U. S. complicity in the brutal 1950 repression in South Korea

Lisa See has written a wonderful novel, The Island of Sea Women,  about the women who worked as haenyeo divers on South Korea’s Jeju Island during the 1930s and 1940s. The focus, in addition to the matriarchal-world of harvesting food from the seafloor, is on the long-term relationships between the women and their families during a very dangerous period on Korean history.

In 1950, there were brutal purges in South Korea by the U.S.-stalled government of Syngman Rhee against real and imagined communists in the south, including Jeju Island. Multiple villages were burnt, thousands of innocent people were brutally tortured and killed, all based on the lame excuse that a communist walking through the countryside proved everyone there was a potential sympathizer.

I found myself growing more and more angry about the complicity of the U.S. in these massacres as I got farther into the novel. See mentions in the afterword that Jeju citizens were forbidden from speaking about what happened for 50 years under pain of death.

The Americans, who occupied South Korea at the end of World War two classified anything having to do with the purges, the pictures of which look like something out of Nazi Germany. Our military could have and should have brought order to the land it governed. Instead, as General MacArthur claimed, the U.S. viewed the executions as an “internal matter” while local commanders surreptitiously cheered the brutal putdown of the left-wing uprisings, and even took pictures of the mass graves of innocents killed in the process.

To learn more, I suggest http://islandstudies.net/weis/weis_2016v06/v06n4-2.pdf, an author mentioned by See in the novel’s afterword.

As a grade school student, I saw news reports about the Korean War. What I did not see–since it would be classified for years–was any news about the South Korean president we installed killing his own people. Once again, we were cut off from the truth about what our country was doing, or in this case, not doing.

Lisa See has not only written another powerful novel that teaches us much about a culture far away but one that sheds light on another failure of our civilian and military leadership.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of magical realism and contemporary fantasy novels including “Conjure Woman’s Cat.”  We are especially happy with the highly praised narration of the audiobook.

It’s Monday: What are you reading?

Word of mouth is one of the best ways to learn about new books or old classics that a friend has re-discovered. I tend to stick with authors I like, such as John Hart, but if a friend or book blogger tells me about something else, I can easily be tempted to try a book or author I’m not familiar with.

This week, I started another novel by Lisa See, The Island of Sea Women. I’ve read an enjoyed most of her novels. The book was released in 2019 by Scribner.

From the Publisher

“A mesmerizing new historical novel” (O, The Oprah Magazine) from Lisa See, the bestselling author of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, about female friendship and devastating family secrets on a small Korean island.

Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls living on the Korean island of Jeju, are best friends who come from very different backgrounds. When they are old enough, they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective, led by Young-sook’s mother. As the girls take up their positions as baby divers, they know they are beginning a life of excitement and responsibility—but also danger.

Despite their love for each other, Mi-ja and Young-sook find it impossible to ignore their differences. The Island of Sea Women takes place over many decades, beginning during a period of Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s, followed by World War II, the Korean War, through the era of cell phones and wet suits for the women divers. Throughout this time, the residents of Jeju find themselves caught between warring empires. Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator. Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers in their village. Little do the two friends know that forces outside their control will push their friendship to the breaking point.

“This vivid…thoughtful and empathetic” novel (The New York Times Book Review) illuminates a world turned upside down, one where the women are in charge and the men take care of the children. “A wonderful ode to a truly singular group of women” (Publishers Weekly), The Island of Sea Women is a “beautiful story…about the endurance of friendship when it’s pushed to its limits, and you…will love it” (Cosmopolitan).

I’m enjoying the book. Younger readers may be surprised to learn that Japan occupied Korea for many years

What are you reading?

So, are you reading something wild and wonderful? If so, please share the title and author and what you think of it so far.

Malcolm

From one culture shock to another

In Real Life

As you can see, some of our grass is more ancient pasture than yard.

In real life, I’m staying inside a lot, wearing a mask when I go shopping, taking a car with 81,000 miles on it to the shop, and constantly mowing our four acres of grass. Yesterday’s mowing, at 95 degrees and sunny, featured cows staring at me from the pasture on the other side of the barbed wire fence, unconcerned about the noise of the riding mower but startled and watchful the minute I sneezed. All of this seems far away from the protests and the pandemic.

Re-reading old books

I read fast. Always out of books. So, trying to cut down on my book-buying habit by re-reading old books.  I just finished re-reading John Hart’s gritty The Last Child and The Hush set in a small town in a rural county where bad things happen. Now I’m re-reading Lisa See’s China Dolls, set in San Francisco’s Chinatown. It features three young women who become friends while seeking dancing/singing careers. These books contrast greatly with Dark Arrows, my novel in progress, which is set in the KKK-infested Florida Panhandle where I grew up. I have to re-boot my brain when I switch genres–or watch the news.

Pandemic and Protests

Wikipedia Photos

As far as I know, I haven’t gotten Covid-19. Nor have I seen protests, looting, attacks against the police, and burning stores on nearby streets. This is, of course, real-life, but as it unfolds on social media and on the news, I feel culture shock again as though I’m looking back to the anti-war protests and race riots of the 1960s. The entire country seems to be torn apart by the multiple issues which we’re confronted with daily. Meanwhile, the Presidential campaign has heated up and we’re all trying to figure out what’s true and what’s an empty (or impossible) promise.

I’ve lived in Chicago, Atlanta, and San Francisco: thank goodness I don’t live in those cities now, much less in Minneapolis (where I once wanted to live) or Portland (where one of my brothers lives). Or St. Louis, Seattle, or NYC. The riot in Atlanta where the Wendys burnt down occurred in an area my wife and I drove through frequently when we worked there and were involved in a non-profit organization that met a few blocks away.

I don’t know where all of this is going to end up, but the polarization and lack of tolerance bother me a lot. So, I continue to read, write, and cut the grass, and when I see images of big cities on fire, I remember a 1960s riot several blocks away from my San Francisco apartment on Dolores Street in the Mission District, and I feel sad for those who are pulled into the horror of protests gone bad. Seeing it all again is the worst of culture shocks.

–Malcolm