My Life in Books

3 books that inspired Canada Reads finalist Sharon Bala

The author of The Boat People shares the books in which she saw herself reflected.
Sharon Bala is a finalist in Canada Reads 2018 for her novel The Boat People. (Peter Power/CBC)

Although her debut novel, The Boat People, was just published in January, Sharon Bala has received much praise for her growing body of work. The manuscript won the 2015 Percy Janes First Novel Award and was shortlisted for the 2015 Fresh Fish Award.  Now it's a Canada Reads 2018 finalist.

 The Boat People is being defended by Mozhdah Jamalzadah on Canada Reads 2018. The debates, hosted by Ali Hassan, take place March 26-29, 2018.

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing is a book by childrens' and adult fiction author Judy Blume. (Evan Agostini/Getty Images/Penguin Random House)

"In Grade 3, I remember sitting on the floor around our teacher, whose name I've totally forgotten, and she read to us, chapter by chapter, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. It's about a 10-year-old boy named Peter and he's got this two-year-old brother named Fudge. Everyone loves Fudge and Peter feels very displaced.

"I was Peter. I had a little sister who was two and everyone loved her. I felt displaced and this was the first time I felt like the character in a book was like me, even though Peter was a boy and he lived in New York. It also introduced me to Judy Blume, whose books are magical."

​Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai

Funny Boy is a coming-of-age novel by Canadian author Shyam Selvadurai. (Kevin Kelly/Penguin Random House)

"Set in 1970s Sri Lanka to the early 1980s, leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war, the story is about a young gay boy who is growing up feeling out of place. At the same time, there's this wild, generous family around him. That was the first time I read a book where I thought, 'Oh, it's a book about Sri Lankans. I'm Sri Lankan.' I saw my family in the stories he was telling. It was such a beautiful book."

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow Sun is a novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Glamour; Penguin Random House)

"When I was doing the research part of The Boat People, I looked to other books that could be teachers for me, to influence my book. One I went to was Half of a Yellow Sun. I wanted to see how far you can go into the darkness in a book without breaking the reader. She does that so well, partly because she switches back and forth with time. But she also does it with one of the main characters, Ugwu. When you meet him he's about 12, an innocent country boy who becomes a servant. Through the course of the novel, he grows in age, joins the army and starts making questionable moral decisions.

"He was the heart of the book for me. His character taught me that you have to make your main characters morally complex. That's why [my main character] Mahindan is morally complex. In the early drafts of The Boat People, Mahindan didn't go on an emotional journey, he went on a physical journey. Reading Adichie's book, I learned you need to have both those things happening. As a reader, I loved her book, but it was one of the first books I came to as a writer as well, where I was picking it apart."

Sharon Bala's comments have been edited and condensed.

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