“Every woman who enters the sea carries a coffin on her back, “ she warned the gathering. “In this world, in the undersea world,we tow the burdens of a hard life. We are crossing between life and death every day. When we go to the sea, we share the work and the danger," Mother added. “We harvest together, sort together, and sell together, because the sea itself is communal.”
I’m Betty Martin with "Martin’s Must Reads" and those traditional words are spoken by the leader of the diving collective in the book The Island of the Sea Women by Lisa See.
As the story begins it’s 1938 and fifteen year old Young-sook lives with her parents and siblings in a small stone house on the island of Jeju, South Korea. When she is not learning to dive with her mother, she helps to scratch out sweet potatoes in the earth. It is there she first meets her best friend Mi-Ja.
The story follows Mi-Ja and Young-sook through many decades as they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective. This is the story of a unique culture, where the women are in charge, engaging in dangerous physical work, and the men take care of the children.
The women dive in fifty degree water to collect seaweed, algae, crabs, abalone and octopus. Women die when caught below the water, are washed out with a strong current or killed by the octopus they hunt. They dive even when pregnant and often give birth on the boat they rowed out to the day’s fishing territory.
If you’re interested in reading a unique story about women’s friendships then you must read The Island of the Sea Women by Lisa See.