The Color of the Sky Is the Shape of the Heart

Author Chesil
Translated by Takami Nieda
A Zainichi Korean teen comes of age in Japan in this groundbreaking debut novel about prejudice and diaspora.

Seventeen-year-old Ginny Park is about to get expelled from high school—again. Stephanie, the picture book author who took Ginny into her Oregon home after she was kicked out of school in Hawaii, isn’t upset; she only wants to know why. But Ginny has always been in-between. She can't bring herself to open up to anyone about her past, or about what prompted her to flee her native Japan. Then, Ginny finds a mysterious scrawl among Stephanie's scraps of paper and storybook drawings that changes everything: The sky is about to fall. Where do you go?
 
Ginny sets off on the road in search of an answer, with only her journal as a confidante. In witty and brutally honest vignettes, and interspersed with old letters from her expatriated family in North Korea, Ginny recounts her adolescence growing up Zainichi, an ethnic Korean born in Japan, and the incident that forced her to leave years prior. Inspired by her own childhood, author Chesil creates a portrait of a girl who has been fighting alone against barriers of prejudice, nationality, and injustice all her life—all while searching for a place to belong.
Chesil is a third-generation Korean born in Japan. She attended film school to study acting until she discovered a new passion for writing. She decided to mark the end of her twenties by writing a novel inspired by events during her childhood. That novel became her debut book. In 2016, she received the Gunzo New Writer's Prize and was nominated for the Akutagawa Prize. In 2017, she won the Oda Sakunosuke Prize as well as the Ministry of Education's Fine Art Award for a Debut Work.


Takami Nieda has translated more than ten works from Japanese into English and has received numerous grants in support of her translations, including the PEN/Heim Translation Fund for the translation of Kazuki Kaneshiro’s Go. She teaches writing and translation at Seattle Central College in Washington State.
Not There
That day was no different than any other. High school was as cruel as ever.
     In biology the invisible boy in class, John, burst into tears and hid under the lab table again. He fell over on his back and cried like a baby, slapping his hands on the floor. This had happened before. John was known to have tantrums. He was way more sensitive than the average kid. Maybe seeing the anatomical diagram of a rabbit in the textbook had upset him. Maybe it was just that John was the most gentlehearted boy in the world.
     High school really was a cruel place. Actually, it wasn’t school but the whole world, and like the world, class went on without pause, as if John didn’t exist.
     He was bawling his lungs out, yet no one seemed to hear him. None of the students at the school were all that studious, but at that moment, their noses were buried in the textbooks, their necks contorted into impossible angles. It was a strange sight, since it was obvious they weren’t the least bit interested in reading what was written in those books. I must’ve slept funny and this is how I woke up, said the expressions on their faces—on every face in the classroom.
     Everyone in school knew John was like this, and yet some kids still sat at the same table as him. It was only when John burst out crying that they noticed. Oh, so there you are.
     They’d been sitting together before class started, but now they acted like he’d teleported out of nowhere or something.
     The kids looked at John with disgust, as if he had a highly infectious disease. Their eyes—every one of them—seemed to say, Touch him, and your finger will swell up and itch and wreck your whole day. None of the kids bothered to move to another table though. Whether they moved or not, it was all the same anyway. The classroom was already infected.
     It was strange. Although there were, at most, twenty kids in the class, sometimes even I didn’t notice John was there until he started crying. When he wasn’t crying, John was the best in the world—no, in the universe—at making himself disappear. In a game of hide-and-seek, not only would he win every time, everyone would probably go home, forgetting that John was still hiding somewhere. It was hard to believe anyone would notice, even the next day.
     In the year and a half since I transferred to the school, I’d never seen John anywhere except in the classroom, nor had I seen him enter a classroom. By the time I noticed, he was somehow already there, casting a faint shadow.
     Only the teacher bothered a second glance. It would’ve been odd not to for all the racket he was making. Still, some students didn’t bother to look at John even once. The boys especially. Maybe they feared catching the disease by looking at him.
     Anyway, the teacher shot several looks at John. I happened to catch a glimpse of her face and felt absolutely horrible. Her eyes squinted as if they’d found a pesky tick living in the sheets. Then, as if to say, I’m glad you’re not my son, she turned her back and carried on as if John wasn’t there.
     And so, class went on as usual. John cried louder. The world let out a hard laugh. John cried louder still. On the other side of the country, President Bush was sending troops into Iraq. On and on John went. At the same time, my idol, Michael Jackson, was arrested on child molestation charges. John let out a wail, smacking his hands on the floor as if to split it open. Still, the dung beetle went on rolling turds into balls. Yep, this world was too beautiful for words.
     John thrashed and stamped, sending tremors across the floor like he was determined to put a crack in the earth. Ten minutes passed and, before he could achieve the epic feat, he stopped. Then, as if he’d wiped away the memory of being ignored, he began thumbing through the pages of the textbook. He stared at the diagram of the dissected rabbit. But he was done crying.
     I felt sorry for him. Looking away, I stared at the clock and prayed for time to pass quickly.
 
 
Shoes
I sat on the floor of the open-air hallway where the student lockers stood. Even at a slow pace, it took less than two minutes to walk the hall from one end to the other.
     I slipped on my headphones—they were barely held together with duct tape—and put on Radiohead’s second album, The Bends. Then I went about my daily routine of watching shoes pass before me. Back and forth. Back and forth.
     There was a strong smell of rain, perhaps because I was sitting near the courtyard. The damp, gloomy scent smelled like honey to me. The bottoms of people’s shoes were wet, and the floor had become slick. But that, too, was normal.
     It was only between June and August that Oregon didn’t see rain. Apart from those summer months, it rained almost every day. I’d assumed the number of suicides in this state was especially high until I learned that it was even higher in Washington just up north.
     I always planted myself on the floor anyway, paying no attention to how wet or grimy I got.
     Although it wasn’t rural enough to call it that, the high school was surrounded by enough green woods that it could hardly be considered a city school. If you rode the bus twenty minutes from the stop down the road, you would end up downtown with buildings and some brand name stores. But judging by the squirrels living in the trees by the school parking lot, you could hardly call the place a city—at least, not compared to where I came from.
     Shopping options in town were limited, then limited even more by your musical preferences: hip-hop heads went looking for Adidas and Sean John, the skate punks went to Hot Topic, and so on. The only stores teenagers living off their parents’ allowance could afford to go were the fast-fashion stores inside the mall or the indie shops always a heartbeat away from permanently shuttering their doors.
     But you know what was weird? In a school of two hundred students, no two kids ever wore the same shoes. Believe me, I know. Everyone was always wearing different pairs. Which was why, even as I sat in front of my locker staring at shoes every morning, by the next day I forgot which shoes belonged to whom. Not surprising, considering I could count on one hand the number of kids who knew me by name and talked to me.
     As I gazed at the shoes coming and going before me, a wood chip came flying at me from a distance. It skittered among the feet of students hurrying to their next class, trying to escape from being stomped on. Sadly, the struggle lasted only a few seconds, as the chip was crushed to smithereens by a black, studded boot. Seeing this made me terribly sad. My eyes chased after the boot bottom for a glimpse of a splintered corpse, but it disappeared from view.
     Watching shoes go by day after day as I did, I learned that there was a certain style to the way they became dirty or worn. There was a difference between stylishly dirty and just plain dirty. If you examined the dirt on someone’s shoes and the wearer’s walk, you might get a sense of who that person was. The walk of someone wearing shoes that were just plain dirty, for instance, had no rhythm. He walked a bit adrift, his steps unsure, probably too conscious of his surroundings. The dirt on his shoes didn’t get there by some purposeful action, but simply found itself there over the course of the wearer trying not to get in the way of others, careful not to get into any trouble. Someone with a stylishly dirty pair of shoes, on the other hand, planted one foot firmly in front of the other, heel first, all rhythm and confidence. The dirt looked like it had gotten there purposefully, not from exercise or from mere strolling, hinting at a fascinating story hidden beneath. When you saw a pair of dirty shoes, you either said, “You got some dirt on your shoes,” or you asked, “How did you get them dirty?”—that was the simple difference.
     I hardly knew anyone at the small school. And though I made a pastime of making fun of other people’s shoes, I thought I was making a statement by writing “No Fun”—the title of the last song the Sex Pistols ever performed—on one side of my Converse in black marker. On the other side was a drawing of a picture book character, making my shoes the most worthless pair in the entire school.
     They weren’t so much dirty as discolored. No one wearing shoes like these was likely to have much of a story. However you looked at them, they were nothing more than a ratty old pair of sneakers past their best-by date.
  • AWARD | 2022
    Freeman Book Award - Young Adult / High School Literature
Praise for The Color of the Sky is the Shape of the Heart

Winner of the 2022 Freeman Book Awards for Children’s and Young Adult’s Literature
A Ms. Magazine Most Anticipated Book of 2022
A Kirkus Reviews Anticipated YA Book of 2022

“The translated version of Chesil’s debut novel, which was originally published in Japanese, draws from her own childhood . . . the novel unpacks the complexities around nationalism, prejudice, and identity.” 
Time

“Though it is just over 150 pages, The Color of the Sky is the Shape of the Heart packs a lot of emotion, history and personal growth within its pages. A literary hit in Japan when it was released, this beautiful and thoughtful novel explores the Zainichi Korean experience through a teen girl who seems surrounded by secrets.”
The Lakshmi and Asha Show

“A bracing look inside the mind of a Zainichi teenager to challenge readers with a deeply traumatized consciousness and the pain and liberation that comes in processing that trauma . . . The Color of the Sky is living proof of literature's importance. It can open the mind of readers to the lives of others, and provide the silenced the courage to speak up.”
The Japan Times

“The beauty of Chesil’s storytelling and Takami Nieda’s stellar translation is its revelation of inner acceptance and belief.” 
—Asia Media International

“Thought-provoking . . . A sensitive, inquisitive conversation about what it means to be ‘other.’”
—International Examiner

“A literary triumph that's both outstanding storytelling and searing societal commentary . . . Jinhee's attempts to reclaim some semblance of justice and autonomy sets in motion her international odyssey . . . The specific and universal quests to belong echo back to Chesil's original title, Jini no pazuru (Jini's Puzzle), searching for all the ways to fit the pieces together and finally make herself whole.”
Shelf-Awareness, Starred Review

“Using a nonlinear narrative and short chapters interspersed with letters from Ginny’s grandfather, who lives in North Korea, Chesil’s intimate-feeling novel offers glimpses into Ginny’s life leading up to the present, including the incident that compelled her to leave Tokyo. Ginny is an exceptionally complex character, who is both quiet and reserved while brimming with passionate determination to combat injustice. This affecting novel sensitively explores diaspora, prejudice, and the struggle of finding a place to belong.”
Publishers Weekly, Starred Review


“Enigmatic and powerful . . . Compact chapters set a brisk pace, punctuated by family letters from North Korea and a scene in the format of a play that flesh out a collective history and entrenched prejudice against Koreans in Japan . . . This complex, layered story, originally published in Japanese, reaches a cathartic conclusion once Ginny resolves to catch the proverbial sky as it falls, thereby forgiving herself and claiming her agency.” 
Kirkus Reviews

“A vital and vastly under-represented perspective beautifully rendered by writer and translator.” 
—Rebekah S., Boogie Down Books (Bronx, NY)

“Spare prose, fragmented voices, and vivid descriptions come together to carry the story of a young woman caught between cultures. She vibrates with anger, sorrow, rebellion, and need. The need to be seen, to be heard, and to find a way to be just in an unjust world. A challenging read well worth reading and pondering and reading again.” 
—Jan Blodgett, Main Street Books (Davidson, NC)

Praise for Chesil


Winner of the Gunzo Prize for New Writers

Recipient of the Oda Sakunosuke Award
Shortlisted for the Akutagawa Prize

“Most novels are born from an illusory sense of security that a monolingual and monoethnic Japan exists. This novel is fraught with a tension that only those who live with the threat of violence can know.”
—Yoko Tawada, author of The Emissary, Winner of the National Book Award for Translated Literature

About

A Zainichi Korean teen comes of age in Japan in this groundbreaking debut novel about prejudice and diaspora.

Seventeen-year-old Ginny Park is about to get expelled from high school—again. Stephanie, the picture book author who took Ginny into her Oregon home after she was kicked out of school in Hawaii, isn’t upset; she only wants to know why. But Ginny has always been in-between. She can't bring herself to open up to anyone about her past, or about what prompted her to flee her native Japan. Then, Ginny finds a mysterious scrawl among Stephanie's scraps of paper and storybook drawings that changes everything: The sky is about to fall. Where do you go?
 
Ginny sets off on the road in search of an answer, with only her journal as a confidante. In witty and brutally honest vignettes, and interspersed with old letters from her expatriated family in North Korea, Ginny recounts her adolescence growing up Zainichi, an ethnic Korean born in Japan, and the incident that forced her to leave years prior. Inspired by her own childhood, author Chesil creates a portrait of a girl who has been fighting alone against barriers of prejudice, nationality, and injustice all her life—all while searching for a place to belong.

Author

Chesil is a third-generation Korean born in Japan. She attended film school to study acting until she discovered a new passion for writing. She decided to mark the end of her twenties by writing a novel inspired by events during her childhood. That novel became her debut book. In 2016, she received the Gunzo New Writer's Prize and was nominated for the Akutagawa Prize. In 2017, she won the Oda Sakunosuke Prize as well as the Ministry of Education's Fine Art Award for a Debut Work.


Takami Nieda has translated more than ten works from Japanese into English and has received numerous grants in support of her translations, including the PEN/Heim Translation Fund for the translation of Kazuki Kaneshiro’s Go. She teaches writing and translation at Seattle Central College in Washington State.

Excerpt

Not There
That day was no different than any other. High school was as cruel as ever.
     In biology the invisible boy in class, John, burst into tears and hid under the lab table again. He fell over on his back and cried like a baby, slapping his hands on the floor. This had happened before. John was known to have tantrums. He was way more sensitive than the average kid. Maybe seeing the anatomical diagram of a rabbit in the textbook had upset him. Maybe it was just that John was the most gentlehearted boy in the world.
     High school really was a cruel place. Actually, it wasn’t school but the whole world, and like the world, class went on without pause, as if John didn’t exist.
     He was bawling his lungs out, yet no one seemed to hear him. None of the students at the school were all that studious, but at that moment, their noses were buried in the textbooks, their necks contorted into impossible angles. It was a strange sight, since it was obvious they weren’t the least bit interested in reading what was written in those books. I must’ve slept funny and this is how I woke up, said the expressions on their faces—on every face in the classroom.
     Everyone in school knew John was like this, and yet some kids still sat at the same table as him. It was only when John burst out crying that they noticed. Oh, so there you are.
     They’d been sitting together before class started, but now they acted like he’d teleported out of nowhere or something.
     The kids looked at John with disgust, as if he had a highly infectious disease. Their eyes—every one of them—seemed to say, Touch him, and your finger will swell up and itch and wreck your whole day. None of the kids bothered to move to another table though. Whether they moved or not, it was all the same anyway. The classroom was already infected.
     It was strange. Although there were, at most, twenty kids in the class, sometimes even I didn’t notice John was there until he started crying. When he wasn’t crying, John was the best in the world—no, in the universe—at making himself disappear. In a game of hide-and-seek, not only would he win every time, everyone would probably go home, forgetting that John was still hiding somewhere. It was hard to believe anyone would notice, even the next day.
     In the year and a half since I transferred to the school, I’d never seen John anywhere except in the classroom, nor had I seen him enter a classroom. By the time I noticed, he was somehow already there, casting a faint shadow.
     Only the teacher bothered a second glance. It would’ve been odd not to for all the racket he was making. Still, some students didn’t bother to look at John even once. The boys especially. Maybe they feared catching the disease by looking at him.
     Anyway, the teacher shot several looks at John. I happened to catch a glimpse of her face and felt absolutely horrible. Her eyes squinted as if they’d found a pesky tick living in the sheets. Then, as if to say, I’m glad you’re not my son, she turned her back and carried on as if John wasn’t there.
     And so, class went on as usual. John cried louder. The world let out a hard laugh. John cried louder still. On the other side of the country, President Bush was sending troops into Iraq. On and on John went. At the same time, my idol, Michael Jackson, was arrested on child molestation charges. John let out a wail, smacking his hands on the floor as if to split it open. Still, the dung beetle went on rolling turds into balls. Yep, this world was too beautiful for words.
     John thrashed and stamped, sending tremors across the floor like he was determined to put a crack in the earth. Ten minutes passed and, before he could achieve the epic feat, he stopped. Then, as if he’d wiped away the memory of being ignored, he began thumbing through the pages of the textbook. He stared at the diagram of the dissected rabbit. But he was done crying.
     I felt sorry for him. Looking away, I stared at the clock and prayed for time to pass quickly.
 
 
Shoes
I sat on the floor of the open-air hallway where the student lockers stood. Even at a slow pace, it took less than two minutes to walk the hall from one end to the other.
     I slipped on my headphones—they were barely held together with duct tape—and put on Radiohead’s second album, The Bends. Then I went about my daily routine of watching shoes pass before me. Back and forth. Back and forth.
     There was a strong smell of rain, perhaps because I was sitting near the courtyard. The damp, gloomy scent smelled like honey to me. The bottoms of people’s shoes were wet, and the floor had become slick. But that, too, was normal.
     It was only between June and August that Oregon didn’t see rain. Apart from those summer months, it rained almost every day. I’d assumed the number of suicides in this state was especially high until I learned that it was even higher in Washington just up north.
     I always planted myself on the floor anyway, paying no attention to how wet or grimy I got.
     Although it wasn’t rural enough to call it that, the high school was surrounded by enough green woods that it could hardly be considered a city school. If you rode the bus twenty minutes from the stop down the road, you would end up downtown with buildings and some brand name stores. But judging by the squirrels living in the trees by the school parking lot, you could hardly call the place a city—at least, not compared to where I came from.
     Shopping options in town were limited, then limited even more by your musical preferences: hip-hop heads went looking for Adidas and Sean John, the skate punks went to Hot Topic, and so on. The only stores teenagers living off their parents’ allowance could afford to go were the fast-fashion stores inside the mall or the indie shops always a heartbeat away from permanently shuttering their doors.
     But you know what was weird? In a school of two hundred students, no two kids ever wore the same shoes. Believe me, I know. Everyone was always wearing different pairs. Which was why, even as I sat in front of my locker staring at shoes every morning, by the next day I forgot which shoes belonged to whom. Not surprising, considering I could count on one hand the number of kids who knew me by name and talked to me.
     As I gazed at the shoes coming and going before me, a wood chip came flying at me from a distance. It skittered among the feet of students hurrying to their next class, trying to escape from being stomped on. Sadly, the struggle lasted only a few seconds, as the chip was crushed to smithereens by a black, studded boot. Seeing this made me terribly sad. My eyes chased after the boot bottom for a glimpse of a splintered corpse, but it disappeared from view.
     Watching shoes go by day after day as I did, I learned that there was a certain style to the way they became dirty or worn. There was a difference between stylishly dirty and just plain dirty. If you examined the dirt on someone’s shoes and the wearer’s walk, you might get a sense of who that person was. The walk of someone wearing shoes that were just plain dirty, for instance, had no rhythm. He walked a bit adrift, his steps unsure, probably too conscious of his surroundings. The dirt on his shoes didn’t get there by some purposeful action, but simply found itself there over the course of the wearer trying not to get in the way of others, careful not to get into any trouble. Someone with a stylishly dirty pair of shoes, on the other hand, planted one foot firmly in front of the other, heel first, all rhythm and confidence. The dirt looked like it had gotten there purposefully, not from exercise or from mere strolling, hinting at a fascinating story hidden beneath. When you saw a pair of dirty shoes, you either said, “You got some dirt on your shoes,” or you asked, “How did you get them dirty?”—that was the simple difference.
     I hardly knew anyone at the small school. And though I made a pastime of making fun of other people’s shoes, I thought I was making a statement by writing “No Fun”—the title of the last song the Sex Pistols ever performed—on one side of my Converse in black marker. On the other side was a drawing of a picture book character, making my shoes the most worthless pair in the entire school.
     They weren’t so much dirty as discolored. No one wearing shoes like these was likely to have much of a story. However you looked at them, they were nothing more than a ratty old pair of sneakers past their best-by date.

Awards

  • AWARD | 2022
    Freeman Book Award - Young Adult / High School Literature

Praise

Praise for The Color of the Sky is the Shape of the Heart

Winner of the 2022 Freeman Book Awards for Children’s and Young Adult’s Literature
A Ms. Magazine Most Anticipated Book of 2022
A Kirkus Reviews Anticipated YA Book of 2022

“The translated version of Chesil’s debut novel, which was originally published in Japanese, draws from her own childhood . . . the novel unpacks the complexities around nationalism, prejudice, and identity.” 
Time

“Though it is just over 150 pages, The Color of the Sky is the Shape of the Heart packs a lot of emotion, history and personal growth within its pages. A literary hit in Japan when it was released, this beautiful and thoughtful novel explores the Zainichi Korean experience through a teen girl who seems surrounded by secrets.”
The Lakshmi and Asha Show

“A bracing look inside the mind of a Zainichi teenager to challenge readers with a deeply traumatized consciousness and the pain and liberation that comes in processing that trauma . . . The Color of the Sky is living proof of literature's importance. It can open the mind of readers to the lives of others, and provide the silenced the courage to speak up.”
The Japan Times

“The beauty of Chesil’s storytelling and Takami Nieda’s stellar translation is its revelation of inner acceptance and belief.” 
—Asia Media International

“Thought-provoking . . . A sensitive, inquisitive conversation about what it means to be ‘other.’”
—International Examiner

“A literary triumph that's both outstanding storytelling and searing societal commentary . . . Jinhee's attempts to reclaim some semblance of justice and autonomy sets in motion her international odyssey . . . The specific and universal quests to belong echo back to Chesil's original title, Jini no pazuru (Jini's Puzzle), searching for all the ways to fit the pieces together and finally make herself whole.”
Shelf-Awareness, Starred Review

“Using a nonlinear narrative and short chapters interspersed with letters from Ginny’s grandfather, who lives in North Korea, Chesil’s intimate-feeling novel offers glimpses into Ginny’s life leading up to the present, including the incident that compelled her to leave Tokyo. Ginny is an exceptionally complex character, who is both quiet and reserved while brimming with passionate determination to combat injustice. This affecting novel sensitively explores diaspora, prejudice, and the struggle of finding a place to belong.”
Publishers Weekly, Starred Review


“Enigmatic and powerful . . . Compact chapters set a brisk pace, punctuated by family letters from North Korea and a scene in the format of a play that flesh out a collective history and entrenched prejudice against Koreans in Japan . . . This complex, layered story, originally published in Japanese, reaches a cathartic conclusion once Ginny resolves to catch the proverbial sky as it falls, thereby forgiving herself and claiming her agency.” 
Kirkus Reviews

“A vital and vastly under-represented perspective beautifully rendered by writer and translator.” 
—Rebekah S., Boogie Down Books (Bronx, NY)

“Spare prose, fragmented voices, and vivid descriptions come together to carry the story of a young woman caught between cultures. She vibrates with anger, sorrow, rebellion, and need. The need to be seen, to be heard, and to find a way to be just in an unjust world. A challenging read well worth reading and pondering and reading again.” 
—Jan Blodgett, Main Street Books (Davidson, NC)

Praise for Chesil


Winner of the Gunzo Prize for New Writers

Recipient of the Oda Sakunosuke Award
Shortlisted for the Akutagawa Prize

“Most novels are born from an illusory sense of security that a monolingual and monoethnic Japan exists. This novel is fraught with a tension that only those who live with the threat of violence can know.”
—Yoko Tawada, author of The Emissary, Winner of the National Book Award for Translated Literature

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