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Ever since Jeju Island forged its way onto the international tourism scene, its women free divers, called haenyeo, have taken center stage as both cultural symbol and tourist attraction. The divers’ fame peaked with their designation as intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2016. The honor garnered worldwide attention for the incredible ‘grandmothers of the sea’.
But what do these women of newfound international fame, who speak an endangered language and practice an ancient freediving lifestyle, have to say about their own popularity? What is the current situation for the haenyeo really like from their point of view?
Rositano’s intimate interviews take us through a wide range of experience from each of the island’s generations of women, from young divers working to put their children through school and struggling with the impact of environmental pollution on their community’s health, to divers in their eighties troubled by the wartime trauma of their past and the desecration of their beloved shamanic shrines. He speaks with the daughters of divers who have returned to the island to become innovators in their communities.
In Jeju Island’s Haenyeo, A User’s Manual, you will meet the granddaughters of the divers, a once aspiring k-pop singer who became a feminist journalist involved in Korea’s burgeoning #MeToo movement and a young sociologist seeking to understand the mechanisms and effects of gentrification on her island. You’ll also meet the elderly divers putting their bodies on the line to fight commercial development projects in their villages, including diver activists who are using shamanic symbolism in their fight.
Rositano, a researcher of shamanism who has spent hundreds of hours documenting the residents of Jeju Island, provides us with an enormous amount of interview material, but also breaks away from the form to give us four creative nonfiction essays—long reads, previously published on his blog, detailing interesting stories he’s heard from the haenyeo over the years. If you’re a curious first-time reader about the haenyeo, or if you’ve already been initiated to haenyeo culture through recent popular fiction and want to dive deeper into the experience of Jeju Island’s endearing women divers, these pages will serve to broaden your knowledge.
Jeju Island’s Haenyeo, A User’s Manual is a rich tapestry of human experience. Rositano’s subjects, very likely the last generation of freedivers of their kind, give us no nonsense interviews. Not letting us off easy, these endeavoring women fear not to tread into the deep waters of their truth.
“On Jeju Island, a community of women, some aged in their 80s, goes diving to gather shellfish for a living. The Jeju haenyeo (female divers) harvest up to seven hours a day, 90 days of the year holding their breath for every 10m dive. Beforehand, prayers are said for safety and an abundant catch. Transmission occurs in families, fishery cooperatives and The Haenyeo School. The traditional practice advances women’s status in the community, represents the island’s identity and promotes sustainability.” —UNESCO