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Polish novel 'Koreanska Syrena' tells modern haenyeo fantasy story

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Oliwia In, author of Polish novel 'Koreanska Syrena,' or
Oliwia In, author of Polish novel 'Koreanska Syrena,' or "Korean mermaid" in English, about 'haenyeo,' or female divers, of Jeju Island / Courtesy of Oliwia In

By Kwon Mee-yoo

Oliwia In, a Polish citizen having lived in Korea for over 12 years, is about to publish her first book "Koreanska Syrena," or "Korean mermaid," in English, in her home country.

In, who studied art history and Korean studies in Warsaw, obtained a Korean government scholarship to come to Korea and major in fashion at Yonsei University.

In fell in love with Korea's southern resort destination of Jeju Island and even got married there back in 2016. That's when she first saw haenyeo making a dive, which mesmerized her.

"They dive without any breathing equipment and stay underwater for quite a long time. I immediately thought of mythical mermaids when I saw the haenyeo," In said. "They could wear diving gear, but instead they get closer to nature without artificial equipment. They seemed like mystic sea creatures to me."

As a fashion major, In is also much interested in the unique fashion of haenyeo.

"'Mulsojungi' (the basic garment of haenyeo covering the waist, chest and torso with slits in the sides) was simple, but impressive. I was intrigued that they wore those to dive for hours even during winter, imagining how cold it would be. Their sacrifice to support their family was admirable to me," In said.

She also tried the haenyeo costume on as part of her experience and research on the female divers of Jeju.

"When I wore it, I recognized its similarity to traditional hanbok (Korean clothing), as the basic costume consists of high-rise underpants and a 'jeogori' jacket. However, I couldn't imagine going into water in this costume and collecting seafood from the bottom of the sea."

The haenyeo lifestyle inspired her to create a fantastical tale, which stayed in her thoughts for years.

"I worked at a large e-commerce firm, but tried to find time to write about this story in my head. The story that flashed across my mind was the reason I started to work on this book. Though it is the first time for me to write literature, it was very natural to me, like a fish swimming," she said.

"I also wanted to promote haenyeo through this book. Despite haenyeo being registered as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, their might disappear as the divers are aging. If more people, including foreigners, take interest in haenyeo, there might be more people who want to become one."

Cover of 'Koreanska Syrena' by Oliwia In / Courtesy of Oliwia In
Cover of 'Koreanska Syrena' by Oliwia In / Courtesy of Oliwia In

The book revolves around a young haenyeo named Hemi, who inherited the occupation from her grandmother and mother.

"She is conscious of nature conservation, collecting garbage from water while she does 'muljil,' or diving. She also wants to establish a haenyeo school to pass down the tradition. Male protagonist Minho goes to Jeju to think about his future and falls in love with Hemi," In explained.

"When Minho saw Hemi diving, he thought it was like a mermaid swimming, so he called Hemi a mermaid. That's where the title of this book came from."

Then she added the word Korean in the title, reflecting the increasing popularity of Korea and hallyu in Poland.

"Polish is my mother tongue and I wanted to share a lot of information about Korea with Polish people since hallyu is very popular in Poland. So I tried to explain Korean culture and customs such as banchan (side dishes) and kimchi," In said.

The book is now being printed in Poland and In expects to distribute it later this month.

"If Polish readers like this book, I hope to publish an English-language edition someday. I would also love to see my book adapted into a webtoon or drama. I can dream big, right?"

In also started a blog about Korea and haenyeo last year.

"It is another way of sharing what I learned about haenyeo with Polish people. I started with contents about haenyeo, from basic information to the history of haenyeo outfits. I also shared my thoughts on haenyeo as eco-feminists, as well as posted my poems and illustrations about haenyeo," she said.

"I will continue to post about haenyeo, as well as other content about Korean culture, such as language, food and attractions."

Kwon Mee-yoo


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