By Steve Dunk
Today we’re pleased to welcome Axie Oh to the WNDB blog to discuss young adult retelling The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea, out February 22, 2022!
Deadly storms have ravaged Mina’s homeland for generations. Floods sweep away entire villages, while bloody wars are waged over the few remaining resources. Her people believe the Sea God, once their protector, now curses them with death and despair. In an attempt to appease him, each year a beautiful maiden is thrown into the sea to serve as the Sea God’s bride, in the hopes that one day the “true bride” will be chosen and end the suffering.
Many believe that Shim Cheong, the most beautiful girl in the village—and the beloved of Mina’s older brother Joon—may be the legendary true bride. But on the night Cheong is to be sacrificed, Joon follows Cheong out to sea, even knowing that to interfere is a death sentence. To save her brother, Mina throws herself into the water in Cheong’s stead.
Swept away to the Spirit Realm, a magical city of lesser gods and mythical beasts, Mina seeks out the Sea God, only to find him caught in an enchanted sleep. With the help of a mysterious young man named Shin—as well as a motley crew of demons, gods and spirits—Mina sets out to wake the Sea God and bring an end to the killer storms once and for all.
But she doesn’t have much time: A human cannot live long in the land of the spirits. And there are those who would do anything to keep the Sea God from waking…
Hi Axie, thanks so much for talking to We Need Diverse Books! I would be remiss if we didn’t open with the incredible US cover for The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea. Tell me about the first time you saw this beautiful artwork from Kuri Huang, and did you have any say in the final piece?
The first time I saw it, even though it was just the mockup, I was completely blown away by it. She (Kuri) told me it was just a draft, but it ended up being really close to the final version, and I was like “Wow! This is so beautiful!” She (Mina) had the hanbok on, the Korean dress, and it flowed into the sea, it was so beautiful. And I don’t know if I had seen a girl in a full hanbok Korean dress on a YA cover before, so that was a special moment for me. Then they put in so many details from the book onto the cover, they put in the paper boat, they put in the red string of fate. And so, that was cool to see, elements of the story on the cover, and just so beautifully rendered.
Kuri’s art was actually on my vision board that I had made for the cover beforehand. And so, when they asked me what I was thinking, what did I want for the cover? What kind of elements did I want? What did I want represented? I said I wanted Mina, the main character, to be in a traditional Korean hanbok dress, and I actually made a Pinterest board as well where I put pictures of beautiful honbok illustrations, and one of the illustrators I put on there, just because I loved her drawings so much, was Kuri. So that was really cool because I didn’t even know that they were going to hire Kuri at the time. And it was funny actually, when they told me they were going to hire Kuri for the cover, and they sent me her artwork, and I was like, “You don’t have to say another word, I know who Kuri Huang is!” Then getting to see the final draft and it was just so perfect, it really was a dream come true.
It really does sort of tell a story, doesn’t it? And you wouldn’t know until you read the book obviously, to be able to pick up on all those little details, even the Sparrow. Once you’ve read the book however and you go back to the cover, it reveals itself as a tapestry in a way, doesn’t it? I remember the first time I saw it; I was blown away, so I can imagine how special it must’ve been when you saw the characters you created come to life.
Yeah, that was the first time I’d seen anyone represent the characters in images. It was so beautiful, and I didn’t know they were going to add the boy on the cover either so that was a really cool surprise. And slightly shaded so he’s a little darker, which is nice conceptually, something they wanted to do, they wanted to have a foreground and a background, they wanted some perspective, which I thought was really cool.
Yeah, the perspective is amazing, and then again to make sure Mina is front and center, and bright, so yeah, wonderful, wonderful cover.
So, XOXO, your previous book, feels very breezy by comparison and purposefully so, I’d imagine. Tell me about having to switch gears as a writer, going from a contemporary, grounded story to a more fantastical one?
Yeah, I’ve always been a huge reader, and I read a lot of contemporary as well as fantasy, so to me, it wasn’t actually that hard to make the switch because I sort of love that space in general. It wasn’t as if someone asked me to write a thriller. That’d be really hard for me because I’m not a big thriller reader, even though I am getting more into it, but growing up my two genres were mostly SFF and contemporary, so it wasn’t too difficult to switch gears. And they’re also both in first person POV, which is very voice- and character-driven, so that also helped a lot because all the world-building was being told through a single character. So, the switch itself wasn’t that hard.
Like, XOXO is a rom-com, it’s supposed to be funny, it’s supposed to be breezy, and it’s supposed to be like a romantic K-Drama. Whereas TGWFBTS is supposed to be more like a YA fantasy retelling, in the vein of a Gail Carson Levine, or a Diana Wynne Jones, authors I grew up reading and who were some of the main inspirations for the book. And I kind of wanted to take that legacy, of the sort of YA fantasy retellings I loved when I was growing up, but write them in my voice and with characters that look like me from my heritage, that was sort of a big inspiration for me too.
This book is based on the p’ansori novel, The Tale of Shim Ch’ŏng, tell me about how this story came into your life, and deciding it would make for a great retelling? And for me, TGWFBTS reads more like a “What if…?” than a retelling. It sounds like maybe you agree.
Yeah, I feel like it’s definitely more “inspired by” rather than a retelling. I had a picture book when I was younger called, Sim Chung and the River Dragon by Ellen Schecter, which was based off the same folktale. The original folktale was an oral folktale, a pansori, so it wasn’t very long, it was mostly pantomimed and danced. Also, I had read a translated version and truthfully don’t know what the difference is, but this picture book was my first introduction to the folktale. I’ve since read all these different versions that have come out, but they’re all essentially the same, they all have Shim Ch’ŏng as the dutiful daughter. But it’s also a Confucius story, so there are a lot of patriarchal themes, and filial piety is a really important part of the story, which is why I think my book is being marketed more as a feminist retelling. It prioritizes the female gaze, female choices, and not the original, which is more about filial piety and more about the dutiful daughter. That’s also why I didn’t necessarily want to do a direct retelling, because I didn’t want to step on the original folktale. And so I was going to create my own original character, Mina, and Shim Ch’ŏng will be a side character in this story instead, that really helped create that contrast.
I think it’s a fun story and I put a lot of elements into it that are true to Korean mythology that people will recognize. They’ll recognize Shim Ch’ŏng obviously because it’s probably the most famous folktale coming out of Korea. And if you watch Korean dramas, there’s one that’s called, Legend of the Blue Sea, where the main character’s name is Shim Ch’ŏng. There’s a ton of retellings even now in Korea featuring this character, so I don’t think it’s totally wild, it’s like having a lot of Cinderella retellings in the U.S.
Some are divided it seems, on whether the first novel is actually a folktale or not, saying there must have existed a folk narrative earlier, which led to the p’ansori, which was then adapted. Regardless, in your story, there are definite folktales woven into the plot, told as a series of parables by Mina at key points in the story. These stories, such as The Tale of the Woodcutter and the Heavenly Maiden, and The Story of Hungbu and Nolbu, were passed down to her from her grandmother. Talk about the decision to infuse this “folktale” with others, giving the book a real meta-vibe, a story within a story.
I knew very early on that it wasn’t really going to be a straight-up retelling, that Shim Ch’ŏng was going to be a side character in the book; that it was going to be an original tale. And one of the premises of the book is that the main character is telling folktales to the Sea God. And so, I kind of needed more than one folktale. But I definitely wanted her (Mina) to tell the original folktale of Shim Ch’ŏng because a lot of Western readers probably wouldn’t know it, and also, I wanted to honor the original tale in the book in some way, because it was very much an homage type of situation.
The other stories were chosen based off what the characters needed to learn at a specific point, like The Story of Hungbu and Nolbu, the characters needed to learn something from that. And then The Tale of the Woodcutter and the Heavenly Maiden, by telling that story, the characters who are listening had to learn something from that folktale, so that’s why I included those specific stories. I’m also familiar with them, and I didn’t want to include tales I was unfamiliar with because I actually changed some of the details to fit the book. But the stories that made it into the book, I knew those stories really well because those were my favorites, so it was easier for me to change them, because I knew what the heart of the story was, and I’m going to be true to that no matter what.
We’ve seen the Red String of Fate many times in East Asian storytelling of course, but for many in the West, it’s a fairly new concept. Could you explain the lore behind the Red String of Fate and your approach to it? It’s a key part of your story and you’ve infused some new ideas into a very old concept.
Yeah, I definitely used the core tenets of the Red String of Fate idea, and then just fit the concept into my world building. Funny enough, my first introduction to it was actually on a Korean reality TV show called We Got Married. That show is about two celebrities that pretend they’re married for a couple of months, and we just follow them around, it’s really funny. So, it starts where the producers or the showrunners tie a “red string of fate” to both hands, and they had to find each other by going through a building, they had to follow the string to each other.
So, the philosophy is pretty much just an invisible red string that ties soulmates to one another, that’s just the concept of it. But in my book, it appears in a physical form, and it’s a really fun plot device because it physically connects my characters and gets them into a lot of trouble. I’ve seen all different types of imagery and lore about it, so I think it’s just really interesting. I also like how it’s red, because red is a very distinctive color, especially in East Asian cultures. I liked the imagery of a bright red ribbon, just a physical sort of representation of fate.
It seems we’re stuck in this quagmire, where the industry is insistent on comparing every Asian-authored fantasy story to Studio Ghibli. In your opinion, is that because Hayao Miyazaki has created such an incredible tapestry of art, or is it because the West has given us a circumscribed point of view? I mean, I love Spirited Away as much as the next person, and the similarities in your book notwithstanding, there’s a real danger of stereotyping every time there’s a dragon in the story, isn’t there?
Right, and why not Dragon Ball Z instead? Specifically with this book I did comp it, but I also was very heavily influenced by Hayao Miyazaki. But you’re right, and to your point, my first novel was comped to Pacific Rim, but it’s not like Pacific Rim, it’s more like Gundham, but the marketing team didn’t think anyone would know what Gundham was, so it was marketed as a Korean drama meets Pacific Rim, because Pacific Rim is just more Hollywood. So, I think, in that vein, TGWFBTS is more like Spirited Away than most any other anime if you’re looking to compare it to something.
For my next book I’m going to comp it to Final Fantasy, but it is dependent on what’s popular, and Studio Ghibli is just so well known, so it’s just an easier comp. And to your point, I have read reviews that say this book is a retelling of Spirited Away, which it’s not. But I agree with you, I’ve seen other books comped to Spirited Away that shouldn’t have been.
Mina’s journey in the book is a series of difficult choices, starting of course with her decision to jump into the sea in place of her sister-in-law. And that is very much in conflict with the time and place in which she exists, and just the patriarchy in general. It’s not something women are supposed to do, they’re not supposed to make these kinds of decisions, and this ties into the idea of fate as well, you’re not supposed to fight fate.
So here is Mina, not only fighting fate, but interrupting the natural flow of things by taking Shim’s place. And she’s not foolhardy, because everything she does is with a purpose, her love of family, and when you do something with a purpose, there’s intent. All of this makes Mina not only a sympathetic character, but a courageous one as well.
I was very influenced by strong female Asian characters growing up; it was really important for me when I was young. So, in that same sort of tradition, Mina is very willful. She believes in herself when other people tell her she can’t do something. She might be affected by what they say of course, but ultimately, she has a strong belief in herself.
I started writing this book in 2014, and her character went through a lot of changes. I got some critique from my agent early on that said Mina actually didn’t have a lot of forward momentum, that she was being too passive. So, a lot of the reason that she is such a go-getter is because I got feedback early on that she wasn’t. Her development was very much part of the craft element of writing, she evolved. She of course was always spunky, she was always passionate, and someone who wanted to save people, but my agent said she needs flaws, that if she doesn’t have any flaws then she’s not a fully-fledged character, so I had to give her flaws. She’s headstrong in that she doesn’t sometimes see other people’s point of view, like her way is always the right way.
In the beginning I tried to set it up where she doesn’t understand The Tale of Shim Ch’ŏng, she doesn’t understand her (Shim) as a character, her motivations. And I also kind of did that because I think people misinterpret certain female characters a certain way, maybe they originally were written that way, but in the Tale of Shim Ch’ŏng, the whole point is that she is sacrificed to the Sea God for her father, that was the original point. And I wanted to give nuance to that, like it’s not just that she’s a nothing character; she has her own reasons, there’s love there.
There’s a point in the book where Mina grapples with the thought, is it better to just sit there, stand by and be sacrificed, or is it better to make your own choices? Go ahead and protect the people that you love; there’s nothing wrong with that kind of thing. So I was trying to subvert some of the ways people read Asian stories where they think women are weak, women are powerless, they don’t have voices. I kind of wanted to subvert that, especially with the knowledge that my audience would predominantly be English speaking. Like I said, it’s ultimately a craft thing, where what I wanted for Mina wasn’t necessarily coming through on the page early on.
For readers who are interested in learning more about The Tale of Shim Ch’ŏng or the Red String of Fate, are there any books or source material you would recommend?
Yes, definitely the picture book I mentioned earlier, Sim Chung and the River Dragon by Ellen Schecter, illustrated by June Otani. And I’ve seen some of the elements I used in other books like Ellen Oh’s Prophecy book, part of The Dragon King Chronicles series, which has Imugi in the series, Proto Dragons.
Finally, what other books or authors would you recommend for readers who enjoyed The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea?
Yeah, I’d definitely recommend Elizabeth Lim’s Six Crimson Cranes, which has a lot of similar themes in it, especially the idea of using different folktales in an original story setting.
There’s also this Japanese series called Tales of the Magatama by Noriko Ogiwara, and the first book is called, Dragon Sword and Wind Child. They’re older books and have been translated from Japanese to English, and they’re beautiful. I don’t know if they’re retellings, but they are based off true mythology, Japanese mythology, so they feature gods and goddesses from the Japanese pantheon.
And, if you really want to be immersed in a certain time period, specifically in Korean history, then definitely June Hur’s books. She does a really good job of looking at very specific time periods in Korean history, during the Joseon period. I’m a huge history buff; I was a history major in school so, if you love history and knowing more about Korean history specifically, June is the go-to for that.
Thanks so much, Axie!
Axie Oh is a first generation Korean American, born in NYC and raised in New Jersey. She studied Korean history and creative writing as an undergrad at the University of California – San Diego and holds an MFA from Lesley University in Writing for Young People. Her passions include K-pop, anime, stationery supplies, and milk tea. She currently resides in Las Vegas, Nevada with her puppy, Toro.
Steve Dunk was born on Vancouver Island, British Columbia and now lives near a lake just outside of Toronto, spending his days obsessing over most things in geek culture, but mostly just trying to drink coffee and read in peace. He’s been blogging for various sites for as long as he can remember, focusing on the big three, movies, books, and music. His reading tastes stick pretty close to Young Adult but occasionally ventures outside enjoying middle grade, new adult, and adult as well. Fantasy, sci-fi, speculative, romance, contemporary…he loves it all. He reviews books and interviews authors on his podcast, Everything is Canon, over at Cinelinx.com with a focus on BIPOC/LGBTQIA+ authors and allyship. He doesn’t like sports, has lots of Star Wars books, and has two dogs. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram.