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'Grannies of the Sea'A review of Brenda Paik Sunoo’s new book
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승인 2011.04.23  13:16:27
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▲ A photo of a haenyeo from “Moon Tides: Jeju Island Grannies of the Sea,” by Brenda Paik Sunoo with Young Sook Han. Photo courtesy Brenda Paik Sunoo and Seoul Selection

A lone figure pierces the surface of the emerald sea. A woman coming up for air, water pouring off the hooded wetsuit
covering her head and dripping off her chin. A high-pitched whistling sound, or sumbisori, escapes her lips as she inhales and exhales. I look closer and I’m struck by her age. She’s not a young woman. Her face, framed by a pink dive mask and lined with wrinkles from years of experience at sea, is mottled red from the cold. She’s exhausted but tough and determined. Inside that mask there’s a story to tell. A powerful image.

This is the cover photo that introduced me to the book “Moon Tides: Jeju Island Grannies of the Sea.” Written by Brenda Paik Sunoo with Young Sook Han, the book is divided into seven chapters: Survival, Shamans, Suffering, Aging, Compassion, Family, and Future.

Many of the women featured within, like the writer herself, are in their 60s, and rather than relaxing in the golden years of their retirement, they are not only surviving day to day, but living their lives, showing a dedication to their jobs that’s rare in people of any age. It's truly an inspiration, and the book is clearly an attempt by the writer to show her respect for and make a connection to the strong character, vitality and energy displayed by these older women of Jeju.

The book is filled with stunning imagery. The photos of the colorful shaman in particular are wonderful, and adding a chapter that introduces us to the families of these amazing women was a nice touch. But, it's the photos of the Jeju diving women, or haenyeo, that are the real strength of this book.

In her introduction she honors her two grandmothers, Song Kuang-do and Whang Ai-sung, who came to America in 1905 and 1913. She states:

“I ... was emotionally drawn to Jeju and the haenyeo because they reminded me of my maternal halmeoni [Korean for grandmother] ... I missed the presence of Korean grannies like her. The haenyeo’s wrinkled faces, thick knuckles, gray hair and robust personalities all reminded me of her ... Had my grandmother been born in Jeju, I believe she, too, may have become a haenyeo. She possessed the same survival-driven ethos.”

There is a strong connection between her writing and the images in the book. Early on we are introduced to a haenyeo in her environment. We see a picture of unruly hair messed up by the constant use of a diving hood. We see in that same picture a pair of well-worn hands showing the years of hard labor she’s endured. Its all framed by a colorful array of nets and other fishing gear behind her. As she turns to face the photographer, you can see the strength in her eyes, and the expression on her face says, “I’m too busy for this. I have places to go and things to do!”

Then we are presented with a spectacular image of a haenyeo crouching proudly over her catch of octopus, her head tilted upwards, satisfied with her day’s work.

Later in the book all the elements of a great photo come together as we see another haenyeo walking over the distinctive volcanic rocks along the coast, the sea, her workplace, behind her. Breathing heavily, she carries her heavy net on one shoulder, her wrinkled wetsuit matching her weather-worn face.

The writer matches the photos and the book’s story perfectly, painting a brilliant portrait of the haenyeo: their resilience, their work ethic, their sense of community and family, their never-give-up attitude. Her grandmothers would be proud.

ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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