Sharon Bala's Boat People haunted by enigmas of arrival

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      Sharon Bala credits moving to Newfoundland with helping her become a writer. It was there in 2011 that Bala, whose background is in public relations, found herself adjusting to the local job market after years in Toronto, and enrolled on a whim in an evening fiction class.

      Growing up in Pickering, Ontario, she’d taken writing courses by correspondence and later completed the first draft of a novel, but it wasn’t until she was in her 30s that she embraced the craft. The first story she wrote that pleased her was about an adult daughter’s reaction to her mother’s death, and this began her portrayals of fellow Sri Lankan Canadians and the trials of children and parents.

      “It [the material from that period] was more about identity and generational conflict,” Bala says today, reached by the Straight in St. John’s. “Those weren’t stories that were any good, by the way. But I think I was working out what my obsessions were.”

      Regardless of quality, these pieces paved the way for Bala’s recent win of the Journey Prize and for her debut novel, The Boat People. Inspired by the 2010 MV Sun Sea incident, when a Thai cargo ship ferrying 492 Sri Lankan asylum seekers was intercepted off the coast of British Columbia, the novel opens with refugees who’ve fled the turmoil between their government and the Tamil Tigers in search of a better, if uncertain, tomorrow.

      Their belief is that “ ‘the hardest part is behind us now. We’ve left our war-torn country, we’re in a safe place, we’ve arrived.’ But,” Bala says, “of course they’re not. They’re met with a rather hard welcome mat.”

      The Ministry of Public Safety suspects terrorists are among the asylum seekers, which complicates the lives of Mahindan, a Kilinochchi mechanic who made the journey with his six-year-old son, Sellian; Priya, the Sri Lankan–Canadian articling student in Vancouver who works on Mahindan’s case; and Grace, the Japanese-Canadian adjudicator who must decide whether Mahindan poses a threat to national security. Investigating the invisible suffering carried by the displaced, and by those tasked with shaping their futures, the timely novel delivers volts of emotion and establishes Bala’s narrative poise.

      Starting the novel in 2014, Bala had no intention of writing about refugees. “And I didn’t mean to write about this boat at all. Originally the book was supposed to be set in the middle of the country,” she says. “It was supposed to be the character Priya’s family, and originally she had a much bigger family with lots of aunts and uncles and cousins. It was really supposed to be more about this split that happens between immigrant parents and then their children who are raised in Canada.”

      Born in Dubai before immigrating to Canada at age seven, Bala, whose mother is Sinhalese and whose father is Tamil, hadn’t reflected on patriotism until she relocated, in 2009, to England, where her husband was pursuing postdoctoral studies. This sense of national identity remained when she returned to Canada the following year and was also with her when she visited an exhibit at Halifax’s Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, shortly after the MV Sun Sea hit headlines, which spurred her to see connections between refugees past and present.

      Thoughts on arrivals lingered in her imagination—“When do you show up? Do you show up by boat? Do you show up by plane? Are you one of the people we’ve airlifted out of Kosovo?”—and initial versions of the novel used the boat as a talking point. Mahindan, the protagonist Bala suggests she most resembles, wasn’t in the fore at that stage either, but developed once early readers encouraged her to give him a larger role.

      Haunted by memories of Sri Lanka, where compliance and wiliness were necessary to survive, Mahindan holds the hope that Sellian will thrive in Canada, even as he himself is kept in a correctional facility, facing review after review. Preparing his case, Priya feels waylaid from her ambitions in corporate law, but gains a greater perspective on justice and heritage. “It irked her, the gulf between the letter of the law and how it was executed,” Bala writes. “How could a process so influenced by public opinion and politicking have the audacity to call itself law?”

      Part of Bala’s research was consulting papers by the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University. This was essential to fleshing out Grace, whose family was subject to the Japanese-Canadian internment, and who struggles herself with the weight of her duties. (“Listening to these horror stories day in and day out—that cycle of three weeks of listening to stories and then one week for making your decisions—that’s real,” Bala says. “Think about the emotional toll that would take.”)

      In writing the novel, Bala wanted to show that Canada has been built by wave upon wave of newcomers. Chance, as much as politics, she insists, guides how they’re received. “If we’re going to be real patriots, if we’re going to be responsible Canadians, we have to look at the bad stuff, too,” she says. “We have to say, ‘We did these bad things, let’s try to learn from history and not do them again.’

      “And let’s not forget that many of us came from somewhere else,” she continues. “Some more reasonably than others.”