“The Color of the Sky is the Shape of the Heart” by Chesil

Chesil Chesil

Young adult novels often highlight teenagers’ angst with identity issues. While this phenomenon may seem American with its focus on ethnic identity, there are other diasporas in other places. Chesil’s debut novel, The Color of the Sky is the Shape of the Heart, in an English translation by Takami Nieda, tells such a story set among the Korean community in Japan.

The Color of the Sky Is the Shape of the Heart, Chesil, Takami Nieda (trans) (Soho Teen, April 2022)
The Color of the Sky Is the Shape of the Heart, Chesil, Takami Nieda (trans) (Soho Teen, April 2022)

Born and raised in Tokyo in the late 1990s, Ginny Pak will forever be an outsider because her family is Korean, or Zainichi as Koreans in Japan are known. She attends a Japanese primary school, speaks Japanese at home, and doesn’t speak Korean. At school she normally blends in except when her ethnicity is pointed out to her.

 

In sixth-grade history class, when it came time to talk about Japan’s colonization of the Korean Peninsula, I became extra nervous for some reason. Then, the teacher read aloud a few lines covering the history of colonized Korea in the textbook and added, “I guess this concerns people like Pak-san.” The eyes of the entire class landed on me. Not knowing how to react, I stuck out my tongue and let out a lame chuckle. Thus, the lesson on the history concerning me ended in a matter of minutes.

 

When it’s time for high school, her parents enroll her in a Korean school and a North Korean one at that.

 

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.

 

For a variety of economic and political reasons, post-War South Korea didn’t send aid to Zainichi, a group of Koreans who had left for Japan, sometimes generations earlier, and who were sometimes viewed in Korea as traitors. North Korea was more than willing to support schools in Japan for Koreans who were shunned by South Korea.

Ginny’s 1990s-era North Korean school has photos of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il, but propaganda is mostly notable by its absence:

 

When people thought of education in the Korean schools, they wrongly assume that it was all about North Korea, not once did I hear teachers mention the place. No one talked about North Korea. Apart from the uniforms and the school assemblies and activities, Korean schools weren’t any different from Japanese schools.

 

Teachers and students at her new school speak Korean with some English, but no Japanese, even though most of these students speak Japanese in their daily lives outside school. But when Ginny begins Korean school, her teacher uses Japanese for Ginny’s sake until she can learn more Korean. This does not sit well with the other students.

Ginny struggles to make friends at her new school: she is seen as an outsider there, too. She encounters one too many traumatic experiences outside school because she’s Korean and eventually the Kim portraits in her classroom irritate her: one day she removes them from the wall and cracks their glass frames. She is expelled and is sent to schools in the United States, first Hawaii and then Oregon.

The Color of the Sky is the Shape of the Heart is shaped with related vignettes in Japan and Oregon that are not told chronologically. The Oregon chapters make up a small portion of this short book, but help Ginny come to terms with her time back in Japan when she starts talking to her host mother. One day when they are viewing the sunset, Ginny murmurs a Japanese proverb and her host mother asks her to explain.

 

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.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.