In Maru Ayase’s The Forest Brims Over, Rui, a woman who is muse for her writer husband’s literary efforts, has enough of being exploited for inspiration, swallows a bowl of seeds, and sprouts into a tree. Instead of seeking intervention, her husband, Tetsuya, places her in an aquaterrarium and begins drafting his next novel based on her transformation. But Rui grows and grows into an overwhelming forest, forcing Tetsuya to confront the realities of his life and literary work. A terrific, dreamlike page-turner told from the perspectives of Rui; Tetsuya; his lover, Kinari; and his two editors, Sekiguchi and Shirasaki, the novel is amongst Ayase’s seventeen books in Japan but her first to be translated to English. Haydn Trowell, whose work includes recent novels by Maki Kashimada and Yūka Ishii, deftly renders the gauzy, magical leaps made by Ayase, such as Rui’s literal flowering and, later, the interaction between two versions of Rui (herself and an apparition). With Trowell as translator, I spoke to Ayase about muses fighting back, the nature(s) of men and women, and the state of gender relations in Japanese society.
J. R. Ramakrishnan (JRR): I was reading about the French painter Françoise Gilot, who died in June 2023, and in her obituaries, she was remembered primarily for being the former partner of Pablo Picasso, and her own art was an afterthought. In your novel, you really crack open the relationship between the male artist and the female muse. How did this book begin for you? Was there a particular incident that inspired your fantastical premise of Rui’s response to her husband’s abuse?
Maru Ayase (MA): I’ve long been interested in the differences and relationships between those who have the power to speak and those who don’t. It isn’t just about the presence or absence of techniques for manipulating words or about the validity of one’s arguments—the strength or weakness of one’s position in a given situation also affects their ability to communicate. The opinions of those who can’t speak are often treated as if they don’t exist, but such individuals are still possessed of their own feelings and thoughts—and if they build up with no release valve, even if they are not expressed in words, they may overflow in other ways, such as through actions, choices, or even physical discomfort.
For a long time, I’ve had this metaphor in mind about seeing human skin as soil, and I’ve always liked to use fantastic descriptions of plants growing out of people’s skin or minerals being dug out of their flesh. So when I thought about the “overflowing” of unspoken things from the human body, it was a very natural progression that led me to the image of plants, and by extension, forests, brimming forth.
JRR: Sekiguchi, Tetsuya’s editor, does nothing to stop Rui’s transformation into a forest (or urge Tetsuya to get help), as it will help his career if Tetsuya produces a masterpiece. Would you discuss how this might be characteristic of how the literary world and society in general almost unquestioningly accept the position of the female muse to be used or abused?
MA: Sekiguchi’s passive attitude comes from his lack of a sense of responsibility—he believes that so long as the final product is good, the process of production doesn’t matter. His insensitivity toward the pain of this muse can be seen as his way of distancing himself from a problem that is happening right before his very eyes. This attitude of failing to address immediate problems isn’t uncommon in Japan, and isn’t exclusive to Sekiguchi—there is even a set phrase to describe it, koto nakare shugi, “the principle of not rocking the boat.” I wanted to depict him as the stereotypical Japanese salaryman.
JRR: The character of Kinari Yuko, Tetsuya’s student and lover, is intriguing. He only seems interested in her for her name (which means “lake at sunset”), which he sees as both beautiful and lonely and immediately wants to use in a novel. Meanwhile, she is under the spell of the cult of the great author. Indeed, you write that she was raised to “become a woman who men can love.” Would you talk about how you created her character, and the differences and similarities (especially with regard to nature; we have the river, to which young Kinari had a disappointing school hiking trip, and berries, which she refused from her classmate, and then Rui’s forest) with Rui?
MA: Kinari and Rui are alike in having calm demeanors and gentle outward appearances, a quality that makes them easy targets of affection from others, and that leads to them being underestimated and overlooked—Tetsuya, for instance, sees them as “submissive and adorable.” However, of the two, Kinari has a stronger inclination to go along with authority figures, such as parents and teachers, and has diminished her own joy in life by adapting to the preferences of others. Rui, on the other hand, prioritizes her own intuition and personal likes and dislikes. If offered an unfamiliar berry, Rui would have been the type of child to eat it on the spot if she found it interesting.
JRR: Shirasaki, Tetsuya’s new editor, presents a contrast to both Rui and Kinari in that she works and appears to have a bit more agency. When she is in Tetsuya’s forest, “She felt like she was caught in a dream—a dangerous dream, the kind that might quickly turn into a nightmare at the slightest provocation.” Is this a commentary on the fate of many of the women in the book?
MA: I don’t have any objection to it being read that way, though I didn’t actually intend for this sentence to encompass the work’s overarching themes. I wanted to portray Shirasaki as a different type of editor compared to Sekiguchi. Even though she didn’t witness Rui transform into the forest for herself, I wanted to depict her as someone who has the sensitivity to perceive that this isn’t just an ordinary forest, that while it may appear beautiful, it has a vague aura of instability and suffering.
JRR: Later, when Shirasaki is arguing about the nature of men and women with her husband, who believes that men need to win and show strength, while women can afford to be weak, she wonders, “What was there to love about someone once you stripped away those ideas of masculinity and femininity? She felt capable of drawing only a shallow, unrealistic image of whatever it might be.” Such a powerful scene (particularly as both concepts are such contentious points of discussion in US pop culture) with so many things happening!
MA: I’m glad you enjoyed this scene. Shirasaki and her husband are from a younger generation than Tetsuya, Rui, and Kinari, and they are close in age. They’ve received a more relaxed education regarding gender expectations, so the barriers to communication are lower than those that exist between Tetsuya and Rui. However, once they entered the workforce, Shirasaki and her husband were both confronted with the stark differences in how men and women are treated in society, and they’ve been forced to adapt and to live with those expectations. They understand full well how ridiculous it is to have to conform to societal expectations about masculinity and femininity, and it frustrates them to no end, but they are unable to completely break free from them. While they may not be able to immediately change society, I hope that in the small space of their marriage and family, they can make attempts to explore a new type of relationship and new conceptions of themselves. That was my hope when I wrote their dialogue scene.
JRR: Without giving away the end, Tetsuya seems unrepentant. “In their relationship, it was always he who had the power to speak, and so any problem that he failed to recognize, no matter how serious, simply didn’t exist.” That said, you do switch the power dynamic between the couple as the novel wraps up. Does the final resolution reveal a triumph (or even a “happy” ending) for Rui?
MA: I believe that once a novel is published, its interpretation should be left up to the readers. For that reason, I think that whether or not to see the ending as a happy one is an assessment for each individual reader to make. That being said, my goal while writing this novel was to force Tetsuya and Rui into having a real conversation. Of course, it’s Tetsuya who needs to change to make that happen. The forest is a symbol of that process, and the first sprout doesn’t grow from his body until he steps up and admits that he does, in fact, have to reassess his ways. It isn’t simply a matter of reversing the power dynamics between husband and wife—symbolically speaking, both have to become the forest, and both have to be in a place where they have no choice but to cautiously forge ahead with that process of evolution.
Copyright © 2023 by J. R. Ramakrishnan. Translation copyright © 2023 by Haydn Trowell. All rights reserved.