Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

My daughter and I traveled to Seoul, Korea in 2014. While we were there, we took an excursion to Jeju Island (a historically matriarchal community) with my brother and his family. While on Jeju, we saw up close and personal the women divers known as haenyeo. They dive without tanks or special equipment. With each dive, they hold their breaths for more than three minutes and bring back up assorted sea life to eat and sell. That is, unless something goes wrong.

In the first two chapters of Lisa See's historical novel, The Island of Sea Women, I was educated on how shockingly wrong things can go under the sea as told by the amazing haenyeo protagonist, Young-sook.

Though the water-related tragedies that befall Young-sook are shocking, the tragedies that befall her on land are even more so, as she witnesses the suffering that spans all the way from the Japanese colonization of Korea in the '30s and '40s, to WWII, and then the Korean War.

Self determination by its people is not what led to the division of Korea into its North and South in 1945. Rather it was the result of the wills of two determined superpowers: The Soviet Union and the United States. In protest of this division, the people of Jeju had an uprising. And on April 3, 1948, the uprising culminated in the Bukchon massacre that resulted in a bloodbath of hundreds of civilian lives tortured and murdered.

The loss that Young-sook endures at the Bukchon massacre is so immense that it's almost impossible to get through reading the chapter that describes it. Along with the family members she loses, she also loses the trust of her best friend, Mi-ja.

Young-sook's inability to forgive Mi-ja is as strong as her ability to survive. Philosophy teaches her that "To understand everything is to forgive." Young-sook understands the teaching conceptually. But in practice, she is unable. In many ways, I think this is the way Korea's people (both north and south) relate to forgiveness.

There's something culturally and personally familiar to me about viewing forgiveness as a concept. It doesn't lead to warm and cozy reunions. I don't think it's either right or wrong when it doesn't. It just is.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. My daughter is driving in tonight. I'll talk to her about this book. About the haenyoe we saw in 2014. How we are connected to them. And how we hurt. And how we forgive. Conceptually and in practice.

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