We (that is, Leora and Erin) have been friends for a few years now—ever since we met through writing for Off the Shelf. Early on in our friendship, we started a tradition of getting dumplings at a nearby restaurant when we wanted to get away from our desks and do some real talking. This is our favorite thing to do—except talk books. With Lisa See’s new novel, THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN, coming out, we thought it would be fun to combine our two favorite activities. So, without further ado, here is our conversation (over dumplings) about Lisa See.
Leora and Erin on the First Lisa See Novel They Read
Leora: What was the first Lisa See book you read?
Erin: Well, I read SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN.
Leora: How old were you?
Erin: It was recent. I got into Lisa See in the last two years. Because we were publishing THE TEA GIRL OF HUMMINGBIRD LANE, and of course, for some reason I wasn’t reading that even though we were publishing it. But I was at a bookstore. I saw SNOW FLOWER, and I said “oh, I’m gonna get this because everyone’s talking about SNOW FLOWER and saying that [TEA GIRL] is going to be as good as SNOW FLOWER. So I read it first and fell in love. Lisa See is the first author in years where I read one of her books and then went through and read all of them.
Leora: I read SNOW FLOWER when I was in high school, one summer. I remember it was around the same summer as—I don’t know if you remember—but it was the same summer as the Memoirs of a Geisha movie, so I read that, too. My mom and I used to get books together, but I think this was the first one where she’d read it and was like, “this is yours, you must read it.” And then I read SHANGHAI GIRLS—did you read SHANGHAI GIRLS?
Erin: No, that’s the only one I haven’t.
Leora: So what were the books you read?
E: I’ve read SNOW FLOWER, PEONY IN LOVE, CHINA DOLLS, TEA GIRL, and the new one as well.
L: Oh, I haven’t read PEONY IN LOVE. What’s that one about?
E: It’s this girl who catches what is a love sickness and ends up actually dying and haunting her fiancé and her family members. It’s really interesting. It’s probably the most different from her other books. All of the other ones are all about friendships and the relationship between mothers and daughters. And this one has a little bit of that, but it’s a lot more romance centered—twisted romance—in terms of, the first half is her being alive, and the second half is her ghost.
L: Oh. That’s really different. Did you like it better?
E: It’s different, but it’s very much still staple Lisa See in terms of beautiful writing and beautiful depiction of Chinese history and culture.
On the Representation of Chinese Culture and Female Friendships
L: That’s what I love about Lisa See. She does depict Chinese culture so fantastically, but something you said earlier really hit me—it’s about friendships. It’s not a romance that is this epic saga. It’s plainly about girls.
I remember in SHANGHAI GIRLS, the mother dives into being newly working class and really trying to make things better for her daughters, who are having a very hard time acclimating from being rich Chinese girls to now living in poor San Francisco. I had forgotten that that was such a big part of it. I wonder if that’s why we kind of relate to it so much. Because it’s so much girl power and lovely.
E: I think that a lot of how I relate to it is the friendship aspect as well. Because all of her books have these super close friendships, and then one of the two people is usually betrayed by the other.
It happens in CHINA DOLLS; it happens significantly in SNOW FLOWER.
L: You’re absolutely right—it’s about the trust we give to each other. About the real, honest-to-goodness humanitarian themes between females.
On Their Favorite Lisa See Books
E: I like TEA GIRL a lot. I was really into TEA GIRL. It doesn’t just look at Chinese culture. It looks at a partwe don’t hear about. The community it centers around—the segregated community in that culture—I knew nothing about prior to reading that book. I didn’t know they’d existed. I was also expecting something different. When I started reading it, I thought, “Oh, it’s set in older China again. I don’t know if I can do another chapter on foot binding . . . I don’t know . . .”
L: Although I remember that part about foot binding to this day.
E: Yeah, it’s a wonderful chapter in SNOW FLOWER . . . but in TEA GIRL, I thought it was set in 1700–1800s China, and it’s not. You realize it’s set in the 1980s, and it’s so fascinating seeing that society and the comparison to the Chinese American experience from the daughter’s point of view. It’s very much combining great Chinese culture and kind of the “ancient Chinese culture” versus the mother-daughter differences.
L: My favorite is CHINA DOLLS. I just love that it juxtaposes what it’s like to be Chinese and Chinese American, and Japanese and Japanese American. I definitely also love the Hollywood aspect about it. But I think my favorite thing about it was that it was about friendships that grew apart and then grew back together and what happens to friendships when there are husbands and kids involved. I thought it was Lisa See’s most pure friendship book, but I’m really excited to read THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN. I think it will do that same TEA GIRL thing where it takes a culture that you don’t really know about.
If You’ve Never Read Lisa See . . .
E: Start reading her. You’ll love it! I personally think start with SNOW FLOWER.
L: Yes. Start from the beginning.
E: SNOW FLOWER gives you the biggest overview of what Lisa See is going to be. And you know how with a lot of writers you read their first book and then their subsequent books and you think they just keep getting stronger? All of Lisa See’s books stand up.
L: Yes! She starts great. That’s something I want to say about Lisa See. When people say they can’t wait to see when an author has found their voice, it’s a little like you have to wait for the TV show to get good in the second season. Lisa See starts in the second season. She starts in her stride.
E: And she maintains it. I haven’t read a book yet that I don’t think works.
*Edited for length and clarity.
A new novel from Lisa See, the New York Times bestselling author of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, about female friendship and family secrets on a small Korean island.
Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls living on the Korean island of Jeju, are best friends that 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’s differences are impossible to ignore. The Island of Sea Women is an epoch set over many decades, beginning during a period of Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s, followed by World War II, the Korean War and its aftermath, 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, and she will forever be marked by this association. 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 after surviving hundreds of dives and developing the closest of bonds, forces outside their control will push their friendship to the breaking point.
This beautiful, thoughtful novel illuminates a world turned upside down, one where the women are in charge, engaging in dangerous physical work, and the men take care of the children. A classic Lisa See story—one of women’s friendships and the larger forces that shape them—The Island of Sea Women introduces readers to the fierce and unforgettable female divers of Jeju Island and the dramatic history that shaped their lives.
A captivating journey back to nineteenth-century China when wives and daughters were foot-bound and lived in almost total seclusion, Lisa See’s gorgeously written work of fiction is as deeply moving as it is sorrowful.
Three young women from different backgrounds meet at San Francisco’s exclusive Forbidden City Nightclub and become fast friends. When their dark secrets are exposed, a shocking act of betrayal changes everything.