In 1787, an Indonesian priest is murdered by the Dutch in Java, setting loose a chain of events that spans more than 100 years. A curse released by the priest’s murder affects families on both sides of the ocean, including a young woman who is spiritually adrift and in search of herself.
So begins the Gothic tale, The Naked Island, written by York University alumna Bryna Wasserman (BA ‘95). The Naked Island is Wasserman’s first book and was published by Key Porter Books late in 2004. It has received critical acclaim in the national media, unusual for a first book. The articles include a rave review in the prestigious journal of Canadian book news and reviews, Quill & Quire, which describes the book as a “strange and beguiling tale that showcases considerable ambition and emerging talent…. Writing in a nimble style that approaches prose poetry allows Wasserman to move fluidly between continents, centuries, the worlds of the living and the dead, and the realms of the magic and the real.”
For Wasserman, the accolades represent a welcome reward after the 10 years she spent working on The Naked Island. “It took me 10 years to complete the story and then two years to get it into production,” she says. “I came up with the story while I was travelling in South Asia. I liked the concept of how our identities change when we go to different places in the world. As I started to write The Naked Island, I became more and more interested in the book and my characters as they became interested in each other. It was spooky sometimes, I felt like the characters were telling me what to write and where they were going.”
Right: Bryna Wasserman with her daughter Ruby
Gaining the confidence to write the book came during her studies at York University. She started to take some creative writing courses and found her niche. Wasserman had initially studied business at Ryerson, which she interrupted to pursue a year-long journey around the world. The trip inspired her to go back to school and she decided to switch her studies to York. The results were worth it, she says, citing the professors at York with giving her the courage to write. “Ruth Grogan and Susan Swan, in particular, were terrific professors and they got me comfortable in writing. They taught me to relax and go with the writing process. We did a lot of raw writing exercises and no impositions in my head about what to write. The quality of my writing improved, their lesson to me was to take the editor our before you start writing,” she says. “I loved my time at York and it represents an important part of my life.”
Wasserman started The Naked Island while at York. For years, she worked during the day in her family’s land development business while her evenings were reserved for writing. “I really learned how to be a writer while writing this book. ” Eventually, she says, she was able to save enough of a nest egg to take some time away from her day job to rent an office and focus on the novel.
In the book, a young Jewish woman named Rachel Gold embarks on a year-long odyssey around the world to escape a betrayal by her lover and an older sister. She travels to India, Nepal, Singapore and Australia in search of her lost self. Far from home and armed with nothing but a broken heart and a restless soul, she is left vulnerable to the ghosts that haunt her. It is in Singapore, at the historic Raffles Hotel, that she meets Kifli Talib, a Malaysian Muslim and the two fall into a forbidden love affair. The malignant spirit that has haunted Rachel’s life has also played a role in Kifli’s life.
Rachel’s journey is based in part on Wasserman’s own life and experiences. “I have been to many of the places described in the novel,” she says. “I grew up near Hamilton, Ont., in a farmhouse on Lake Erie that we knew was haunted.” The title, The Naked Island, was first used by Winston Churchill to describe Singapore after it fell to the Japanese during World War II
Wasserman has now turned her talents to a second novel and is also working on a play.