Sea of Trees takes the reader on an emotional hike through Aokigahara, a renowned forest sanctuary where some Japanese retreat to take their lives. The main journey of this novella involves a Japanese woman, Junko, searching through these woods for remnants of her sister’s final hours. Author Robert James Russell alternates the streaming point of view of her boyfriend, Bill, with anecdotes of others who have ultimately taken their own lives.
The temptation to read this novella as a commentary on suicide patterns in Japan is very high. The topic of suicide is almost too potent to set aside, yet there are layers beneath this very grim subject. Russell explores the disconnect between an observer, a person who lacks emotional or experiential context, and the participant, the person with a direct emotional connection to a particular experience.
This story, strangely enough, reminded me of a lecture I attended given by a Lost Boy of the Sudan. When asked how he coped psychologically with running from one refugee camp to another while dodging the constant hail of bullets, he gave a response that opposed any perceived rational response from his American audience. He said, “I didn’t think about it. The gunfire was always there. It was normal.” While I was pondering the long term emotional scars he must bear, this young Sudanese man hadn’t given the experience a second though. I am like Bill who can never be Japanese or ever feel the searing pain of loss to suicide. I can research and report what I see, but I cannot connect to the sensations, the pain, the emotion, or the lack thereof. I am an outsider. I will never connect to these experiences in the same way that someone who is there, is in that culture, will.
Never have I read a work so balanced, so pleasing, and yet so strange, in its very structure. At first my inclination was to cite precision editing to this near-perfect alternation of the main story line and the other stories of suicide. The lush setting of the forest complemented the story line…a little too well. Then I understood – what I perceived as artificial was the very essence of Japanese culture. My American reverence of individuality, of imbalance made Russell’s exquisite detail of balance in Asian cultures difficult to see. If for no other purpose, this distilling of Japanese culture and setting is not to be overlooked.
Sea of Trees
Winter Goose Publishing
To be released: May 21, 2012
Robert James Russell is a founder and fiction editor of Midwestern Gothic, a literary journal “dedicated to featuring work about or inspired by the Midwest, by writers who live or have lived here.” The very Asian character of Sea of Trees begged the question: why not Midwestern Gothic? Russell’s very thoughtful response was this, “ You can either write a story explicitly set in the region of your choosing, or you can take the deeper, more engrained parts of that place, the things that make up the uniqueness of each region and the people in it, and apply it to a story. For Sea of Trees—and, in fact, for a lot of my writing—this is the approach I take. I use all the elements of growing up in Michigan, all the Midwestern values and strengths and weaknesses I have, and apply them to people/settings that may not have specific Midwest connections.”