If there’s one book by a Newfoundland-based author — in fact, if there’s one book by a Canadian author — that you’re going to hear buzz about this year, it’s going to be Sharon Bala’s novel The Boat People. It’s already been chosen as a selection for this year’s Canada Reads competition, and I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about it when awards season rolls around.
I had the privilege of reading an earlier version of The Boat People in 2014, when I judged the Percy Janes First Novel Award and picked it as the winner out of a strong field of contenders. I loved it even more on reading the final, published novel. This is an important and timely novel about immigration, racism, violence and fear, but most importantly it’s a novel full of real people who I came to care deeply about.
The background for this story is a real event: the 2010 arrival of a boat full of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka to Canada’s west coast. Earlier waves of immigrants, including irregular arrivals like boat people, had been welcomed warmly to Canada, but by 2010 the combination of fears of terrorism and the Conservative government then in power, combined with the shock effect of 500 refugees arriving at once, guaranteed these Tamil refugees a far less friendly reception. Many remained in detention for months as their claims were processed through the system. The novel’s main character, Mahindan, is a widowed father who only hopes for a better life for his son Sellian. But Sellian and Mahindan are separated, with adult men going to one detention centre and women and children to another, despite the fact that there is no mother to care for Sellian. Mahindan’s fierce love for his son and the ache of separation is a thread that runs through the novel.
But there are other characters, all equally well developed: Priya, the young law student who is unwillingly pulled into the refugee claimants’ case during her articling year; Priya’s Sri Lankan family, whose own journey to Canada decades ago hides many secrets; career civil servant Grace, daughter of Japanese-Canadians interned during the Second World War, who now finds herself adjudicating the refugees’ hearings, trying to decide which ones should be allowed to stay in Canada and which, if any, pose a danger to the public safety.
The danger, though it is used by the federal government to score political points, is not entirely illusory. Through the flashbacks of Mahindan’s story, we recognize that the Tamil Tigers are indeed a group capable of horrific acts of violence, and that while the refugees are fleeing the chaos of civil war in the country, many of them, Manhindan included, had been drawn into taking sides in that conflict in one way or another. The flashback scenes are what give the novel its power and poignancy: through these scenes we see Mahindan’s “normal” life when he was married to Chitra, their love and hope during her pregnancy, his grief when she dies in childbirth, and then how the world they shared is shattered by war and Mahindan reduced to a homeless, desperate man on the run. When the ship arrives in Canada he believes his suffering is over and a new life is beginning, but the reality is more complicated.
There is so much happening in this novel that is complex and real and relevant: the plight of refugees, the fear of terrorism, the tendency of one generation of migrants to fear the influx of newer arrivals and safeguard their position by saying things like “We came to this country legally; why can’t they go through the process like we did?” (I cannot tell you how many American friends I have heard say this in the current refugee/immigration debates). But the characters are never just caricatures representing different groups of people or different positions; they are all drawn with humanity, depth and insight.
One of the strengths of this novel, I think, is that it’s topical without being too topical. Right now, our fears about immigration and terrorism (at least here in Canada, but I think for the most part in the US and Europe as well) are so focused on groups like the Syrian refugees and the fear of ISIS-style Muslim extremism, that we’ve almost forgotten Middle Eastern Muslims are far from the only group of people on the planet to have produced both terrorists and refugees. The author’s own family roots in Sri Lanka no doubt made the story of the Tamil refugees an interesting one for her to explore, but it also allows the reader the opportunity to explore the problems posed in this novel at one remove from the heat of current debates. In addition, it gives a much needed correction to the smugness we liberal Canadians often feel about what a welcoming and inclusive country ours is. Sure, we may look good compared the US right now, but we’re not perfect. Canadians are as susceptible to fear, suspicion, paranoia and racism as any other country — and that includes Canadians of all backgrounds.
Hauntingly real and unforgettably personal, The Boat People is a novel that will linger with most readers for a long time. It certainly will with me. Yes, it’s topical, it’s relevant, it has its finger on the pulse of current debates, but at it’s heart this is a story about human beings just longing for what we all want: a safe place to call home.