Debut novel about Tamil asylum-seekers reveals Canada's 'split personality' about refugees

Award-winning writer Sharon Bala's debut novel, The Boat People, is about a group of about 500 Sri Lankan refugees who arrive in Canada only to face deportation and accusations of terrorism.
A Sri Lankan father and son attempt to make it to Canada in spite of the country's security concerns regarding refugees in Sharon Bala's new novel, 'The Boat People'. (Nadra Ginting/McClelland & Stewart)
Listen27:53

[Originally published on January 14, 2018]

On August 13, 2010, the Canadian navy intercepted a rusty cargo ship called the MV Sun Sea off the coast of British Columbia.

There were nearly 500 Tamil asylum-seekers onboard. They had fled Sri Lanka after the end of a long and gruesome civil war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, also known as the Tamil Tigers.

Migrants look over the side of the MV Sun Sea after it was escorted into CFB Esquimalt in Colwood, B.C., on Friday, Aug. 13, 2010. The dilapidated cargo ship transported 492 Tamil migrants to Vancouver island. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

The Tigers had been fighting to establish a separate state for Tamils, an ethnic minority in Sri Lanka. They were also a terrorist group, responsible for the invention of the suicide belt and the assassinations of a Sri Lankan president and a former Indian prime minister.

The MV Sun Sea meant very different things to different people. Some worried that passengers onboard could have connections to the Tamil Tigers, that they could be terrorists coming to Canada to wreak havoc and to regroup for another war. 

Others saw the refugees as vulnerable people desperate for a better life, who had crossed the ocean on a rickety boat with their children, and their hopes, in their arms.

Authorities escort a Sri Lankan family off the MV Sun Sea, the cargo ship that was intercepted off the coast of B.C. in 2010 with 490 would-be refugee claimants aboard. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

Bala's debut novel, The Boat People, begins with ship's arrival off the coast of Canada, and then follows its passengers into the legal purgatory that awaited them when they disembarked.

Sharon Bala was born in Dubai to Sri Lankan parents, and emigrated to Canada as a child. Last year she won the prestigious Writers' Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize for her short story Butter Tea at Starbucks.

She spoke to The Sunday Edition host Michael Enright about her new novel. Below is an excerpt of their conversation. 

Sharon Bala with Michael Enright at the CBC in Toronto. (Talin Vartanian/CBC)


How the arrival of the MV Sun Sea inspired Bala's novel

About a month [after the MV Sun Sea arrived], I was in Halifax. I was at the museum at Pier 21, and for decades, that was where most people arrived. I was wandering around Pier 21, looking at all the exhibits that were celebrating how welcoming and open we are as a people, and I was thinking that at the same time, on the other side of the country, there were these Tamil refugees who had come, and they were having the door slammed shut in their faces.

I was thinking, we have such a split personality in this country. We're here on one side of the country celebrating our generosity, and on the other, we're saying, these people can't be trusted, we have to save ourselves and shut the door.

Examining new arrivals in Immigration Examination Hall, Pier 21, Halifax Photo by NFB photographer Chris Lund (Canadian, 1923-1983) (National Film Board of Canada / Library and Archives)

At the time I wasn't a writer, but I am Sri Lankan and my father is Tamil. I was feeling this great psychic distance and this great physical distance, but also feeling very connected to these people, [even though] I had no idea who they were.

As I was walking through the exhibit in Halifax, there was a quote on the wall from an anonymous immigration official: "You've come to a good country, there's room for you here." I wrote that down — I don't even know why, but I did. Fast forward to 2013, I was starting to write, I was thinking about starting a novel, and this came back to me. Originally, I put that quote in the mouth of a character in the novel, and I had thought about using some version of it, like A Good Country as a title at the book — because I was also then researching draft dodgers and the underground railroad and the Vietnamese, war brides and all of that.

It struck me how capricious the system is. When do you arrive, and what mood are we in?

Canada's shifting attitudes toward refugees and immigrants

It's timing. I don't think we ever get better, and I don't think we ever get worse. I think we just have cycles.

This is one of two small lifeboats 155 Tamil refugees were found adrift on the North Atlantic in on August, 11, 1986. (CBC)

In 1986, around the same time that my family came, there were a group of Tamil refugees who were found floating off the coast of Newfoundland in these life rafts. Mulroney was the prime minister. There was a lot of talk, even on the other side of the border, of, "These are terrorists, they shouldn't let them in, they should send them back to where they came from." I will never forget what Mulroney said. It was, "If we err, let it be on the side of compassion." They were treated so compassionately — but then, a few years later, different Tamils, same country, and it was not a good welcome.

Among the 155 Tamil refugees found floating off the coast of Newfoundland in 1986 were a handful of women and children. They are pictured here leaving the Leonard J. Crowley after docking in St. John's. (CBC)

Boats, for some reason, get people's backs up. One of the things I found when I was researching is that there two ways to come as a refugee. You can apply from the country where you're living, get status and then show up. Or you can just show up, ask for asylum, and take your chances. If you come across the border on foot, or if you come by boat, the media spotlight is on you, and I think that changes the way the government reacts to it. If you just come quietly, one family at a time, at the airport, there's no media spotlight on it. So that's the part, also, that's capricious.

The thing I learned from this book is, if you're actually going to try to sneak into the country, don't get in a boat. If you get in a boat, everybody is going to be watching the second you arrive, and then the government will feel like they have to address it in some way. They either have to show that they're compassionate or show that they're stern, and we want to cut this off, and there's potentially an armada of boats waiting and we can't look like a soft touch.

Police in British Columbia board the MV Sun Sea in 2010. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

How the refugees on the boat view Canada before they disembark

In [the novel's] first scene, they're saying, "Land is close. Who will get us first? Will it be America or Canada?" I'm pretty sure I got that from something I read from the real people on the MV Sun Sea. They had been saying to each other, "Fingers crossed it will be Canada we land in. Fingers crossed the Americans won't intercept us." Which is ironic.

In that scene, when they realize it's Canada they're coming to and they start cheering — part of that is a cheer of, "We have made it." But part of it is, "We're coming to the good country, the one that's going to take care of us."

Why two characters blocking refugees come from immigrant backgrounds

Because that really does happen. I sometimes joke that one of the subtitles of the book could be, "Everyone's a little bit racist."

My cousin and I were just talking about this, about how sometimes the people who are hardest on new immigrants, newcomers, are old immigrants. I think that can happen even in the space of one generation. I believe you can be a refugee who arrives at the border, who seeks asylum, who gets in. A few decades later, you just kind of forget, and you start saying, "Well, I don't know about those Syrians. Can we really trust them?"

I think that's something that's not talked about often in public. Some of us in the immigrant community talk about it amongst ourselves, but we don't often speak about it, so I wanted to show it.

How she went from writing on the side to calling herself a writer — and becoming a published novelist

When did I decide to be a writer? It was August of 2011. I was working in public relations, I had just finished a contract, and I was a bit at a loss for what to do with myself, and I thought, "Well, I'll do some communications work freelance, and I'll just try this writing thing."

I was at Winterset, which is a fantastic literary festival in Eastport, Newfoundland, and I was sitting with my husband's Aunt Jane behind the author Lisa Moore. At one point, she turned around and said, "And what is it you do?" My husband's aunt said, "Sharon's a writer," because I had just said I was going to try to write some stuff on the side. I said, "I'm not a writer, I write." And Lisa said, "If you write, then you're a writer."

Lisa Moore is the author of the novel Flannery. (Heather Barrett)

In 2011, I started writing some short stories, and I had some success, won a couple of awards. In 2013, after I had done a little bit of that, I thought, "OK, I'm going to try a novel." It was just audacious. Everyone should do something audacious.

Sharon Bala's comments have been edited and condensed. To hear the interview, click 'listen' above.