First, let me say how much I learned while reading The Island of Sea Women. I knew nothing of Jeju Island nor of the haenyeo, female divers who harvest the “wet fields” of the sea in a matrifocal society, not to be confused with a matriarchal society. Women are the breadwinners, certainly. But they do so in support of the men who are educated, hold property, and take care of babies while sitting in the town square thinking big thoughts.
“Long ago, Jeju’s men had been divers, but the Korean monarchs imposed such a high tax on their work that it was eventually given to women, who were taxed at a lower rate.”
“It’s better to be born a cow than a woman. No matter how stupid or lazy a man is, he has the better hand. He doesn’t have to wash clothes, manage the household, look after the elders, or see the children have food to eat and mats to sleep on. He doesn’t have to do hard physical work in the wet or dry fields. His only responsibilities are to take care of babies and do a little cooking.”
“Not many men can do without a wife, while all women can do without a husband.”
The story follows the friendship between two haenyeo, Mi-ja and Young-sook throughout their lives, from girlhood through old age. Their attachments, their jealousies, their profound differences. Those differences manifest themselves in choices that cause losses that in Young-sook’s heart are simply unforgivable.
This is all set against the backdrop of the successive, brutal societal and political upheavals in Korea during the mid-twentieth century. Korean, Japanese, and American forces all considered Jeju Island strategic for their own aims, leading to widespread hunger, torture, and death.
“Worse—so much worse—there came a day when we were told that haenyeo could no longer dive, Japanese soldiers had once stolen our food and horses, but now our own countrymen were starving us. My husband and I each got by on a single sweet potato a day, so we could give more food to our children. But, they lost weight, their hair turned dull, and their eyes began to sink into their heads.”
“What I’m saying is that killing happened on both sides here on Jeju and on the Korean mainland. Guilty and innocent died every day across our country. This had been happening for years now. Imagine that for a moment. Day after day. Month after month. Seeing and smelling death, while mothers still tried to feed, clothe, and comfort their children.”
“If eighty-five years have taught her anything, it’s that governments come and go and that whoever and whatever comes next will eventually become rotten.”
Even in old age, Young-Sook cannot, will not forgive Mi-ja whom she blames for every loss and sadness in her life.
“It pained me to know I couldn’t change and I couldn’t forgive, but I had to hold on to my anger and bitterness as a way of honoring those I’d lost.”
“They did this to me. They did that to me. A woman who thinks that way will never overcome her anger. You are not being punished for your anger. You’re being punished by your anger.”
“Who can name a death that was not tragic? Is there a way for us to find meaning in the losses we’ve suffered? …We were all victims. We need to forgive each other.”
I found myself angry at Young-sook for her stubborn refusal to forgive Mi-ja. They were old now and their lives were woven together inextricably. However, author Lisa See provides a satisfying ending and food for thought to take into our own lives.
“To understand everything is to forgive.”