(TW: mention of police brutality, physical violence). A decent number of the literary fiction I’ve read concerns historical events, and it’s always interesting to see how timeless the stories that come out of them are. Lisa See’s The Island of the Sea Women struck me especially as familiar. The book tells the story of Young-sook, a haenyeo, or diver, on the island of Jeju in what is now South Korea. The book starts during World War II with the occupation of Korea by Japan and into the present, cataloguing tragedy and grief, but it was its occasional focus on protests that caught my eye.
One of Young-sook’s early memories is attending a protest with her mother, and protests continue throughout the book, growing more dangerous. An adult Young-sook attends one and watches a child trampled under a police horse and the angry crowd shot at. The end of World War II brings American occupation and even worse atrocities. Anyone protesting the government is arrested and tortured or killed. The violence and attempts at censorship feel relevant even years later and across the world.
There’s quite a lot in here that makes me think of the Black Lives Matter protests and the seemingly continuous unveiling of crimes committed by police officers. From the violence committed against protestors and innocents, to the erasure of history, the two events don’t necessarily match completely, but they’re similar enough that it served as a reminder that this is hardly the only place or time that this has happened. It’s a bit frightening to think that all over the world, people’s attempts at having a voice are denied and suppressed, and it makes me worry for the future here.
We’ve all heard many times that knowing the past is important so that we don’t repeat our mistakes, and often literary fiction (or really any type of fiction) serve as a reminder of this. A lot of the time, the historical event addressed isn’t something I knew much about in the past, but that I can clearly see reflected in the present. Books are clear proof that there’s some truth in this saying, or that perhaps that there isn’t, that we see the mistakes of our past and yet can’t do anything about them in the present. I’m being pessimistic, I suppose, as I was unaware of the events of The Island of the Sea Women and of others until I read them.
Every book that isn’t about the future is, by the time we’ve read it, set in the past, but in my experiences as an American high school student, it often seemed like we learned about a very specific past. Would we be better off if this wasn’t the case, if we read about history all over the world, about history that follows all sorts of people? While perhaps not the only solution, I am here with the definitely not original but important statement that reading is helpful, and The Island of the Sea Women is a good example of why. While the book doesn’t offer clear solutions, it offers lessons to be learned from comparison, and reasons to avoid the same tragedies that See depicts for us.