“I didn’t think I was going to be a writer.”
Axie Oh had other plans. And yet at 28, fresh out of Lesley’s MFA program in Creative Writing, her debut young adult novel Rebel Seoul has received a glowing reception from readers and reviewers, praised by the New York Times Book Review as “moody, explodey fun” and garnering starred reviews from ALA Booklist, School Library Journal, and Foreword Reviews.
Informed by Axie’s love of Korean television dramas and pop music, Rebel Seoul is a dark sci-fi novel set in a future dystopian Asia where China, Korea, and Japan have joined together in an uneasy union called the Neo Alliance and the capital city has been split into the gritty slums of Old Seoul and the gleaming, high-tech Neo Seoul. The novel is Blade Runner-dark, as action-packed as an anime cartoon, and threaded with family drama and romantic yearning.
Raised in New Jersey, Axie was fascinated early on by the glimpses of Korean culture she absorbed through pop music and television dramas. “I’ve always been a huge reader and because I was a reader, people always gave me books. I read a lot.” As a young adult, she devoured the works of J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, and Diana Wynne-Jones, but she had no plans to be a writer herself. Still, there were hints of what was to come. “I wrote a personal essay for college and my teachers all said ‘you should try creative writing.’”
Exploring a Talent for Writing
Axie majored in East Asian studies at the University of California–San Diego with an emphasis on Korean history. It was then that she first began to pursue her budding interest in creative writing. She started with a course in creative nonfiction, then a fiction course, then novel writing. “That was the first time I learned how to outline a novel, do a three-act structure—opening, middle, ending.”
She also learned how to find and build a support system that helped her grow as a writer. “Senior year was when I really learned to find critique partners. It opened so many doors. I met such interesting people, mostly local, writing in all different genres. It helped prepare me for Lesley.”
After graduation, she moved to New York City and worked for a literary agent—“I learned a lot about the publishing industry”—while working on the first draft of Rebel Seoul and looking at MFA programs. She applied to Lesley late in the fall. “I knew of Michelle Knudsen (MFA in Creative Writing faculty) and loved the Evil Librarian books. I knew Jason Reynolds was going to be there—he’s brilliant. And then I saw Sara Farizan ’10 (author of the YA novel If You Could be Mine) on a panel and she spoke of the great mentorships and friendships she’d made while doing her MFA at Lesley. For me, she was proof of how to come through this journey and come out with confidence.”
Finding a Community of Writers at Lesley
Around the same time, Axie had sent her manuscript to publisher Lee & Low Books and became a finalist for their New Visions Award—a prize given to promising authors of color writing for children. Within weeks of learning that she’d been accepted into Lesley’s MFA in Creative Writing program, she got the news that she had won the New Visions Award and that Lee & Low would be publishing Rebel Seoul. She entered the program in the summer of 2015 with a publishing contract under her belt, but she wasn’t resting on her laurels. “Getting a master's wasn’t about getting published. It was about making connections.” During her time at Lesley, Axie explored a range of genres—horror, historical fiction, young adult fantasy—and for her thesis fourth semester, she plunged into a new book.
The community she found at Lesley was crucial to her growth as a writer. “I entered the program with five other women, all very different, working in different genres—graphic novels, novels in verse—but we all clicked as friends and we all graduated together.” At every stage of her career, Axie has forged strong, supportive connections with other writers both online through Twitter and blogs, but also in the traditional spaces of libraries, writers’ groups, and classrooms. The exchange of ideas and constructive feedback of other writers were crucial ingredients in her creative development. “The MFA taught me so much to help me to improve my own craft, to refine my voice. What I learned helped me to revise Rebel Seoul. And Tracy Baptiste (MFA in Creative Writing faculty) came up with the title!” she adds laughing.
The result is a young adult novel that combines futuristic battles in the air with age-old themes of friendship, romantic heartbreak, and the divided loyalties that come with political upheaval. While the novel is filled with robots, advanced forms of virtual reality, and high-tech weaponry, it’s also heavily influenced by Axie’s study of Korea’s colonial history and by current world affairs—the shifting of world powers, the rise and fall of empires and totalitarian regimes. Axie is currently working on her next novel, a retelling of a Korean folk tale. “I did a reading of it recently and my grandmother was in the audience, which was really terrifying, but she liked it.”