As Asian American and Pacific Island Heritage month draws to a close, it’s not too late to broaden your worldview and sneak in one more read in May. In The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea YA author Axie Oh gives us a feminist retelling of the Korean legend The Tale of Shim Cheong.
The story begins with a sister’s love, a country in turmoil, and the tale of an angry Sea God. Each year the nation hopes to placate the Sea God with a human offering, a bride of course. Mina’s brother’s beloved Shim Cheong is this year’s offering, and within a few short pages of The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea’s lyrical tale it is easy to forget that such things are myth. You instantly find yourself afraid as you read that Mina has broken two of the Sea Gods three rules, her brother having already broken the third. You forget that such stories aren’t real thanks to the narrative talents of Oh and her clever scene styling. You forget that there is no real Sea God. When the dragon appears through the water, you realize that this will be no mere tale of a simple folks mythology concerning the tides and weather, but a full blown journey into the heart of myth and story, where dragons do indeed lie. Dark blue scales hit the deck as the dragon rises above the boat and in that moment I could almost taste the saltwater.
Mythology has always drawn me in. My elementary school teachers read to us from traditional Ashanti tales of Anansi the spider, and from the Punjab mythology that most of my classmates heard at home. The perpetuation of stories across cultures and nations has always appealed to me. All religions share similar stories of floods and saviors, all mythologies have a creation story, and some kind of pantheon of overlords. From a young girl growing up in England, to a young girl in Korea, or Alabama, it is stories that ties us together.
The memories of spirits and gods might be hazy, but not the memories of books. Stories are eternal.
The stories of Asian communities have appealed to me since I first encountered Amy Tan and Kazuo Ishiguro over twenty years ago. I am drawn to the stories of people who are unlike me in face and history. I know what it’s like to be a white girl growing up in a once great empire, but it’s everything else that I want to know about. In the opening pages of her narrative Oh sets up what for me is the perfect description of how we create gods around us all the time.
The world is filled with small gods, for each part of nature has a guardian to watch over and protect it.
The gods of Korean folklore that she presents us with bear a remarkable similarity to the Greek and Roman pantheons. Each with their own characteristics and playing their part in ruling over an area of the human world. What Oh then does with the nature and “life” of gods as the story develops follows a more unusual approach, and I am fascinated with the perspective of the gods that she paints. The dialogue she allows them to have regarding their own feelings towards humanity is an illuminating insight into the ego of man and myth. All of which begins from the perspective of Mina, as she throws herself into the path of the gods.
An unbearable anger rises up within me, starting in my stomach and clawing up to choke me. The gods have chosen not to grant our wishes – our wishes from the paper boat festival, but also the small wishes we make every day. For peace, for fertility, for love. The gods have abandoned us. The god of gods, the Sea God, wants to take from the people who love him – take and take and never give.
This is the expectation we have upon entering the world of the gods, and Oh starts from here in painting a fuller picture of the ruled and the rulers, the gods and the supplicants. Nothing is simplistic, and nothing is as it seems. The development of the Goddess of Moon and Memory is particularly captivating, and bears great similarities with how we build certain people up in our modern world.
The book is remarkably aware of the times we currently find ourselves in, but then all mythology has something to say about principalities and powers, the way the world works. Maybe we all need a little mythology to thrive on right now when the world is so very cracked and broken. Great stories should inspire us, and this retelling of the classic Korean folktale inspires me. The tale of Shim Cheong, Mina and the Sea God has been repeating in my mind since I finished the tale, and has me reaching for more mythology, for more retellings.
My eldest brother, Sung, says trust is earned, that to give someone your trust it to give them the knife to wound you. But Joon [the younger brother] would counter that trust is faith, that to trust someone is to believe in the goodness of people and in the world that shapes them. I’m too raw to believe in anyone right now…
Mina, the central voice and actor of the narrative, is an irrepressible heroine. You know almost immediately that she will risk everything for her people, and when she utters the words “Take me instead” you aren’t surprised at all. This is barely even a spoiler as it happens so quickly in the opening of the story.
An unbearable anger rises up within me, starting in my stomach and clawing up to choke me. I am the maker of my own destiny.
Every step Mina takes shows that she will take active agency in her own life. Even when her choices are limited, she is the agent of her own change. She will look at her options and pick the best one, even if it matches the one others would choose for her. She advocates for herself. She makes decisions at her own expense. She will choose action over comfort and her own happiness. Once Mina sacrifices herself to the sea, she learns that not everything she has been told in her stories is quite true, and she must navigate the myths of her people with the people of the myths in order to save herself and her country. I did not want her story to come to an end, and I sincerely hope Oh decides to provide more mythology from this world so that I can immerse myself beneath the sea once more.
Oh has an absolutely wonderful way with words. Not only does her narrative draw you in, but you will find yourself tasting the words she uses, and the phrases she employs, as if at a delightful bakery full of wonderful treats. She borrows from mythology, and family legend, and modern times, to create a patchwork of story and words that is so wonderful to read you don’t want to skip a beat. While my English literature oriented brain will often seek to speed read, I found myself often pausing and re-reading sections just to feel the words again.
I’ve heard the cadence of these words before. They’re a farewell.
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. The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea is her fourth book and was released on February 22, 2022. GeekMom received a copy of this book for review purposes.