Sharon Bala’s The Boat People tells a nuanced tale of migration. Inspired by real events , the novel follows Mahindan, a Tamil asylum-seeker who flees persecution amidst civil war Sri Lanka, only to find himself facing deportation by the Canadian government for suspected ties to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). A multi-narrative work, the novel also follows Priya, the Tamil-Canadian lawyer tasked with defending him and Grace, a Japanese-Canadian adjudicator who will decide his fate. Kajal spoke with Bala to discuss The Boat People.
The Boat People is a work of fiction but it’s inspired by actual events involving the MV Sun cargo ship that arrived in British Columbia in 2010 carrying 492 Tamils from Sri Lanka. What were some specific things you had to consider when it came to accuracy and authenticity?
So, it’s a tricky thing, like walking a tightrope, because you want to be as accurate and exact as possible, but you also want to write a good story. There was not much information about the actual people on the boat. But in terms of what they were put through in Canada, there was quite a bit of information that I could get my hands on. So much of that I didn’t have to invent.
Sometimes, however, for the purposes of fiction you have to do things like compress timelines and make things a little less messy than they are in real life. For example, I compressed the flashback events of the Sri Lankan Civil War. The peace times lasted longer in real life than in the book. I made everything happen a bit faster. Even with the actual Canadian legal proceedings, there was a lot of “inside baseball” as things never progressed in a straight line. In real life things don’t always happen in a straight line. In real life there is far more gray area than you can get in a novel. So, it was about making the fictional story as real to life as possible but also acknowledging the limits in what you can do in a novel.
It seems like you did a lot of research for the book, especially regarding Canadian immigration law and life in Sri Lanka throughout the conflict. Could you talk about the research you did?
It was particularly challenging for me to get into the headspace of Mahindan. He’s a man and a parent. I’m not a man, and I’m not a parent. He’s Sri Lankan in a way that I’ll never be. I was raised here in Canada; I wasn’t born in Sri Lanka. And he lives his entire life in the North of Sri Lanka, a place I had only been to after I finished the novel. My mom’s family is Sinhala and based in Colombo, so the Sri Lanka I know is a Sinhala Sri Lanka. So, it was challenging and required much imaginative work and a lot of research. Any time I was writing I felt like a complete impostor. On top of that, it was my first book, so I was hesitant to even call myself a writer. I didn’t have a legal background, and I was worried that a lawyer would criticize it. Because of that, I did six months of research before I started writing. The Canadian immigration and refugee law textbook lived with me. While I was writing I constantly went back to my research. There was always something I had to double check or correct. My dad was also a big help, and many of the characters’ recollections of Sri Lanka, including the riots, were taken from his own accounts.
Your father is Tamil and your mother is Sinhala. Did your dual Tamil-Sinhala upbringing influence the novel at all?
It’s hard for me to say. Ultimately I was thinking about how the predominant story of the situation in Sri Lanka portrays Tamils as being the only terrorists, so I felt the need to balance the scales a bit more. Irrespective of my dual-ethnicity, I think I’ve always liked stories with multiple perspectives because you can see a character from their own experience and also from the outside.
Something you touch upon in the book, especially from an immigration policy perspective, is how an act can be seen as terrorism or freedom fighting depending on who is telling the story.
I think the first time I thought about it in that way was years ago when I watched Ararat by Atom Egoyan. It’s about Turkey and Armenia, and there’s this line in it like “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” and it really dealt with that question.
I think that those are sometimes artificial divisions. And I think for the most part there are usually terrorists on both sides. Also, sometimes you can be both. You can be fighting for your freedom and using terror to get your end. But I think these sorts of black-and-white distinctions are not particularly accurate or helpful, but they are very easy. I think too much reporting relies on the easiest way of explaining things and often those ways are inaccurate.
Your book’s characters highlight the divide often present between immigrant parents and their children. You explore themes of disconnect from one’s ancestral hardships or trauma. Why do you think that this can be the case in immigrant families?
There’s a line in Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, “when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.” I think that’s the necessary tragedy of immigration. So many parents leave Sri Lanka and go somewhere thinking that they are going to make a better life for their children, away from violence and persecution. But then what happens is that their children don’t necessarily just get a better life but also a different life. Their children are Canadian in a way that they themselves will never be. And it is the same for anyone who grows up in one place and then raises their children in unaccustomed earth. No matter what happens to Mahindan, Mahindan’s son will never be the son he would have had in Sri Lanka. And the tragedy is that that’s what Mahindan wants, as it means a better life.
When I started writing the book, I didn’t know what our family story was. I called my dad and began to listen. These were stories he hadn’t offered up before. I’m not sure if it was purposeful that he never talked about them to me. It was sometimes recounted in conversations with other Sri Lankans in Sinhala or Tamil with this sort of dark humor. I guess there’s no real good time to sit your kids down and tell them all the horror stories of men getting burned alive and women getting their ears cut off. In my case it wasn’t purposeful silence, but they just didn’t want to burden us.
It’s important to not forget our personal past, our family’s past, and our country’s past. Purposeful amnesia is a particularly dangerous thing.
In contrast to the characters in The Boat People, it’s not uncommon to see children of immigrants with a strong sense of familial connection but also sometimes intergenerational trauma. Do you think there is a limit on how much an immigrant or refugee parent should share with the younger generation?
I think there is a danger in keeping stories a secret. In Grace, the Japanese-Canadian adjudicator’s storyline, there’s a purposeful secrecy around her grandmother’s experience with Japanese-Canadian internment during World War II. As a result, she’s divorced from this experience in her family and somehow thinks that she is above others. I think one of the dangers of not remembering where we came from is that we then repeat the mistakes of the past. So, there’s a lot to be gained in learning where the family comes from, the things that were done to them, the things they did to others. It’s important to not forget our personal past, our family’s past, and our country’s past. Purposeful amnesia is a particularly dangerous thing.
At the same time, I understand the motivations of people to not share these things. In my research I found that a common phrase among Japanese-Canadians throughout their internment was “it can’t be helped.” It sounds so similar to the Sri Lankan phrase “what to do?” I loved that symmetry. But it’s also so heartbreaking. You can understand the motivation behind it, how it helps one move forward, but then the long-term consequence is that the next generation has forgotten the past.
You draw a lot of parallels between the Tamils arriving in Canada and other marginalized groups. Could you talk more about the broader message you wanted to convey with these similarities across different ethnic and geographic groups?
Part of my research involved the history of people coming to Canada. Legally, illegally, regularly, irregularly, squatters, settlers, everything. In my research of British Columbia, I learnt more about the internment of Japanese-Canadians by the Canadian government. I saw the obvious parallels with the idea of “dangerous foreigners”.
I thought about how this one boat is part of just one moment in history. It isn’t particularly special and is part of a much longer tradition of people coming into the country. It’s not the first and it’s not the last. The way that the incident was treated by politicians, the media, and public consciousness, made it seem like this had never happened before, like it was so unprecedented. But really it wasn’t. We only think that because of the collective amnesia of the history of the country. I really wanted to make sure that was baked into the book.
One thing I’ve heard since the book has come out, with Sri Lankan Canadian readers in particular, is that it made people go to their families and ask “so, what’s our story?” It’s so nice for me to hear. I’m glad people are getting these stories from their parents.
Again, collective amnesia can be a dangerous thing.
Is there a reason why you left some big questions unanswered at the end of the book regarding Mahindan’s fate?
Readers often want a neat fictional ending. But this is not that kind of book. I wanted to illustrate that the end isn’t really the end. In real life, the hurdles the people on the MV Sun Sea had to jump over lasted years and years. If Mahindan was a real person he would have gone to an admissibility hearing and even if he was deemed admissible, he’d still have to go through the refugee board hearing. But it’s still not over. He’d still need to find a job and get settled. It would be thirty years before we got to something that could be called a happy ending. Even on the other hand, if he was deemed inadmissible at the end of the book, it’s still not the end because he could fight it all the way to the Supreme Court, which is a thing that actually happened. And so, the end is not the end. It’s years out.
Mahindan’s life was a series of dice rolls. I wanted to give the dice to the reader and say “you roll next.” You decide what his fate is going to be. You now know everything about him and you’re in a better position to decide if he should be allowed to stay or if he should be deported. Ultimately for those that are citizens here, it’s up to us to decide who we vote for, what kind of country we want, what kind of immigration policy we want. These are our decisions. So, it’s not for me to decide Mahindan’s fate, it’s really up to the readers to make a decision – not just on Mahindan, but all these other real people that are actually coming into our country.