▲ Lisa See with haenyeo Yun Mija, 72, Hado. Photo provided by Lisa See.
Lisa See has come to town.
The bestselling author of 10 novels, books which have inspired a movie, opera, and art exhibition, See has decided to focus her next work on the famed ‘haenyeo’, the diving women of Jeju Island. Known for her themes of China, Chinese-American immigrants, and strong female characters, she is now branching out into other Pacific Rim cultures – starting with this one.
Five years ago, See discovered an article on Jeju haenyeo. Proposing it to her then-publisher as a potential subject for a future novel, she was met with strong rejection: the publisher refused to consider her writing on any culture other than that of China, for which she already has an established fan base worldwide.
“Since then, I’ve changed publishers,” she reports, the new publisher considerably more receptive to this departure from her usual themes.
See, the great-granddaughter of Fong See, a Chinese immigrant to America and patriarch of the Chinese-American community in Los Angeles, has often written about and discussed her Chinese heritage. Of perhaps equal importance to her, however, is the Strong Woman archetype and the bond of relationships among women, a repeated theme throughout her work.
Complementing her talent for writing, See is a prodigious researcher, utilizing document analysis, field work, interview technique, and direct observation to inform her work. Prior to her arrival on Jeju, she extensively studied written materials on Jeju culture, discussing numerous aspects with this writer and other contacts.
Now on Jeju, she has conducted interviews with grand shamans Kim Yoon Su (Chilmeoridang Yeongdeung-gut Preservation Society) and Suh Sun Sil (Keun-gut Preservation Society), haenyeo researcher Dr. Choa Hye Gyoung, and numerous haenyeo, their husbands, and other village residents. In addition to the Haenyeo Museum she has visited the Jeju 4.3 Peace Park and Memorial Hall, Jeju Stone Culture Park, Kim Mandeok Memorial Hall, Gwandeokjeong Pavillion, and Samseonghyeol. She has resided in both mid-mountain and coastal villages, climbed oreums, walked Jeju Olle trails, explored gotjawal volcanic forests, and experienced a wide variety of native Jeju foods. Additionally, she is studying the island’s dialect and proverbs, local history, traditional ‘galot’ persimmon-dyed clothing, open-air markets, mythology, topography, climate, agriculture, and more.
▲ Author Lisa See says she often focuses her work on marginalized groups. Photo provided by Lisa See.
When asked what particularly interests her about the Jeju haenyeo, she cites not only their unique profession and the hardship it entails, but also their group identity and bonding, as well as their historically marginalized status. She has often focused her work on themes of marginalized groups and topics that have been “lost, hidden, or deliberately covered up.”
She will meet with Professor Lee Byung Gul of Jeju National University, director of Jeju Sea Grant Program dedicated to the study and preservation of the marine environment, who recently commissioned the first handbook in English on the Jeju women divers’ culture and community.
On May 9, Jeju Governor Won Hee-ryong will officially welcome and thank See for her focus on Jeju Island and the Jeju haenyeo culture. He will be joined by division directors of Cultural Policy, Marine Industry, and Peace & Cooperation, as well as other dignitaries.
In addition to her role as bestselling author, See is a freelance journalist. She also serves as a Los Angeles City Commissioner, focused on cultural heritage preservation.
See typically takes 3 years to see a novel to completion, from initial research through publication; the novel on Jeju is thus anticipated for 2019. Her books have been translated into 39 languages; her latest, “The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane,” will be published next year.
Dr Anne Hilty is a New York psychologist who resided on Jeju 2010-2015, researching and publishing extensively about the island. She is a government-appointed Honorary Ambassador for Jeju Island (2014-2018) and author of the forthcoming, “Goddesses and Strong Women: The Mythology of Jeju.” She now resides in Hong Kong.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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