“My great-great-grandfather had a Chinese herb shop in Sacramento,” Lisa See was saying. “Later, my great-grandfather got his start in Sacramento, where he met my great-grandmother. So I feel like I’ve come full circle.”
The New York Times best-selling author was referencing her April 9 appearance in Sacramento for her latest historical-fiction title, “The Island of Sea Women” (Scribner, $27, 384 pages).
It joins her six other historical novels (including “China Dolls” and “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan”) and the contemporary “Red Princess” mystery trilogy.
However, it was See’s 1995 family-history memoir, “On Gold Mountain: The 100 Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family,” that was the catalyst for all that followed.
After “Gold Mountain,” See (who is one-eighth Chinese) turned to fiction based on the “hidden” Chinese histories she had overheard from her grandmother and great-aunt growing up in the family’s Los Angeles antiques store. There, she shaped her career theme: “Women’s stories that have been lost, forgotten or deliberately covered up, and (my characters’) persistence in the face of extreme hardship,” she said.
“Sea Women” is set on the South Korean island province of Jeju, where for centuries the “haenyeo” (“sea women”) have dived the cold waters of Korea Strait to hand-harvest shellfish and other marine life to eat and sell.
It’s a perilous occupation. In the past decade, an estimated 50 haenyeo have died from diving-related complications. Using only masks and flippers (wetsuits didn’t replace their thin cotton outfits until the 1970s), the haenyeo free-dive to depths of 40 feet, holding their breath for two to three minutes. All under the presumed protection of Grandmother Seolmundae and the 10,000 other goddesses they call upon in their shamanistic community.
“The haenyeo live in a society where the focus is on the women,” See said. “They are the breadwinners in their families, while their husbands take care of the children and do the cooking.”
“Sea Women” is the story of an 80-year friendship between two girls of contrasting backgrounds who meet as apprentices in a haenyeo diving collective. Over the decades, Mi-ja and Young-sook survive Japanese colonialism, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. They endure the horrors of the Jeju Uprising, a communist insurgency/anticommunist suppression campaign that began April 3, 1948. As many as 30,000 people were murdered over the next 13 months.
All the while, Mi-ja’s and Young-sook’s friendship grows closer and then further apart as secrets are kept and revealed, grudges grow and are forgiven, and life-altering decisions are made in the names of love, duty or necessity.
See, 64, and her husband live in Los Angeles. They have two adult sons. Visit the author at www.lisasee.com
Q: What prompted you to set a story in South Korea instead of China or the U.S., as you usually do?
A: In many ways I feel that the haenyeo called to me. I hung on to a magazine article about them for eight years before I decided that it was time to write about them. It’s said that in 15 to 20 years their culture will be gone from the world. I felt compelled to do this while I still could. I was amazed by their bravery, persistence and camaraderie.
Q: Their culture is vanishing. The haenyeo population has gone from about 22,000 in the 1960s to fewer than 4,000 today. The youngest is 55 and many are 80 or older. Are younger women replacing them?
A: The haenyeo received designation from UNESCO as an Intangible World Heritage Tradition. Their daughters and granddaughters went to college and now have careers and don’t have to do the dangerous work of their mothers and grandmothers. The way their culture will be preserved is through museums and diving reenactments.
Q: Please tell us something about your interaction with the haenyeo.
A: I’d go to the places where diving collectives were entering or leaving the water and approach them. Sometimes a woman would say she was too busy to talk, but others would talk my ear off.
My favorite day was the one I spent with Young-sook, a scholar, and her mother, Kang Hee-jeong, a retired diver. Young-sook did the translating, and she was pretty emotional during the retelling of her mother’s story. Later, Young-sook admitted to me she’d just learned things about her mother she’d never known before. I felt like I got to play a very small part in this gift from mother to daughter.
Q: Did it help or hinder you that Jeju is a tourist destination?
A: There are lots of honeymooners and tourists there from all over Asia. Have the haenyeo become jaded because of that? Maybe some were, but I think there’s a difference between shoving your camera in someone’s face, and approaching respectfully. I would say this: Don’t interrupt a woman when she’s at work.
Q: Very few Westerners have any knowledge of the Jeju Uprising. Do the memories still reverberate on the island?
A: In the uprising, friends turned against friends, families against families, police and the army against the populace. It’s manifested today in many ways. Airplanes must land on runways that cover mass graves, for instance, and there are monuments to the dead in many villages. The South Korean government censored any mention of it (until 2006). If you spoke about it you could be arrested, sent to jail or killed.
But what so amazed and inspired me is that now Jeju is internationally recognized as the Island of Peace. The people have worked very hard to forgive each other. That doesn’t mean that everything is forgotten. Many people are still bitter and traumatized.
Q: As adults, Mi-ja and Young-sook struggle with their friendship.
A: Whether we are individuals or entire societies, we need to find ways to forgive. This isn’t easy. On a purely personal level, I’ve been struggling with how to forgive and if it’s even possible. But that’s what literature does. It gives us an opportunity to see what and why forgiveness should work, for the betterment of all.
Q: In part, Mi-ja and Young-sook bond over having to confront forces they can’t change. For one thing, they share the trauma of their families marrying them off.
A: Historically, women have always been affected by influences beyond their control. In large parts of the world, women are still matched in arranged marriages. (In one part of the story) Mi-ja and Young-sook have to go to (coastal Russia) for diving jobs, and it’s not a choice. Young-sook needs to raise money to send her bothers to school, while Mi-ja is escaping her background and circumstances. That said, they try to seek out fun and adventures when they can.
Q: What’s your next project?
A: When my grandmother died 26 years ago, I found a diary written by her mother, my great-grandmother. For all these years I knew I wanted to write about her, but I didn’t feel I was old enough or knew enough about life.
Now I want to tell Jessie’s story – of a girl born on a homestead in South Dakota who moved with her family to Washington State, got pregnant at 16, then got married and spent the rest of her life as an itinerant worker moving from Alaska to Mexico. I’ll be writing about the same themes I’ve always written about, – but this time the story will be much closer to home.
Q: How much of you is in your universe of characters?
A: Oh, I don’t think I’m all that adaptable or adventurous. I’m always trying to push myself to be braver and more courageous, though. My characters get to do all the things I wish I could do.
Meet Lisa See
Who: New York Times best-selling author Lisa See will give a presentation, answer questions and autograph books.
Where: Barnes & Noble, 1725 Arden Way, Sacramento
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 9
Note: Barnes & Noble will give a 30-percent discount on “The Island of Sea Women” at this event.
Info: (916) 565-0644