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Bookworm Beat | Lisa See

In our column Bookworm Beat, read about some of our favorite books written by women and non-binary authors...

"In my work, I’m trying to get to the truth of emotions and relationships, even if that means slicing through skin, muscles, and tendons to get to the bone."

Lisa See has written a number of books. In her new novel, The Island of Sea Women, she travels to Jeju Island off the coast of Korea to introduce readers to a community of women divers there. Among them are friends Young-sook and Mi-ja, who grow up together in a world where gender roles work anything but traditional. As the young women grow up together they experience personal and political turmoil, always returning to one another for solace in the world.

Lisa spoke with us about the research and travels she did for the book, where the idea was inspired from, and gives us a taste of her next project.


How did you become interested in writing?

My mother was a writer, and her father was a writer too. I grew up among writers, and just by living in our house I had a lifelong writing apprenticeship. Sometimes I joke around and say it was a good thing they weren’t plumbers, but why couldn’t they have been brain surgeons? All jesting aside, I’m the third generation in my family to be a working writer. When I was doing research about my mom for On Gold Mountain, the book I wrote about my family, I found a letter from her father written when she was going to Los Angeles City College. He told her that if she wanted to be a writer, she needed to write a thousand words a day. My mom always told that to her students, and I was certainly stewed in that belief. Since I write historical novels, it’s fair to say that the majority of my time is spent on research. But when I’m writing, it’s a thousand words a day no matter what.

But being interested in writing goes way beyond mastering a skill set, don’t you think? I feel like I have unknown stories to tell, especially about women. I’ve been very inspired by the women writers in China’s Yangtze Delta in the 17th century who believed you have to cut to the bone to write. This isn’t easy! In my work, I’m trying to get to the truth of emotions and relationships, even if that means slicing through skin, muscles, and tendons to get to the bone. I just looked back at your question, and now I’m thinking this part of my answer shows a weird “interest.”

Many of your books focus on relationships between women. Why is this something you find important to write about?

I am a woman, so I like to read about women in all their complexities. In particular, I find it extremely exciting to read about female relationships through the eyes of women. We need to remember that women writers haven’t been getting published for all that long. Yes, there are the few women writers that we all know about—the Bronte sisters, Emily Dickinson, George Sand, Virginia Woolf, and a few others—but really they were few and far between. This means that in literature most female relationships—mothers and daughters, sisters, friends—have been written by men. But now we have lots of stories about women that are written by women. And there’s such range to that, right? Chic lit women who like to shop, tough women detectives, flawed women, brave women, poor women, rich women, women from other religions, cultures, and traditions. As a writer, I’m drawn to women’s friendship because it’s unlike any other relationship we have in our lives. We will tell a friend something we won’t tell our mothers, our husbands or boyfriends, or our children. This is a particular kind of intimacy, and it can leave us open to the deepest betrayals.

Your books often explore Chinese women and culture, as well. How did it come to interest you?

I’m part Chinese. My great-great-grandfather came here to work on the building of the transcontinental railroad. My great-grandfather was the godfather/patriarch of Los Angeles Chinatown. I don’t look at all Chinese, but I grew up in a large Chinese-American family. (To clarify, I lived with my mom, but I spent a huge amount of time with my father’s side of the family.) I have hundreds of relatives in Los Angeles, of which there are only about a dozen who look like me.

All writers are told to write what they know. My family is what I know. And what I don’t know—the women’s secret language, for example—I love to find out whatever I can and then bring my sensibility to the subject. I guess what I’m trying to say is that in many ways I straddle two cultures. I try to bring what I know from both cultures into my work. The American side of me tries to open a window into China and things Chinese for non-Chinese, while the Chinese side of me makes sure that what I’m writing is true to the Chinese culture without making it seem too “exotic” or “foreign.” In some ways, The Island of Sea Women is a departure for me. In other ways, it is merely a continuation of what I’ve been doing in all along. It takes place in Korea, but it’s about women’s lives. What I want people to get from my books is that all people on the planet share common life experiences—falling in love, getting married, having children, dying—and share common emotions—love, hate, greed, jealousy. These are the universals; the differences are in the particulars of customs and culture.

The Island of Sea Women is your latest novel. Can you tell us a little bit about how this book came to be written?

Ideas for books come to me in all sorts of ways. Even if it’s a flash of an idea that crosses my mind, I’ll often think about it for years before I decide this is the one. That happened with The Island of Sea Women. About ten years ago, I was sitting in my doctor’s waiting room, leafing through magazines, as we all do. I came across a tiny article—just one paragraph and one small photo—about the diving women of Jeju Island. 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. The women 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. It’s said that in about fifteen years, this culture will be gone from the world. I felt compelled to write about them while I still could.

The novel is set on a remote island off of Korea and features an all-female dive team. Did you do research on either of these things when writing?

I always to go every place I write about. I want to see what it looks like, what the air feels like, taste the food, experience what happens when the wind shifts, so of course I went to Jeju Island to do research. When I there, I interviewed women in their seventies, eighties, and nineties—many of whom are still diving. I must say that this was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. These women have done not only dangerous work but they have also lived through extraordinary times. To sit in their homes or on the beach with them as they gathered algae that had washed ashore and then listen to them reminisce about their lives was a great privilege. I also did all the usual kinds of research: I spoke with scholars, looked at the work done by scientists on the biology of the haenyeo, and I delved into the history of the island, including what is known as the 4.3 Incident.

Political tensions influence the friendship between main characters Young-sook and Mi-ja. How did you incorporate this historical element into the novel in order to not only tell the story of the political tensions but also the story of these characters that raises its own set of questions and concerns?

Jeju Island has some very dark history attached to it: the Japanese colonial period, World War II, the division of Korea into north and south, the red scare. On Jeju, all this culminated in what’s known as the 4.3 Incident, when friends turned against friends, families against families, police and the army against the populace. It’s estimated that 40,000 people (ten percent of the population) lost their lives, and entire villages were burned and lost forever. Jeju, as an island, has taken on the ideal of forgiveness. It’s now considered the Island of Peace. Whether individuals—like the fictional Young-sook and Mi-ja—or entire villages that were divided into victims and perpetrators, they have worked to find ways to forgive. It’s admirable, but in some ways I find it unfathomable.

Every single one of us is affected by the larger history happening around us, even if we don’t realize it or absorb it in the moment. It happened to my family. It happened to your family. And it’s happening to everyone who’s reading this. Our own country is divided right now, and one side shows little interest in communicating or negotiating with the other side, let alone finding a way towards rapprochement. On a personal level, I’ve been struggling with how to forgive and if it’s even possible. But that’s what literature does. The fictional relationship between Young-sook and Mi-ja gives us an opportunity to see what can work, why it should work, and what happens if it doesn’t work.

Can you tell us anything about your next project?

When my grandmother died, I found in her things her mother’s diary. My great-grandmother Jessie was born in the 1880s on a homestead in South Dakota, moved to Washington State with her family, got pregnant at sixteen, and ended up traveling the West—from Alaska to the Mexican border—as an itinerant worker. I’m using the diary as a jumping off point to write about what it meant to be a poor, uneducated, white woman in the West during a period when women moved forever out of long skirts and petticoats and won the right to vote but were still very much at the mercy of society and cultural mores. This is a project I’ve been thinking about for twenty-six years. For the longest time, I kept telling myself that I wasn’t old enough to write it, meaning, I guess, that I didn’t yet have enough life experience. Last summer I realized that if I wasn’t old enough yet, then when would I be? But now that I’ve started doing the research, I see that my long period of reluctance was more personal. I’ve written about the hardships that women face in all of my novels. Now I’m writing about hardships that happened to my own flesh and blood. I’m cutting to the bone, once again, to write this one.


Follow Lisa See on Twitter and Instagram. The Island of Sea Women is available now from Scribner.


Rachel A.G. Gilman is the Creator/Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Creature.

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