Award-winning novel inspired by Sri Lankan asylum seekers
January 11, 2018 01:33 pm
Sri Lankan-Canadian writer Sharon Bala’s debut The Boat People is told from a number of perspectives within the refugee system.
In October 2009, a rusted-out ship called the Ocean Lady landed in Vancouver, smuggling a group of Sri Lankan Tamils who were fleeing their home country’s violent civil war. Starving and exhausted, the asylum-seekers believed they had found freedom in Canada — only to be arrested by armed border guards and the RCMP. A year later, history was repeated when a second group of 492 Sri Lankans aboard the ship MV Sun Sea were detained in suspicion of their ties to the Tamil Tigers, a militant organization that had been banned in Canada as a violent terrorist group.
While Sun Sea’s arrival made international news, few details were shared about the refugees’ identities because of a court-ordered publication ban. And so in 2013, when Sharon Bala, a Sri Lankan-Canadian writer living in St. John’s, began research for The Boat People — her debut novel inspired by the real-world events — she was forced to play detective by piecing together snippets of their backgrounds and experiences while imprisoned.
“The boat was a bit of a black box. I looked for everything I could find,” says Bala. “At the time I really wished I could get my hands on the transcript, but now I’m glad I didn’t. I think it forced me to use my imagination. If I had too many real-world details it would have hindered me. “
Bala — who became a buzzed-about author after taking home the prestigious Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize last year — planned to set more of The Boat People in the past, inspired by her own family’s stories from Sri Lanka. But upon receiving feedback from early readers and later her editors at Penguin Random House, Bala realized that at the book’s heart is Mahindan, a young man who is imprisoned off a ship and subsequently separated from his six-year-old son. His lawyer, Priya, a second-generation Sri Lankan-Canadian, is brought on to the case unwillingly, reluctant to sacrifice her real career aspirations. Then there’s Grace, a skeptical Japanese-Canadian adjudicator who will ultimately determine Mahindan’s fate.
“I wanted to not just look at individuals, but at the whole system,” says Bala. “The only way to do that is to do it from multiple perspectives: the person on trial, their lawyer who understands the system, and the person who has to make the decision. I like the idea of multiple perspectives because I like playing with this idea of what is truth, and what really happened.”
In 2013, as Bala was early into her manuscript, another refugee crisis began dominating headlines. The Syrian war had entered its second year, and reports of migrants dying in boats on the Mediterranean Sea horrified the world. Bala stayed focused on her novel, but as she started to feel more confident about its direction, she opened up and found parallels between what was happening in the refugee camps. In both cases, she observed a sense of indomitable hope, which imbues The Boat People despite its heavy subject. “I allowed myself to let in things happening to influence the book,” says Bala. “I didn’t set out to teach anything — I was learning as I was researching. I just set out to write a story.”