I stopped by the ladies’ restroom at the Hilton Fort Collins on March 9 just before best-selling author Lisa See was scheduled to discuss her latest novel The Island of Sea Women, a story of female friendship and family secrets.
As I entered a stall, a woman near the sink said loudly, “Hi Lisa! I’m Chu-Hua, I’m the one who emailed you!
From the privacy of her stall, Lisa replied, “Hi!”
OMG, is this lady really trying to carry on a conversation with Lisa See while she’s sitting on the toilet?
Chu-Hua proceeded to happily babble away in the brief but friendly conversation, and then ended with, “Bye! I’ll see you in there!” referring to the main ballroom. Lisa replied, “See you there!”
I concluded Lisa See must be one of the nicest people on earth.
After hearing her talk about women she interviewed during research for her novel, and about her family history, I knew I was right. Lisa See is kind, compassionate, and funny. She’s also an amazing storyteller.The Island of Sea Women tells the story of Young-sook and Mi-ja, girls from strikingly different backgrounds who bond over their shared love of the sea. Working in their remote village’s all-female diving collective, the friends come of age in a community where gender roles are not typical. Women are the primary breadwinners and the heads of households, but Young-sook and Mi-ja come to realize there are limits to their control that can prove devastating.
A few hundred audience members listened with rapt attention to See’s anecdotes about researching the women divers of Jeju Island. These haenyeo (“sea woman”) free-divers hold their breath in cold water more than 20 feet deep to gather seafood by hand. It’s a dangerous business.
According to the Financial Times article listed on See’s website: “For centuries, female divers on a South Korean island have made their living by harvesting seaweed. The women, some in their eighties, talk about a tradition that could soon be consigned to the past.”
Here are a few highlights from the event, which was part of a free author series.
Researching the Novel
- The author walked down the beach of Jeju Island, gathering stories from the woman who had cushions strapped to their behinds to sort the seaweed that had washed ashore. One of these ladies shouted, “I was the best haenyeo diver!”
- She interviewed one 93-year-old haenyeo in her home. See kept asking if the haenyeo if she was tired and wanted to stop, but she didn’t. The woman’s daughter, a professor, served as translator and became more pale as interview went on. Eight hours later, the daughter explained that she had never heard most of these stories, and it had been difficult to hear what her mother had lived through.
- The profession is dying. Of the 4,000 haenyeo remaining (from 30,000), the youngest are 55 years old.
- See is part Chinese. Her great-great-grandfather came to the U.S. from China to work on building the transcontinental railroad. Her great-grandfather, Fong See, came to Sacramento as a teenager, worked many odd jobs, and later started a company that sold crotch-less underwear to the women who worked in bordellos. He married a Caucasian woman despite laws that prohibited such unions.
- Her great-grandfather eventually moved that business (known within the family as “fancy underwear for fancy ladies”) to Los Angeles. The company evolved into an antiques business. Today, it’s known as the oldest continuously-run family business in the city.
- She has about 400 relatives in the Los Angeles area. While many look Chinese, only a dozen or so look like her. (Read more about her family’s history in On Gold Mountain: A Family Memoir of Love, Struggle and Survival.)
- Thought about The Island of Sea Women for eight years.
- Usually works from a seven-page outline.
- Starts out knowing all the characters and their relationships and where they’re going, but not exactly how they’ll get there.
Her Next Novel
- Thought about the story for 26 years.
- That’s when her family discovered an ancestor’s journal, which detailed life as a South Dakota homesteader.
- Working on the novel has been emotional journey.
The following is from a conversation with Lisa See and her mother, the late author Carolyn See:
Carolyn: In addition to writing books, you’ve written the libretto for an opera and mounted museum shows. You serve as a Los Angeles city commissioner and sit on various boards, plus you’re a wife and mother. Why do you do all these things? Do they distract you from writing novels?
Lisa: Writers, as you know, tend to be solitary and shy. That’s why people become writers! There was a point about ten years ago when I realized that the only time I went outside during the day was to get the mail, pick up the kids, and do errands.
I felt like I needed to connect to life beyond my imagination and the computer screen. This was not easy for me, but what I discovered—to my surprise—was that doing these other things made me a better writer.
In writing the libretto, I learned the value of telling a story purely through the emotions of music. (Snow Flower is nothing if not operatic in its emotions.) In doing the museum exhibitions, I learned to tell a story in a purely visual way. (For example, I wanted to be right there with Lily and Snow Flower when they went to the Temple of Gupo: to feel the swaying of the palanquin, sort through the colors of embroidery thread, and taste the sugared taro dessert.)
By doing community work, I’ve learned a lot about emotions and the connections between people. E. M. Forster wrote, “Only connect.” I’ve tried to take that idea—and all the things I’ve learned meeting people I wouldn’t have if I’d stayed glued to my computer—to create characters who are struggling with the same things I struggle with and that we all struggle with.
For me, connecting has helped me realize the importance of home, family, friendship, love, despair, loss, failure, regret, and triumph not only on a deep personal level but as something I can bring to my writing. Read more about Lisa See and her books at www.LisaSee.com and see upcoming events in the free “An Evening With” author series co-sponsored by Old Firehouse Books, Friends of Morgan Library, Poudre River Friends of the Library, and others.
Katherine Valdez loves to read and write about books, authors, and the writing journey. Read about author events and no-spoilers movie and book reviews by following www.KatherineValdez.com. Type your email address in the Follow box and watch for the confirmation email to complete the process.