Books·How I Wrote It

Vancouver writer Jasmine Sealy sees beyond stereotypes in debut novel The Island of Forgetting

The Barbadian Canadian novelist spoke to CBC Books about coming into her own as an author through writing a debut book.

'How do you even develop a sense of self when everything about you is for sale?'

Jasmine Sealy is the author of the Island of Forgetting. (Benjamin Gardere, HarperCollins)

Vancouver author ​Jasmine Sealy didn't think writing could become her full-time career. The Barbadian Canadian writer completed her MFA in creative writing at the University of British Columbia as her "pie in the sky," almost certain her passion would only ever be a side hustle.

Then, she won the 2020 UBC/HarperCollins Best New Fiction Prize for the story she wrote for her master's thesis. Awarded literary representation and a book publication from HarperCollins, the Vancouver-based writer transformed her thesis into an honest and haunting debut novel, The Island of Forgetting

Set in Barbados, The Island of Forgetting is a coming-of-age story spanning four generations, each from the perspective of a different family member who must navigate desire, duty, identity and family secrets while running a beachfront hotel. Raw and reflective, Sealy's novel is about the ghosts of what goes unsaid and the stories we tell ourselves to fill the absence. 

The former prose editor of PRISM International, Sealy's short fiction has been shortlisted for several awards and longlisted for the CBC Short Story prize. She has also been published in various publications, including The New Quarterly, Room Magazine, Prairie Fire and Best Canadian Stories 2021. 

The debut novelist spoke to CBC Books about coming into her own as an author through writing The Island of Forgetting.

What we tell ourselves

"I had read another novel that was written in tryptic form and I just thought that was really cool. I knew I wanted to play with that, but it was also because I wanted to write about these different generations.

"That's how life goes, right? You live and then you have kids — and they don't really know the things that happened to you before other than what you tell them. To capture that, I had to do it sequentially.

I wanted this sense of dramatic irony where the reader knows so much more than the characters themselves do.

"I wanted to capture that sense of 'you are who you are' — which is based on an infinite number of tiny decisions that might have even happened before you were born. So how can you even fully understand yourself if you don't know about the things that happened before you even existed?

"Ultimately, it's a story about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. It's about a family and their desire to live their fullest lives — and the decisions that each person in the family makes within the limitations that they have. 

"I wanted this sense of dramatic irony where the reader knows so much more than the characters themselves do."

Accepting the writer you are 

"I always thought I had to get my process in order before writing the novel. I had to actually start writing at my desk instead of in bed. I had to get into a good habit of writing every morning. I thought I had to do all those things first and then I would be able to write a novel, but it's not true. You can be lazy and it'll still get done, however haphazard or chaotic your method is.

I open the laptop, scroll for two hours, maybe cry a little [laughs], write 200 words, take a coffee break for six hours. It'll still get done.

"Most of the novel was written in my bed. For some strange reason, that is where I always end up. I will occasionally write at the kitchen table or the dining room table where I'm sitting right now. Or at a coffee shop, but the vast majority was written in bed. 

"For me, I open the laptop, scroll for two hours, maybe cry a little [laughs], write 200 words, take a coffee break for six hours. It'll still get done. It was reassuring in a way that I didn't have to drastically change my entire approach to get it done. And I don't think I'm ever gonna change. I would love to be one of those writers that wake up at five in the morning. It's just not me.

"Sometimes I haven't written in months, but it's okay. I know I will."

When home is a tourist trap 

"The Island of Forgetting is a story about a place, about tourism and what it means to live in a place where your identity, culture and sense of self is a product to be consumed by other people. How do you even develop a sense of self when everything about you is for sale? 

"The Caribbean land itself is sold as this tourism product in this very sexy, 'come and live your fantasy way.' In Barbados especially, one of the things that tourists love to say is 'the people are really friendly.' That's something that's kind of marketed, that it's quite a safe destination. You don't have to go and stay in your little all-inclusive hotel, the way a lot of people do when they go to parts of Jamaica and parts of Mexico.

How do you even develop a sense of self when everything about you is for sale?

"What does that mean for you then, as a person, when your sense of friendliness is marketable? Where your ability to be nice to people actually has economic value — not just for yourself, but for your whole island?

"Imagine the burden that carries, when your whole economy of your country is reliant on you providing friendly service to people that might be treating you poorly.

"I was super interested in that tension and each character feels it and deals with it in a different way. I hope that people recognize themselves in the book in whatever way, but particularly Caribbean and particularly Bajan people. Obviously no one book can encapsulate the entire Bajan experience, let alone the Caribbean experience.

"Barbados a small island, but it contains infinite stories."

Jasmine Sealy's comments have been edited for length and clarity.


For more stories about the experiences and stories of Black Canadians, check out CBC's Being Black in Canada. You can read more stories here.

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