Nfld. & Labrador

Strangers still email Sharon Bala about her powerful NL Reads novel

No matter what your stance on immigration is, Sharon Bala's The Boat People will show you a side you've never seen before.

The Boat People was one of the 10 highest-selling books in the country in 2018

Sharon Bala's debut novel, The Boat People, was one of the 10 highest-selling books in Canada in 2018. (Nadra Ginting)

About two years ago, Sharon Bala spent a few months pulling a small suitcase on wheels behind her through airports all over the world while travelling with her husband, cramming it into overhead bins on planes, afraid to check it in case it got lost.

The case wasn't full of clothes or keepsakes. It was mostly full of notebooks.

Some contained notes about the Sri Lankan civil war and the MV Sun Sea, a Thai cargo ship carrying nearly 500 Sri Lankan asylum seekers that was intercepted by Canadian authorities and brought to shore in British Columbia in 2010.

Most contained several handwritten drafts of her first novel, The Boat People, which tells the story of Mahindan and his six-year-old son, Sellian, who were on that boat fleeing that war.

The novel weaves four different narratives, set in two different times, into its central story, a technical feat that took a lot of planning, mapping and, yes, notebooks.

"I would have done something much simpler if I had known what a juggling act it was going to be," Bala said, laughing.

"I think doing your first book, you have no idea. So you just take this big thing on not realizing how difficult it's going to be and how many drafts are going to be needed and how many cue cards — literally, colour-coded cue cards moving around."

The book earned a spot on last year's CBC Canada Reads roster and was one of the year's 10 bestselling books in the country.

The Boat People is one of this year's NL Reads contenders. (Stephanie Tobin/CBC)

It's also this month's pick for the NL Reads competition and, thanks to Newfoundland and Labrador Public Libraries, you can download the eBook right here.

Organized by the province's libraries, NL Reads asks people to read four new Newfoundland and Labrador novels and vote for their favourite in the leadup to a gala event in February in St. John's, where one book will be crowned the winner.

Big ambitions for a first novel

The Boat People's four narrative threads all work together to deliver a harrowing, emotional gut-punch.

One thread tells the story of Mahindan and Sellian's escape from Sri Lanka, and another tells their story of finally arriving in Canada only to slam into a system that is unprepared and deeply suspicious of the refugees: Mahindan is locked away in a detention centre, and Sellian is taken from him.

The MV Sun Sea carried nearly 500 Sri Lankan asylum seekers.

Another tells us the story of Priya Rajasekaran, the pair's reluctant lawyer.

The fourth is about Grace Nakamura, who, through cushy government connections, finds herself adjudicating the boat people's cases, all while a conservative politician leans on her to find a few terrorists in the mix in order to justify government's treatment of the refugees and feed the public's fears.

Each of the characters lends his or her own perspective to the immigrant experience while playing a hand in Mahindan and Sellian's fate. ​

Striking a chord

Bala said she set out to write a book about a Sri Lankan family based in Toronto, with the MV Sun Sea's arrival in the background. But as she did more and more research, she knew her main character had to be one of the people on that boat.

"The book I meant to write just wasn't worth writing," she said; the story of Mahindan and Selian had a more important message.

"I got an email from a reader who said, 'Thank you for this book. I was one of the UN peacekeepers who was stationed in Sri Lanka … and reading your book, I realized I knew so little about the war and the Tamil side of things.'"

Bala signs a copy of her novel for a fan. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

Writing the book also had a big impact on Bala herself.

"I really did feel my privilege of being able to do some of the the awful research. Actually, more upsetting for me, personally, was going deep into online comments and certain websites that are set up to be anti-immigrant," she said.

"That ability to close the book as a reader, that ability to shut the computer down as a writer … that's not something that those people who live in those situations have."

As far as being and becoming a writer, Bala said she has been writing since she was a kid, but never imagined being a writer could actually be a real job.

"But then I moved here! And everyone says, 'Writer is a real job.' And then I started writing," she said.

Bala says it wasn't until she moved to Newfoundland and Labrador that she believed being a writer could be a real job. (Courtesy of Sharon Bala)

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