Sunday, January 7, 2018

Sharon Bala's Debut Novel, The Boat People, Explores The Refugee Experience

We may have all come on different ships but we're in the same boat now. Martin Luther King Jr.

Who leaves their home unless under duress? The place of one's nativity, where one's ancestors are buried, the house that contains so many memories are not given up lightly. To be a refugee, an immigrant, means to be cast off freewheeling into the unknown mists of the future, without mooring or a known destination.

The Boat People is Sharon Bala's debut novel.

Mahindan fled Sri Lanka with his son Sellian when there was nothing left. The Tamil Tigers had been fighting for their rights under the Singhs for years, turning both the willing and the unwilling into terrorists. The United Nations had pulled out and there was no protection. His wife dead, his village bombed, Mahindan and his son join the stream of refugees, ending up in a camp. Their suffering becomes unendurable, the dream of Canada enchanting. Mahindan raises money for a boat out of Sri Lanka.

Arriving in Canada, the 503 refugees are secluded in holding places, women and children in one place and the men in another, families broken apart. Mahindan is on trial to prove he is not a Tiger terrorist, while his son goes to a foster home and becomes Westernized.

Priya represents the legal counsel for the refugees, sidelined into the work because of her Tamil heritage. She is resentful as she wanted experience in corporate law, and because she identifies as Canadian whose grandparents happen to be from Sri Lanka. The refugee work is exhausting and disturbing. Then her uncle reveals the truth of her family's past.

Grace is a temporary government assigned lawyer. Canada is immersed in xenophobia and fear. All Tamils are considered possible terrorists and she is to do everything possible to find reasons to deport the boat people back to Sri Lanka.

Grace's grandmother in suffering the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, which brings old memories to the forefront. An Issei, first generation Japanese Canadian, she becomes an activist for the Japanese Canadians who were interred during WWII, losing their homes and businesses which now have become valuable real estate. She warns Grace that she is participating in the same kind of racism experienced the Japanese--everyone in a group considered an enemy until proven innocent.

I learned about Canada's parallels to American fear of foreigners as potential terrorists and about the history of Sri Lanka in modern times.

The Boat People is similar to other books I have recently read, such as This Is How It Begins by Joan Dempsey, warning about the implication of current events through the lens of our admitted past mistakes, and involving a courtroom setting.

Sharon Bala's book is interesting and thoughtful, a fine addition to recent novels addressing timely issues in immigration, post 9-11 fears, and learning how to connect our past mistakes to our current policy. Read an excerpt at

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

The Boat People: A Novel
by Sharon Bala
Doubleday Books
Pub Date 09 Jan 2018
ISBN: 9780385542296
PRICE $26.95

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