This Fall, Sharon Bala earned national press for winning the esteemed, $10,000 Journey Prize. The big win had everyone anxiously awaiting her debut novel, Boat People, which has officially sailed into bookstores country wide.
Already, Boat People has won the Percy Janes First Novel Award, and is a finalist for 2018’s CBC Canada Reads competition. It’s time to hop aboard the Sharon Bala Buzztrain.
In Boat People, a rickety and Canada-bound cargo ship is carrying Mahindan and five hundred fellow refugees to our shores, and away from Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war. Mahindan assumes Canada will grant him and his six-year-old son a new lease on life, but when the boat reaches the shore, he’s thrown into prison, alongside countless others from the ship. Both Government officials and news headlines are speculating that members of a terrorist organization are hidden among the “boat people.”
As suspicion swirls and interrogation ensues, Mahindan fears the desperate actions he took to survive and escape Sri Lanka now jeopardize his and his son’s chances for asylum. The story is told through the alternating perspectives of Mahindan and those in whose hands his fate rests. As the back of the book says, “Boat People is a timely novel that provokes a deeply compassionate lens through which to view the current refugee crisis.”
And it is based on true events. “The Boat People began with a tiny seed that was planted during a visit to the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Halifax’s Pier 21,” Bala says. “I was mesmerized by exhibits documenting waves upon waves of arrivals – Hungarian refugees, the Vietnamese Boat People, war brides, child evacuees from Britain, Holocaust survivors and many, many others.”
She says she saw archival photographs of crowds packed on boats and that she heard their testimony of being sea sick and terrified during ocean crossings. “In one of the exhibits, a quote caught my eye. The words of reassurance, spoken by an anonymous immigration officer to a newly arrived Hungarian refugee in the 1950s: ‘You have come to a good country. There is room for you here.’”
She read that quote and in September 2010, when the MV Sun Sea – a cargo ship bearing nearly five hundred Tamils from war-ravaged Sri Lanka – had arrived in British Columbia and began making the news.
“The government labelled these asylum seekers illegals and terrorists,” she says. “Everyone onboard, men, women, and children, were thrown into prison. At Pier 21, seeing the words of that immigration official from the fifties, I wondered what kind of country these Tamils had come to. Was there room for them here? It struck me as hypocritical, we had built this museum, a monument to our openness and generosity, on one coast, while slamming the door shut on the other.”
Bala’s family is from Sri Lanka. “We were the fortunate ones who got out of the country before war was declared. I was feeling vaguely connected to these people from the MV Sun Sea, who could just as easily have been me … and I was thinking: My god, what people endure just to come here, to have a shot at all the freedoms and safety I take for granted.”
Author Lynne Kutsukake summarizes the book well. “Bala takes us behind the headlines about refugees and asylum seekers straight into the beating hearts of unforgettable human beings.”