Sharon Bala on why research was essential to writing The Boat People

The author of the Canada Reads finalist reveals the voyage she went on while writing The Boat People.
Sharon Bala's novel The Boat People will be defended by Mozhdah Jamalzadah. (CBC)

Sharon Bala did some wandering and wondering before settling down to write her debut novel, The Boat People. She combined extensive research with her imagination to capture the sights and sounds of a Sri Lankan refugee's journey to Canada and the difficult bureaucratic process they faced upon arrival. 

The Boat People will be defended on Canada Reads 2018 by singer-songwriter and activist Mozhdah Jamalzadah.

The debates, which will be hosted by Ali Hassan, take place March 26-29, 2018.

Bala spoke about the physical and mental voyage behind her novel on CBC's Breakaway with Saroja Coelho.

Embarking on a voyage

"It involved lots of research into boats because I know nothing about them. Every time I was on a boat, I tried to tune into what it felt like and looked like. I did research into the two real boats that inspired my story — in particular, the MV Sun Sea, which arrived in 2010 off the coast of B.C. There was this arresting image that kept coming up of a boat crammed full of people. Everyone had gone to one side to get the first glimpse of their new home and the boat began listing. I looked at that photo so much and imbued that into my story."

Imagined communities

"The north of Sri Lanka is a place I had not been to until after I submitted the final manuscript. It is a very different country to the south in terms of the landscape, the flora, the fauna, the way people look and the number of people there. I wanted to give that feeling of liveliness, so I had to imagine myself into it. When I got to go to the north, I was very apprehensive and thought, 'What if I haven't done it justice? What if it doesn't look the way I imagined it?' But I looked out the car window when we had crossed to the north and thought, 'Whew! This looks right.'" 

History lessons

"I like reading books that tell the story from multiple perspectives. In The Boat People, I wanted to show that every story has multiple perspectives. As I did research, I realised that what happened to the Tamils who arrived in 2009 and 2010 was not that different from the way we treated the boatload of Sikh people arriving in 1914 or when the MS St. Louis arrived with a group of Jewish people who were fleeing Europe and we sent them back. Even though in this moment we are open and generous, this is not necessarily how we are going to treat everyone hereon in. It's important to remember that."      

Sharon Bala's comments have been edited and condensed.

Sharon Bala talks about the imaginative force behind her Canada Reads shortlisted novel, The Boat People. 9:22

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