The first thing that intrigued me about Bajan author Jasmine Sealy’s debut novel was that her main characters had Greek names: Cronus, Iapetus, Atlas, Pleione, Calypso, Nautilus. Admittedly, I struggled to imagine how the names could represent a Caribbean narrative, but that was the exact reason I wanted to read The Island of Forgetting. I had to see how this story would unfold and could be applied to a Bajan family.
Jasmine Sealy took me by surprise with the level of immersion she took with her characters who are all struggling with some form of mental illness. She held my hand and guided me through a detailed mental process that included delusion, seclusion, fear, anger, loneliness, and braggadocio. The family saga begins in 1962 in Barbados with a murder that is the catalyst for the strain that engulfs them for generations.
I enjoyed this book and am happy to introduce you to Jasmine! In 2017 her work was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and she won the HarperCollins/UBC Prize for Best Fiction in 2020 for The Island of Forgetting. Below is our conversation.
Tricia: Congratulations on the publication of your debut novel! Has the enormity of your accomplishment sunk in yet?
Jasmine: Thank you so much! I’m not sure it ever will sink in. I think I’m forever adjusting my own expectations, looking forward to the next goal. I have to constantly remind myself to take the time to enjoy my accomplishments and live in the moment.
Tricia: All of the main characters are living with some form of mental illness, and I was struck by how detailed, candid, and realistic their experiences felt to me as a reader. How were you able to tap into this authenticity for each character?
Jasmine: I got to know these characters as complex people with myriad wants, desires and fears. I am surrounded by many incredible, strong, funny, brave, intelligent people who are also living with mental illness. The ways they cope (or sometimes don’t) with their illnesses is part of what makes them who they are, but it doesn’t define them. It’s the same for my characters and I hope that’s what makes them feel genuine.
Tricia: When I consider the title, The Island of Forgetting, I think that Cronus’ actions were inspired by his wanting Iapetus to forget what he had seen, and this had a really profound effect on Atlas and Nautilus where they struggled with a loss of identity and belonging. Are there other ways to interpret the title to themes you’ve explored?
Jasmine: It’s funny because my publishing team and I really struggled to come up with a title for a long time but ultimately when I thought of The Island of Forgetting it felt so true. Like you pointed out, the book opens with Iapetus, showing how he struggles to carry the burden of memory. By the end of the book the family acknowledges that though the past might be difficult, the weight of secrets and lies is greater. But beyond that I think “forgetting” is a theme that is woven throughout the book in even subtler ways. Particularly Calypso is preoccupied with being forgotten, with being left behind. I think ultimately what all of these characters want is to live a full life and they are held back from that by the shadows from their past.
Tricia: How much of Atlas’ lack of knowledge of his family background influenced his inability to pursue his dreams? Cronus withheld so much information from him about his parents that he felt lost, and I wonder how this altered his confidence to go out in the world like he envisioned at one time.
Jasmine: That’s a really astute observation, thank you! With Atlas’ character I was influenced by the sociological concept of “structure vs agency” as well as “destiny vs free will” which is a recurrent theme in Greek mythology. How much of Atlas’ decisions are his own? How do the secrets and trauma of his past shape the outcome of his future? In that final scene Pleione voices this to him when she tells him she’s still willing to go to England with him. But Atlas can’t envision going without the financial assistance he expected. He is weighed down by fear, doubt and of course family obligation. Are our decisions ever really our own? Or is our path laid out for us long before we’re born?
Tricia: I found it interesting that Calypso and Nautilus both struggled with understanding themselves because their ancestry was shrouded in such mystery. So, there is this void that exists with each generation where they have no idea who their ancestors are. It highlighted for me the importance of sharing stories within families because it anchors you to your people. In your life growing up in Barbados, can you talk about the importance of sharing stories within your family?
Jasmine: This is something I’ve been thinking about more and more recently, since the recent passing of my father. I have lost another link to the past and I regret not getting more of his stories down on paper before he died. A lot goes unspoken in my family, particularly around family trauma and mental health (I think this silence is particularly common in Caribbean families). I feel this loss, this absence of knowledge and it was a big inspiration for the book.
Tricia: Calypso is such a maddeningly complex character that I came to admire her by the end of the book. She’s intelligent, sexually liberated, and naively fearless. Can you talk about the process of writing her character through all of her stages, and why you chose to have her be so sexually aware in a Caribbean culture that shuns girls being open in this way?
Jasmine: I’ve always been frustrated by the way young girls’ sexuality is portrayed in media. Girls are often depicted as dichotomous stereotypes: virgin vs whore, victim vs villain. I wanted to explode these binaries. One thing that I wanted to tackle is the trickiness of young girls’ sexual desire. Because the truth is that girls get horny! They think about sex a lot and many of them seek it out. And some girls end up in sexual relationships with predatory, older men. Are these relationships consensual? Can a girl as young as thirteen even consent? These are complex questions that I wanted to explore. Calypso believes herself to be a seductress, but the reader can see all the ways she is being manipulated by Odie. It’s a thorny topic but I felt compelled to write about it because I believe that girls can’t make informed, safe choices about their own bodies when their sexual desires are vilified and silenced.
Tricia: I’m intrigued by the use of Greek names for your characters. Why did you decide to do this and was there a particular significance for using each name?
Jasmine: The inspiration for the novel was the relationship between Odysseus and Calypso in The Odyssey wherein Calypso “entraps” the traveling Odysseus on her island for seven years. I was captivated by the idea of an island temptress and the parallels between the Greek myth and the ways in which Caribbean women are often hypersexualized. From there, I went down a Greek myth rabbit hole! Atlas is Calypso’s father in the mythology, and his wife is Pleione. I thought about changing the names but ultimately they felt so authentic to the characters I had to keep them.
Tricia: Cronus had this obsession with overcoming weakness ever since Iapetus’ breakdown, and he demanded obedience from his son Z and his nephew Atlas. In the Caribbean we have a culture of associating mental struggles with a weakness of character and I wonder how much of this influenced you in the creation of Cronus’ character?
Jasmine: Absolutely! The Caribbean obsession (particularly among men) with a kind of toxic aversion to showing weakness was definitely a major influence. My grandfather was an alcoholic who drank himself to death quite literally. When I think about the amount of pain he carried, the ways he passed it on to his children and ultimately to me and my brother, it saddens and frustrates me. Because what is true weakness? Is it admitting you need help? I think seeking help is the ultimate show of strength and bravery. But Cronus of course doesn’t see it this way and his stoic silence only perpetuates the trauma and dysfunction he is set on hiding.
Tricia: I loved the emotional growth that occurs with Nautilus and how he begins to openly examine his feelings and improving himself. So, from Atlas to Calypso to Nautilus there’s a kind of generational maturity and introspection that occurs and an acceptance of what they need emotionally. Why was this important for you to explore?
Jasmine: I think I wanted the reader to feel a sense of hope by the end of the book. Ultimately, cycles can be broken, people can heal. It would have been a bit of a dreary read otherwise!
Tricia: Thanks so much for joining me and I wish you all the best with your future novels. I look forward to reading them!
Jasmine: Thank you!
Photo courtesy Marcy Media.