Ottawa Writers Festival: Sharon Bala on a voyage of discovery in her debut novel The Boat People

Sharon Bala's debut novel is The Boat People.

In the fall of 2010, Sharon Bala was in Halifax attending a conference. She stayed on for a weekend and on one rainy day she ducked into Pier 21, the Canadian immigration museum.

“I was walking around and looking at all the exhibits which celebrate our openness and our generosity toward people coming to Canada by boat in particular as refugees and immigrants, said the resident of St. John’s, Newfoundland in an interview about her very successful debut novel The Boat People (McClelland & Stewart).

On the other side of the country, at the same time, the MV Sun Sea had delivered 492 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees to British Columbia and they were having the door slammed shut in their faces.

That dichotomy started Bala, who will be at the Ottawa Writers Festival this weekend, thinking “about how I felt very Canadian and very safe in Pier 21 and thinking about these people on the other side of the country who very easily could have been me.”

The moment stayed with her.

“Then in 2013 when I sat down to write the novel, it came back to me.”

The Boat People is more than just a story of the Tamils on the MV Sun Sea. It offers three profound perspectives on how immigrants are welcomed into Canada including Mahindan and his six-year-old son who are fleeing war, his Tamil Canadian lawyer Priya, who reluctantly represents the migrants; and Grace, a third-generation Japanese-Canadian adjudicator who is to decide Mahindan’s fate.

To gain a perspective on the novel, Bala did a lot of research including reading a text book on refugee law cover to cover.

“When I was doing that I realized that in order to show the reader the full scope of refugee law I would have to have these three perspectives. That’s where idea of these characters came from.”

Mahindan’s story is at the centre of the book but perhaps the more intriguing and complex characters are Pryia and Grace. Pryia was born  and raised in Canada and feels very Canadian.

Bala says Pryia is a foreshadowing of what Mahindan’s son will become if he stays in Canada.

In a way, “he is going to lose his son, no matter what, in the way that all parents who come to a different country do kind of lose their children because their children grow up having a different life than the parents would ever know.”

Grace, the adjudicator, is an archetype for people who have come to Canada as immigrants or are descendants of immigrants who forget their past and are willing to close the door in other people’s faces.

This happens a lot,” Bala said, “and it’s not something we talk about.”

In 2015, Bala said, “Canada had a very brutal election. There was a lot of talk about Canadian values and a lot of people talking that talk and voting for that party were people who have skin colour that looks like mine. I don’t think that is talked about enough.”

As part of her research for The Boat People she investigated her own family’s history. Her mother is Sinhalese and her father is Tamil. They had left Sri Lanka for Dubai where Sharon was born. But when she was seven they came to Canada.

“My family came in 1986 as immigrants. We flew into Montreal in August. About two weeks before we arrived there was a group of 155 Tamils who were found floating in two lifeboats off coast of Newfoundland.

“I had never talked to my parents in any real way about what they went through. Nor had I thought much about the civil war or about the other way my life could have been.

“I asked my dad about the riots in the 1950s which he lived through in Sri Lanka. He told me he was 12 and on a bus coming home from school. He looked out window and saw people on the street fighting.

“He told me about how these goons came and grabbed a Hindu priest and set him on fire.”

She also heard about the three-day riot in 1983 that sparked the Sri Lankan civil war.

“My dad said they had hidden under bed and were waiting. When the goons came to the door my grandfather gave them all the family valuables and the keys to the car so they wouldn’t hurt anyone.”

The kind of disconnect that happens between the generations has happened to Bala, she says.

“There are things where my parents and I, we just don’t understand each other’s perspective.”

She originally wanted to write about a multi-generational family much like her own.

“I was going to use the arrival of the boat as a talking point; something the family would talk about to show the disconnect.” But Mahindan came on the scene and his story took over.”

Working on this novel has taught Bala much about her family and herself.

“I feel more balanced now. Last year just after I submitted the final manuscript I went to Sri Lanka. It was the first time I was able to go to the north of the country to a part of country I had never seen before. The north is different from the south in terms of climate and flora and fauna. There are no cars up there. And there is a lot of farmland that has gone fallow. And there are still landmines in some places.”

She went to the very tip of the island to a village called Point Pedro to see where her father was born. It was a chance to see where his journey began.

Bala has also been grappling with what it means to be a Canadian today.

Her conclusion: “Canada doesn’t get better or worse, it just goes in cycles. The Harper government of 2009 wanted nothing to do wth the boat people. They took away health care from the refugees which is frankly idiotic. It’s actually a threat to public health if you are not treating people.”

But she said, it was a Conservative government in power in 1986 and they welcomed in the last group of Tamils found in boats.

“It’s not about party; it’s how we are feeling. If things aren’t well financially there is a desire to close the door.”

In general, Bala says, Canada has been good for her, but, during the 2015 election, “I started to feel very uncomfortable and I didn’t really realize how uncomfortable until the morning after the vote. I was walking around and could feel the difference in how much more easily I was breathing.

“It sounds ridiculous and dramatic, but honestly I had started to really wonder about what kind of country we were living in when politicians can say openly that we need cultural values tests.

“I had always thought I had been living in a country that accepted me. I came here at age seven. I have spent all of my life in Canada. I am Canadian, I feel very Canadian and any time anyone tries to make me feel otherwise I get my back up.

“I hope the book makes people think about their own good fortune because in writing it, I became very aware of my own good fortune.”

In town: Sharon Bala will be on an Ottawa International Writers Festival panel at Christ Church Cathedral with Djamila Ibrahim and Arif Anwar on Saturday at 8:30 p.m. at Christ Church Cathedral. Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.