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Sky Country in the Spotlight

"The Asian American experience is little known, comparatively," writes Matt Sutherland in his review of Sky Country in the latest issue of Foreword Reviews, "and that’s a shame on this country. Immigrants are the best of us."

Christine Kitano's Sky Country shines a light on the Asian American experience, and her poems have been resonating with readers of all backgrounds. Drawing on both the real and imagined experiences of her own family—her maternal grandmother who fled Korea after the war; her paternal grandmother who immigrated from Japan in 1914 and was incarcerated during World War II—Kitano fills a gap in America's history by giving a voice to these immigrant women whose stories have been forgotten by time. Kitano herself commented on this in a recent interview with Tish Pearlman for Out of Bounds:

Christine Kitano: I was lucky to have a family where people were comfortable talking about [their experiences], because there are a lot of Japanese-American families where they don't want to talk about their stories. But my father was a scholar and a professor, and so I think he knew that it was important to pass those stories on.

Tish Pearlman: Yeah. Well, what an interesting family—wow! [laughs] It's amazing to me! Now, tell us a little about the title of the book: Sky Country. You said it has a different meaning in Korean.

Kitano: Well, it's just a translation of the word "heaven." So in Korean, the word is "haneul nala," and that translates literally to "sky country," and in Korean it's just the everyday word for heaven. But I just liked the kenning—that it was those two combined words, and it felt right for this collection. It was about the idealized idea of coming to America—that it was going to be this paradise, and then once you get to where you think it’s paradise, obviously the reality is going to be a bit different.

Travis Chi Wing Lau writing for Up the Staircase noted this contrast between the idealized dream of coming to America and the harsh reality many immigrants found there, particularly in regards to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II:

Kitano’s verses capture the painful extent to which Issei and Nisei (first- and second-generation Japanese Americans) had to endure their experience in silence. In place of narrative representations of Topaz Concentration Camp, we are given the perversity of its landscape, freighted with “skeletal trees,” and “mountains” “turned away.” The landscape of memory is fleeting yet turgid. The space of the camp seems to be a character of its own, one that bears a troubled relationship to the human actors that have been relegated to the camp. The camp transforms all of its captives, and Kitano describes precisely how.

Chi Wing Lau's reveiw concludes with a response to Kitano's poem "Gaman," which refers to a Japanese term meaning stoic persistence in the face of adversity:

Such spirit of endurance characterizes much of the Japanese internment experience, yet Kitano problematizes it by tying it to the aspirational experience of Asian Americans. [. . .] The desire for financial security, for cultural assimilation becomes a perverse kind of gaman:

For stealing day-old donuts, my mother is fired from her first 

American job, cleaning offices in a downtown Los Angeles high-rise.

Still this is America. America is good, she says. You don’t know how
good you have it here. ("Gaman")

In comparison to the unspeakable experiences of grandmothers fleeing Korea and Japan, “America is good.” But Kitano leaves us questioning this “good” and its accessibility to those like Kitano’s grandmothers. Is their gaman ultimately futile, particularly with our current political climate? Go on, Kitano entreats her grandmother. As her readers, we learn of the consequences and costs of gaman even as a “light / approaches, out of shadow.”

As Ada Limón writes: "The poems in Sky Country weave, unravel, and stitch together history and time with such a fierce originality that the images buzz in the mind. Lyrically vibrant and sonically alive, Kitano’s gorgeous poems remind us that we are always linked to immigration, to the women that raised us, and it's through our own language that we do the honoring."

Read the full review from Foreword Reviews here and the full Up The Staircase review here. Listen to Christine Kitano's Out of Bounds interview here.

Buy a copy of Sky Country from the BOA Bookstore.

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