook visits Shaman Kim and she advises her to forgive Mi-ja and go see her granddaughter, child of Joon-lee - but the unconditional forgiveness is unmistakably Christian. The story of Jeju is defined by the decline of Shamanism with its feminine rituals, its relative lack of hiearchies, its mysteries, and its replacement by the rigidity and domination of Confucian modernism - but so too, by the march of Christian forgiveness.
This raises the question for me of to what extent the book is written evidently, consciously, for the present. Every book is to some extent a mirror of the present, showing our own preoccupations and interests. But one of the gripes which I have with Lisa See is how visible and clear she goes about injecting the concerns of the present day into her characters' thoughts. In Shanghai Girls, the musing on cultural appropriation seemed out of place: there is nothing quite like that in the degree of egregiousness in the Island of the Sea Women. But one can't quite avoid the feeling of the author laughing, or snickering, as she describes the women flipping our stereotype of men and women neatly on their heads: the men cooking, taking care of the children, week, feeble, sentimental, with the duty to give their waves a child, dependent - while it is the women are strong, independent, the providers. This is in its outline a true representation of what Haenyeo society looked like it seems: See's extensive biography, annex, sources, at the end show that she put a massive degree of historical research into the book. But this touch of irony has this odor of being written not as the voices of the women in the story, but rather as a commentary directed at the reader: an exaggeration of the Sea Women's thoughts to preach to Americans about what women could be. How much of the story is written for the American, and tuned for the American, rather than being a mirror of Jeju?
The story of immigration therein found is one of the themes which Lisa See finds impossible to avoid: thus Joon-lee and her husband Yo-chang emigrate to the United States. The fixation with the US plays itself out with the few scenes after the 1960s: the 1970s has as its main scene the American soldiers on leave from the Vietnam war, buying Young-sook's seafood that she sold as a vendor. American cannot be avoided in the works of See, and the already tightly bound history of Korea and the United States after WW2 are even more closely intertwined, and the shadow of the United States looms large in See's universe.
This is no way to disparage the tremendous talent for inspiring (albeit dark - it is not a book to read if one is squeamish or cannot deal with brutality) deep emotions, and the brilliant plot that she can create. Her greatest ability, alongside the great talent for research and the strong characterization, is the way of creating a critical, emotional, devastating event - but one which lays seeds which will only at last bear fruit decades, even a lifetime later. Bitter pain creates wounds which will last for years, and the only way to heal the scars they leave, for See, is the act of forgiveness.
© 2021 Ryan C Thomas