Forest majors in self-discovery, Hyde Park angst

By Lisbeth Redfield

Sachiko Hamada’s debut novel, Forest in F Minor, is at once distant and too close. Set in the late ’70s, it describes an aggressive, educated Japanese woman redefining herself in the familiar environment of Regenstein Library, the Checkerboard Lounge, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

In 1979, Japanese artist and feminist Mizuo Henmei moves to Hyde Park with her husband Nomi, who has a Fulbright grant to do a Ph.D. in economics at the University of Chicago. Mizuo, arriving three months after Nomi, is forced to deal not only with culture shock, but also with the changing attitudes and beliefs of her husband. As Nomi interacts with America’s bewildering cultural and multicultural elements, Mizuo is left on her own for long stretches of time, looking for a means of expression.

Forest in F Minor is a novel about self, expression, and art. It narrates what is, for most of us, the next uncomfortable step in life: what you do in the no man’s land of graduate research, dissertation work, and growing up with the idea of true love from your early twenties. Mizuo’s discontent is partly cultural and, even more, existential; she struggles not only with the question of “What happens now?” but also with the realization that she does not want to be what she is.

This is also a novel about culture and gender. An aggressive feminist in Japan, Mizuo’s discomfort with immigration is exacerbated by the role swap it precipitates. In a reversal of their unconventional life in Japan, Nomi becomes the active partner, out working while Mizuo keeps house, shops, and cooks. At one point she feels she has lost her childhood and that most of her adult life has been spent as a masculine substitute.

Forest in F Minor is, in many ways, a narration of Mizuo’s attempts to find a comfortable cultural and gender identity. Throughout the course of the novel she tries out a number of different models of the feminine: equal companion, submissive partner, passive-aggressive wife, and plain adulterer. None are ideal, but through these attempts, she finds and contacts a literal copy of herself and discovers, as she makes her way toward that self, her own voice as an independent artist.

The power of the novel is not in its technique, or even in its plot. Hamada’s English is direct and fluent but not distinguished. Mizuo analyzes herself in phrases that can strike the ear as bulky and clichéd; she tells the woman trying to steal Nomi, “I need to develop a friendship with you,” and remembers a moment at her own wedding in terms of “escaping societal demands”—a particularly ponderous turn of phrase to find in anyone’s head.

There are moments when Mizuo leads us with the exaggerated gestures of a tour guide. “You know kikuneri, the traditional Japanese kneading technique!” she exclaims at one point, drawing our attention to “educational” cultural facts. But it is in her treatment of two cultures that Hamada’s novel is at its strongest.

Her commentary on Japan is restrained, subtle, and often beautiful. “We don’t tell our deepest desires. We pray,” Mizuo tells a friend. In the book’s best sequence, a montage of Mizuo at work in her studio, she concludes, “we’re both living in a forest filled with a hauntingly sad melody—a forest in F minor.” Then, gracefully, the turn: “Japan is a forest in F minor as well…. The Japanese mind is tuned to a minor key.”

Hamada’s background is not so far off from her heroine’s. The author came to Chicago in the late ’70s with her own husband and earned her degree in sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Like Mizuo, Hamada works in multimedia visual and performance studies, combining active feminism with an intense creative drive. Forest in F Minor is engaging in part because it is at least semiautobiographical.

The novel, in fact, came into being almost by accident. Hamada had written a screenplay called The Nail That Sticks Up about a woman who, like Mizuo, refuses to be hammered into the lacquer-box image of her country’s culture. Unable to procure funding, Hamada turned her themes and ideas into a novel as a companion to her yet unproduced film. In an interview with the Chicago Writers Association, remembering the effort it took to write Forest in F Minor, she described the process as “a transformational work that was astonishingly profound.”

The resulting piece of prose is not so much a novel as an element in a multimedia reflection on the process of creation. From a technical point of view, it has its flaws, some of which come out of the author’s preoccupation with such weighty concepts as Art and Expression. But to a reader, that interaction with the raw material of creation—shapes, colors, and textures—is entrancing. Even when the style grates, you keep reading, enchanted by a play of light or a reference to the UCPD.