Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Why Sharon Bala believes being a writer is about giving in

The award-winning author of The Boat People explains why she cherishes courageous language in her answers to eight questions by fellow writers.
Sharon Bala is the author of The Boat People. (Nadra Ginting)

Novelist Sharon Bala's debut The Boat People is being defended by Mozhdah Jamalzadah on Canada Reads 2018. The manuscript won the 2015 Percy Janes First Novel Award, and is a nuanced look at what happens when 500 Tamil refugees arrive in Canada, seeking a new home. 

Below, Bala answers eight questions submitted by her fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A. 

1. Sheila Watt-Cloutier asks, "What led you to write your story?"

What leads me to write any story? It's almost always a combination of curiosity and revulsion, that push and pull between wanting to crouch down and examine the smooshed pigeon on the sidewalk and the urge to turn away. In the case of The Boat People, I wanted to explore identity and belonging but I didn't want to write about refugees and war. In the end, the novel is about all of it, because eventually as a writer you have to give in and write the story that demands to be told.

2. Vivek Shraya asks, "Who is a Canadian writer you aspire to write like and why?"

It's impossible to choose just one! Every time I read something I love, prose that makes me jealous, I wish I could write like the author. I admire writers who take audacious risks, who break the rules of form and somehow end up with richer stories. I admire beautiful sentences and surprising metaphors. My favourite authors are the ones whose work teaches me something.

3. Peggy Blair asks, "If your book became a movie, which actor would play your lead and why?"

It would absolutely have to be someone with dark brown skin. But how many of those actors get work in North America? The filmmakers would have to find an unknown actor or bring someone in from South Asia.

4. Phil Hall asks, "Do certain words give you the pip? Why can't you stand them? If it isn't about what they mean, what's it about?"

Language is meant to clarify and describe so I absolutely abhor words that obfuscate. The worst offenders are corporate speak and jargon (synergy, rightsize, the verb task) but banks are notorious too for creating nonsense expressions. "Negative equity." "Negative growth." STOP! Let's call it what it is: debt, loss.

5. Jen Sookfong Lee asks, "What's one thing you've written — scene, story or poem — that you hope your mother never reads?"

My mom is safe. I can't seem to get any of the stories with sex scenes published.

6. Meg Rosoff asks, "What's your favourite way to waste time?"

Mindlessly scrolling the internet. It's a terrible habit I'm trying to break this year.

7. Emma Richler asks, "What is your favourite reward for the moment you down tools for the day?"

A solid day of writing is its own reward. It's rarer than you might think so when it happens, I usually feel pretty smug. My favourite way to unwind is to turn on a podcast, pour a glass of wine and make dinner.

8. Bill Waiser asks, "What one piece of advice would you give to a novice writer?"

Write the stories that make you most uncomfortable.