BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

Five More to Go: Lisa See’s The Island of Sea Women [in The Booklist Reader]

Five-More-to-Go-Lisa-See’s-THE-ISLAND-OF-SEA-WOMEN-featured-630x315The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

Known for her Chinese and Chinese American sagas, mega-bestselling author Lisa See (The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, 2017) travels across the Yellow Sea to the tiny southern Korean island of Jeju to create a stupendous multi-generational family saga highlighting the life of Korea’s haenyeo – Jeju’s renowned “sea women” who free dive to harvest sea life. Intertwining the resonant narrative of Young-sook and Mi-ja, two best friends since childhood, with elements of cultural anthropology underscoring the soon-to-be-lost, matriarchal haenyeo phenomenon, The Island of Sea Women is an enthralling novel offering an engrossing history of violently tumultuous 20th-century Korea. Trained together as haenyeo, Young-sook and Mi-ja share intimate joys and survive debilitating hardships throughout adulthood, marriage, and motherhood, until an unfathomable tragedy sunders their closer-than-sisters bond. Sixty years later, Young-sook is a national treasure: a world-traveled octogenarian haenyeo. Then Mi-ja’s granddaughter and her American family appear, a return that reveals past love, loss, and betrayal – and perhaps leads to forgiveness.

While women-centric sf books abound, See’s latest novel is a rare title focused on a real-life, historical, matriarchal society, albeit one that exists within a larger, traditionally patriarchal infrastructure. Below you’ll find five titles, some perhaps unexpected, celebrating the power of women. And, dear readers, please feel free to suggest additional titles in the comments below.

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Written in 1915, Herland was initially serialized in Gilman’s own magazine, The Forerunner, and didn’t appear as a book until 1979. Best known for her canonical, autobiographical short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and her nonfiction declaration, Women and Economics, Gilman remains one of history’s greatest feminists. That she created a matriarchal utopia (three men discover a woman-run society in which they’re treated well [!] during their captivity and eventually released) in her fiction is not surprising. Herland was the second – albeit best-known – in Gilman’s posthumously titled Utopian trilogy, preceded by Moving the Mountain (1911) and followed by With Her in Ourland (serialized in Forerunner in 1916; book published in 1997).

Ōoku: The Inner Chambers by Fumi Yoshinaga, translated by Akemi Wegmüller

Welcome to an alternative 18th-century Edo Japan where women do everything – including rule! Girl power all the way! Without a cure, the mysterious Redface Pox ravaged the country’s male population until it finally “stabilized at about one-fourth that of the female.” Men have become “precious seed-bearers,” with the most desirable inducted into the Ōoku, the inner chambers of the ruling shogun, from which the most beautiful men of the kingdom never reappear. With her gorgeous, elegantly spare black-and-white style, writer/illustrator Fumi Yoshinaga won the 2009 Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize for Ōoku. Were the genders reversed, the story might fall flat (been there, done that, way too tediously often). But Yoshinaga creates an intriguing story of human behavior in which the gender reversal proves to be delightful fun. At 15 volumes and counting, this is definitely not for the kiddies.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

A sticker on the cover claims this was one of Barack Obama’s favorite reads in 2017, which makes sense – he does live in a household of strong women, and was raised with his younger half-sister by their single mother! The Power is constructed as a novel within a novel in which fictional author Neil Adam Armon (an anagram for Naomi Alderman) is writing some 5,000 years in the future and chronicling the discovery by today’s women of a personal electric power that will change the course of humanity. Roxy in London watches as her mother is murdered. Margot wants to keep her U.S. political career and is concerned about her daughter Jocelyn, who’s hurt another classmate. Also in the U.S., Allie kills her foster father, who’s been raping her for years. Tunde – with his CNN badge and cameras – becomes one of the very few men deemed safe. Their worlds will collide, with – I can’t resist – electrifying results.

Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Ulrich’s now-famous quote from the opening paragraph of an obscure 1976 academic article she wrote has become a rallying cry for feminist action. While not a matriarchal manifesto, this enlightening, entertaining compilation from Harvard professor and Pulitzer Prize winner Ulrich relies on the lives of three remarkable women writers – 14th-century Christine de Pizan, author of The Book of the City of Ladies; 19th-century suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton (Eighty Years and More); and 20th-century Virginia Woolf (A Room of One’s Own) – to relate the experiences, struggles, triumphs, and legacies of  extraordinary women throughout the centuries, and the indelible legacies they’ve created.

Woman World by Aminder Dhaliwal

At the story’s very beginning, Grandma informs the youngest generation that the book’s real-life publisher, Drawn & Quarterly, was “a publishing company in the old world …when men were still around.” And that same kind of salty, meta humor abounds throughout Dhaliwal’s graphic novel, which presents a new world without men (they’re simply all gone). The town mayor is a nudist, and she leads under a “Beyonce’s Thighs” banner flag “that inspires strength … invokes sympathy … SCREAMS ENDURANCE.” Most of her constituents skew bi, enjoy relationships, weather breakups, support one another, and … just live. Meanwhile, Grandma who’s the last of the last to remember the old world, tries to instill in the youngsters some semblance of history herstory.

Published: “Five More to Go: Lisa See’s THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN,” The Booklist Reader, March 5, 2019


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