The Color of the Sky is the Shape of the Heart | Chesil #JPNfiction

That day was no different than any other. High school was as cruel as ever.

Many teenage stories are ultimately about belonging.

It’s something we all want, of course – to belong to someone or something, to feel connected to a group, a family, a tribe who makes us feel like we’re not alone, like we’re understood, like we have someone on our side. It is a universal human desire, but in teens this feeling is particularly strong.

Add in a healthy dose of teenage angst plus some culturally specific racism, descrimination, prejudice, violence, nationalism, injustice, and harassment and you have The Color of the Heart is the Shape of the Sky.

The one South Korean school in Tokyo mostly had Korean-born students and hardly any Japan-born Koreans going there. But the North Korean schools are where the Japanese-born kids with Korean domicile status or South Korean nationality went.

Chesil’s 2016 debut novel is based on her own experiences of being a ‘zainichi’, an ethnic Korean girl with Japanese citizenship, living in Tokyo during the late 1990’s. ‘Zainichi’ usually only refers to those Koreans who came to Japan during the Japanese occupation of Korea during the first half of the 1900’s (I talked about this more in my 2018 review of Pachinko by Min Jin Lee).

This story is about schoolgirl Pak Jinhee (Ginny), a young girl whose family move her from her Japanese junior school to a North Korean one for her highschool years. Ginny does not make friends easily. Her time in a Japanese school makes her different from most of the other Korean kids at school. Slowly she makes friends, but then the 1998 missile test occurs.

Discrimination and prejudice against Koreans in Japan is a fairly common experience. The 1998 North Korean missile test only exacerbated an existing problem.

North Korean schools required that their female students wear a ‘chima jeogori’ (a traditional Korean women’s outfit consisting of a chima skirt and jeogori top). This made students attending Korean schools in Japan stand out from the crowd and an easy target for being picked on. Ginny’s story centres around a traumatic experience that occurs when she visits an amusement arcade after school, a couple of days after the missile launch.

As a result of many such incidents involving school children, from April 1999 most of these schools only used the ‘chima jeogori’ inside the school grounds, allowing students to wear another non-chima jeogori uniform to go to and from school. A photo collage titled Japan’s invisible minority will show you the school uniform warm by Ginny and her peers.

After her traumatic experience, Ginny decides that one way to solve the problem is to get rid of the framed photos of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il hanging in her school. Naturally, this does not end well for her.

This is one of the most frustrating pasrt of the story. The lack of support for Ginny was heartbreaking. Many teens find it hard to talk about difficult emotions. It was clear to some of the adults around her that something had happened, but instead of helping her to verbalise the problem, their response was to put her into a mental health facility! Perhaps there is more to this story than Ginny/Chesil let on? But it seems like an extreme response to a teenager acting out.

An interview with translator Takami Nieda from 6 Sept 2022 revealed that she was able to discuss some of the vague/challenging sections of Chesil’s story with her to work through them together.

At times, she’s incredibly lyrical and other times, she’s bristling with righteous anger at the injustices that none of the adults around her would confront, even though she, as a child, can plainly see them as wrong. I was also heart-stricken by how Ginny has to navigate the complexities of discrimination and injustice all alone, without anyone to help her or to validate her anger. It was clear to me that Chesil wrote the book, in part, to call out grownups for creating this world which is divided and tribal in ways that can be dangerous for girls like Ginny.

Nieda didn’t add or extend on the grey areas within the story, preferring to “translate what’s on the page and trust that curious readers will do the work to understand a cultural or historical reference they’re not familiar with.” I suspect this makes me her ideal reader!

Facts:

  • Winner of the Gunzo Prize for New Writers
  • Recipient of the Oda Sakunosuke Award
  • Shortlisted for the Akutagawa prize

Favourite Quote:

‘Sorairo wa kokoro moyou’, I murmured in Japanese.

‘What?’

The color of the sky is the shape of the heart. It means no view ever looks the same. And that’s a good thing because that means your heart is never the same.

From the TBR: on my TBR since August 2022

Title: The Color of the Sky is the Shape of the Heart | Jini no pazura (Jini's Puzzle)
Author: Chesil
Translator: Takami Nieda
ISBN: 9781641292290
Imprint: Soho Teen
Published: 2 August 2022 (originally published 2016)
Format: Hardback
Pages: 168
Dates Read: 10 January 2023 - 11 January 2023
  • This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.

19 thoughts on “The Color of the Sky is the Shape of the Heart | Chesil #JPNfiction

    1. It was. I couldn’t understand, what seemed to me, to be very extreme reactions and responses to her one teenage act of rebellion. Which has made me wonder if I’m missing a cultural reference or if we didn’t get all the story.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. This sounds really interesting Brona as it’s a topic that interests me too, but I’m a bit confused. You say that “North Korean schools required that their female students wear a ‘chima jeogori’ (a traditional Korean women’s outfit consisting of a chima skirt and jeogori top). This made it easy to identify Korean students in public.” Why do Korean students need to be recognised in public Korea? I think I’ve missed something? If they’re in Korea wouldn’t people assume they were Korean? Or is it that they are students that people want to identify, but then wouldn’t most people of a certain age be assumed to be students? I can’t quite work out what is trying to be marked out here about these girls?

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    1. Sorry for not making that clear – Ginny is attending a North Korean school in Japan. There are North Korean and South Korean schools there. The kids who go to the North Korean schools are mostly the kids from ‘zainichi’ families, while the South Korean schools tend to have the more recent emigrants.
      Does that make sense?

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      1. Yes, somehow I’d read that the family had moved to North Korea, and I couldn’t work out, first, why they did that and then why the North Korean, I presumed, missiles were a problem if they were there!

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              1. And I edited poorly.
                Now that I have had some time this morning (with a fresh brain), I have adjusted the sentence “This made it easy to identify Korean students in public” to reflect more accurately the idea I was trying to convey…
                “This made students attending Korean schools in Japan stand out from the crowd, and an easy target for being picked on. “

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  2. It is so naive of me to think that prejudice primarily happens between Black and White people in the United States, when so many people, of every color, are longing to belong. To fit in. I really haven’t thought about the Korean and the Japanese tensions of prejudice before…it all makes me so sad. The title of this book alone is so beautiful.

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