The Underwater World of Haenyeos: Background information when reading The Island of Sea Women

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Island of Sea Women

by Lisa See

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See X
The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Mar 2019, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 10, 2020, 384 pages

    Genres

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
Buy This Book

About this Book

The Underwater World of Haenyeos

This article relates to The Island of Sea Women

Print Review

HaenyeosLisa See's novel, The Island of Sea Women, highlights the lives of haenyeos – women from the South Korean island of Jeju who support their families by free-diving for plants and animals that thrive in the ocean. They're known to be able to hold their breath for two to three minutes at a stretch and can descend to depths of 30 to 45 feet below sea level.

The women refer to the actual act of diving as muljil, and it is an art learned by each woman from childhood. It is a dangerous profession that requires an innate understanding of water pressure, tidal differences, sea temperature, and other hazards that could impact whether or not they have enough oxygen to return to the surface. Harvesting sea products in a sustainable manner has always been a priority for the haenyeos – for example, they avoid fishing during spawning periods so they won't disrupt the fish's lifecycle.

Haenyeos retrieving seaweedThe divers rely on specialized equipment that they developed over the centuries. (The tradition dates back to around 400 CE.) Until the invention of the rubberized wet suit, each woman would dress in a loose cotton swimsuit known as a mulot, comprised of pants (mulsojungi), jacket (muljeokam), and a hair wrap (mulsugun). The garments opened on the side and were secured with ties, making them easy to put on and adjust as the women's body size changed over the years. (For example, as she became pregnant and subsequently gave birth.) They originally wore belts loaded with rocks to help them remain submerged, but more recently they've switched to using lead weights for this purpose.

Another essential item is the tewak (or te-wak), a basketball-sized buoy that's left on the surface to indicate where a haenyeo is diving. A net, known as a mangsari, floats beneath the tewak and is used to store each woman's harvest throughout the dive, which can last up to six hours with the use of a wetsuit. They use prying tools called bitchang to harvest stubborn shellfish like abalone from cervices and a homaengie, a sickle-like instrument, for collecting grasses like seaweed. Along with those two items, they bring octopus, conch, sea mustard, sea cucumber, and sea urchin to market.

Haenyeos selling octopusThe South Korean government has recognized the haenyeo as a national treasure, subsidizing their gear and providing them medical coverage, as well as granting them exclusive rights to sell fresh seafood in Jeju to encourage the practice. Nevertheless, it's a dying art. There were over 26,000 haenyeo in the 1960s, but less than 4500 today, and as of 2014, 98% were over 50 years old.

Haenyeos after diving for seaweed and octopus, courtesy of blog.bnbhero.com

Article by Kim Kovacs

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Island of Sea Women. It first ran in the May 1, 2019 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $12 for 3 months or $39 for a year
  • More about membership!

Editor's Choice


Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    The Seine
    by Elaine Sciolino

    "A soulful, transformative voyage along the body of water that defines the City of Light."
    —Lauren Collins
    Reader Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    Ordinary Girls
    by Jaquira Díaz

    Reminiscent of Tara Westover's Educate and Roxane Gay's Hunger--a memoir that reads as electrically as a novel.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win The Girl Who Reads on the Métro

The Girl Who Reads on the Métro

An enchanting story for fans of The Little Paris Bookshop and The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

Enter

Word Play

Solve this clue:

L, Damn L, A S

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.