Throughout this time, the residents of Jeju find themselves caught between warring empires. Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator , and she will forever be marked by this association.
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Galaxy Bookshop. Gleebooks Pty Ltd. Hill of Content Bookshop. Mi-ja and I listened as the women considered the possibilities. Even the small-divers kept quiet. Mother struck down most proposals. It is our duty to be keepers and managers of the sea. If we protect our wet fields, they will continue to provide for us. Its walls provide something for every ability. The most experienced among us can go as deep as we want, while the baby-divers can pick through those spots close to the surface. The Kang sisters will show Mi-ja what to do.
Yu-ri will soon become a small-diver, so this will be good training for her. Mothers are closer to the women in their diving collective than they are to their own children. Today, my mother and I had begun to form that deeper relationship. Observing Do-saeng and Yu-ri together, I could see where my mother and I would be in a few years. But this moment also showed me why Mother had been elected chief. She was a leader, and her judgment was valued. We are crossing between life and death every day.
As my grandmother and her friends filed outside to work on the shore, Mother motioned to Yu-ri to help me get ready. Yu-ri and I had known each other our entire lives, so naturally we were a good match. She was an orphan, and her father had been a collaborator, working for the Japanese in Jeju City. But whether or not the Kangs liked it, they had to do what my mother ordered. Now, follow what I do. No one showed any inhibitions.
This was like being together in the communal bath. Some of the younger women were big with babies growing in their bellies. Older women had stretch marks. Even older women had breasts that sagged from too much living and giving. We were fifteen years old, but the harshness of our environment—little food, hard physical work, and cold weather—meant that we were as skinny as eels, our breasts had not yet begun to grow, and just a few wisps of hair showed between our legs.
We stood there, shivering, as Yu-ri, Gu-ja, and Gu-sun helped us put on our three-piece water clothes made from plain white cotton. The white color would make us more visible underwater, and it was said to repel sharks and dolphins, but, I realized, the thinness of the fabric would do little to keep us warm. You fasten them together with the strings. This allows the suit to tighten or expand with pregnancy or other types of weight gain or loss. It will be a son. Her fingers felt icy against my skin, and goosebumps rose on my flesh. Same on Mi-ja.
These suits have forever marked the haenyeo as immodest, for no proper Korean woman, whether on the mainland or here on our island, would ever bare so much skin. The whole time, Yu-ri continued talking, talking, talking. They would be lucky to go beyond elementary school. She seemed worry free, and she was a good worker, which was why it had been easy to find a match for her.
She turned her attention back to me. Once we had on our suits, we put on water jackets. Last, we tied white kerchiefs over our hair to conserve body heat and because no one would wish for a loose tendril to get tangled in seaweed or caught on a rock. Ringing in the ears! Following the examples of Yu-ri and the Kang sisters, Mi-ja and I unfolded the paper packets, tilted our heads back like baby birds, poured the bitter-tasting white powder into our mouths, and swallowed.
Then Mi-ja and I watched as the others spat on their knives to bring good luck in finding and harvesting an abalone—a prized catch, for each one fetched a great price. Mother checked to make sure I had all my gear. She focused particularly on my tewak—a hollowed-out gourd that had been left to dry in the sun, which would serve as my buoy. She then did the same with Mi-ja.
We each had a bitchang to use for prying creatures from their homes and a pronged hoe to pick between the cracks and embed in the sand or on a crag to help pull us from place to place. We also had a sickle for cutting seaweed, a knife for opening sea urchins, and a spear for protection. Just get accustomed to the waters around you.
Stay aware of your surroundings, because everything will look different. I looked forward to it all. As the other women boarded the boat, Mi-ja and I lingered on the jetty. She rummaged through her basket and pulled out a book, while I brought out a piece of charcoal from my basket.
She ripped a page from the book and held it over the written character name for the boat. Even tied up, it bobbed in the waves, making it nearly impossible for Mi-ja to keep the paper steady and for me to rub it with the charcoal. Mi-ja tucked the paper back in the book to keep it safe, then we scrambled aboard and took up oars.
As we slowly rowed away from the jetty, my mother led us in song. The tide was right, and the sea was relatively calm. We brought up our oars when we reached the diving spot. The boat dipped and swayed in the light chop. I attached my bitchang to my wrist and grabbed my net and tewak. A light wind blew, and I began to shiver. I was feeling pretty miserable. Please no strong currents. Mother counted as each woman jumped into the water and swam away in twos and threes.
With fewer women on board to help weigh down the boat, it rocked even worse. Yu-ri steadied herself before finally leaping over a swell and into the water. The Kang sisters held hands when they jumped. Those two were inseparable. The salt water, the pulse and surges of the current, the magnified beat of your heart, and the muffled sounds reverberating through the water together recall the womb.
But we haenyeo must always think about making money. Do you understand? If you see an octopus, ignore it. A haenyeo must learn how to knock out an octopus underwater, or else it could use its arms against you. And stay away from abalone too! It can take months before a beginning haenyeo is ready to risk prying an abalone from a rock. Only years of experience can teach a woman how to get loose and still have enough time left over to reach the surface for air.
I was in no hurry to attempt such a hazardous activity. You are baby-divers. Instant, shocking cold. I hung on to my buoy, my legs kicking back and forth beneath me. It was time for swallowing water breath. Together we took a breath, a breath, a breath, filling our lungs to capacity, expanding our chests. Then we went down. Light filtered turquoise and glittery close to the surface. Around us, others descended—with their heads directed to the ocean floor—through the canyon Mother had described, their feet pointed to the sky.
Those women were quick and powerful, plunging a body length, another body length, deeper and deeper into darker blue water. Mi-ja and I struggled to achieve that straight angle. For me, the worst part was my goggles. The metal frames, responding to the water pressure even at this shallow depth, cut into my flesh. They also limited my peripheral vision, creating yet another danger and forcing me to be even more vigilant in this ghostly environment. As baby-divers, Yu-ri, the Kangs, Mi-ja, and I could only go down about two body lengths, but I watched as my mother disappeared into the inky chasm of the canyon.
I kicked to go up, my lungs feeling like they were about to explode. As soon as I broke the surface, my sumbisori erupted and scattered on the air. It sounded like a deep sigh—aaah—and I realized it was just as Mother had always said it would be. My sumbisori was unique. We grinned at each other, then swallowed more water breath and dove again. Nature told me what to do. The next time I surfaced, I had a sea urchin in my hand.
My first catch! I put it in the net attached to my tewak, took another series of deep breaths, and went back down. I stayed within sight of Yu-ri, even if we resurfaced at different intervals. Every time I looked for Mi-ja, I found her not more than a meter away from one of the Kang sisters, who themselves stayed close together. We repeated this pattern, pausing occasionally to rest on our buoys, until it was time to return to the boat. When I reached it, I easily hoisted my net—noticeably light compared to those of others—and carried it across the deck so that the woman behind me and her catch could board.
Mother oversaw everything and everyone. Four stragglers still paddled toward the boat. I could sense Mother counting to make sure everyone was safe. It was a beautiful day, and everything had gone perfectly. I felt proud of myself. But now that the swells were rising, and the dipping and swaying of the boat was getting worse, all I wanted to do was go home. Not possible.
Once our arms and legs were rosy with heat, we went back in the water. The five baby-divers stayed together—with one or another of us popping back up for air.
Never before had I concentrated so hard—on my form, on the beating of my heart, on the pressure on my lungs, on looking. Our main goal was not to embarrass ourselves as we tried to perfect the head-down dive position. We were pathetic. Acquiring that skill would take time. When Mother sounded the call that the day was done, I was relieved. I glimpsed Mi-ja and the Kangs swimming to the boat. I saw something on my last dive. Come on! I made a split-second decision, took a few deeps breaths, and followed Yu-ri. Yu-ri dragged herself along the craggy surface, pulled out her bitchang, jabbed it in a hole, and yanked out an octopus.
It was huge! The arms must have been a meter long. Such a catch!
Feb 23, Linda rated it it was amazing Shelves: 5-star-winners , asian-themes , historical-fiction , nature-themes , net-galley , fiction. Zip Code. There are some very heavy elements to this book that I felt were underserved due to the sole focus on friendship between these women. First posted March 07, Now she is learning to put down roots in remote north west Tasmania. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese women were involved in the dregs of the Vietnam War—burying the dead, defusing bombs, monitoring the Ho Chi Minh Trail—both in the North and the South.
I would get some credit for it too. The octopus reached out and looped an arm around my wrist. I wrenched it loose. One had latched on to my thigh and was drawing me toward it, while another was slithering sucker over sucker up my other arm. I struggled to pull them off.
Instead of fighting or resisting, I swam closer, linked my arms around the octopus and Yu-ri, and kicked as hard as I could. Help us! The creature was trying to pull us back under. I kicked and kicked. Suckers loosened from Yu-ri and came to me, sensing I was now the greater threat.
They creeped along my arms and legs. I heard splashing, then arms grabbed me. Knives flashed in the sun as suckers were pried from my skin, chunks of the octopus cut off and tossed through the air, discarded. Buoyed by the others, I lifted a leg so they could remove the suckers. Do-saeng pulled her arm back, her knife in her fist. Yu-ri was under there. Despite the support from the women surrounding us, I could feel in my legs that I was the one keeping Yu-ri afloat even as the octopus continued to try to drag us under. As strong as I wanted to be, I began to cry inside my goggles.
It was either dead or close to it, but like that of a lizard or a frog, its body still had impulses and strength. Finally, I was free. Can you make it alone? I made it about halfway to the boat before I had to flip onto my back to float and rest for a moment. Above me, clouds traveled quickly, pushed by the wind. A bird flew overhead. I closed my eyes, trying to draw on deeper strength.
Waves lapped against my ears—submerging them one moment, then exposing them to the worried sounds of the women still with Yu-ri. I heard a splash, then a second, and a third. Arms once again supported me. I opened my eyes: Mi-ja and the Kang sisters.
Together they helped me to the boat. Gu-ja, the strongest of us, heaved herself up and over the side. I placed my arms on the side of the boat and began to hoist myself up, but the ordeal had left me too weak. Mi-ja and Gu-sun each placed a hand under my bottom and pushed me up. I slipped onto the deck like a caught fish. I lay there panting, my limbs like rubber, my mind exhausted. I pulled my goggles from my eyes, and they clattered to the deck.
The whole while, the three girls babbled nonstop. Other women began to arrive. I forced myself to sit up. Mi-ja and the Kangs went to the edge of the boat and reached down their arms. I joined them and helped grab Yu-ri. She felt heavy—a deadweight. We pulled her up and over, and we fell back to the deck.
Yu-ri lay on top of me, not moving. The boat pitched, and she rolled to the side. Do-saeng came next, followed by my mother. They knelt next to Yu-ri.
The Women on the Island book. Read 2 reviews from the world's largest community for readers. Deep in the forested Vietnamese island of Cat Bac, a jungle. This series of short online documentaries tells the stories of the women who inhabit the island of Tasmania, Australia.
Do-saeng edged out of the way. Otherwise she would have inhaled water. Mother suddenly turned her attention to Mi-ja, the Kang sisters, and me. She regarded us, considering our actions. We were supposed to stay together. Mi-ja and the Kangs had, but they looked embarrassed. Mother shouted for everyone to take her place. We picked up our oars. The boat lurched as it began moving over and through the white-capped waves. Do-saeng wiped her face with a corner of the rough cloth. She spoke, but her words were carried away by the wind. First one woman then another stopped singing, each of us needing to hear Do-saeng.
We all knew the saying, but to hear it from a mother about her own daughter? I can sell it for a lot of money. She wrapped an arm around Do-saeng, who then expressed her worst fear.
Or the morning after that. Or the week after that. In desperation, Do-saeng sought help from Shaman Kim, our spiritual leader and guide, our divine wise one. Although the Japanese had outlawed Shamanism, she continued to perform funerals and rites for lost souls in secret. She was known to hold rituals for grandmothers when their eyesight began to fade, mothers whose sons were in the military, and women who had bad luck, such as three pigs dying in a row.
She was our conduit between the human world and the spirit world. She had the ability to go into trances to speak to the dead or missing, and then transmit their messages to friends, family, and even enemies. Her assistants banged on drums and cymbals. Shaman Kim spun, her arms raised, calling out to the spirits to return the young haenyeo to her mother. Do-saeng openly wept. It was painful to see their sorrow. That night, I told Mi-ja my secret—that Yu-ri had asked me to disobey my mother, and I had. Not the other way around. Mi-ja mulled that over for a few moments. Think of the pain it will bring to her family.
Mi-ja was right. I had to keep this a secret. After another week, Do-saeng asked Shaman Kim to try again. This time the ceremony was held in our bulteok—hidden from the prying eyes of the Japanese. In fact, no men attended.