Canada Reads 2018

How a news headline inspired Sharon Bala's debut novel, The Boat People

The Boat People is being defended by Mozhdah Jamalzadah on Canada Reads 2018.
Sharon Bala is the author of The Boat People, one of the novels on the Canada Reads 2018 shortlist. (Nadra Ginting/McClelland & Stewart)

In 2010, a rusting ship arrived off the coast of British Columbia. On board were more than 550 Sri Lankan Tamils. They said they'd fled their country's bloody civil war and were seeking asylum in Canada. Because of a court-ordered publication ban, we still know very little about the people on board, but they became the inspiration for Sharon Bala's debut novel, The Boat People. It's an insider's view of how complicated and suspenseful the process of seeking asylum in Canada can be. 

The Boat People is being defended by Mozhdah Jamalzadah on Canada Reads 2018.

All on the same boat

"Sometimes it's easy to forget that we all came from somewhere else. We often think of the 'boat people' being the Vietnamese, when in fact so were the Vikings, the French and the English. The vast majority of Canadians have come from somewhere else. It's easy to look at 'new' boat people and think that they're somehow very different from us. What I realized is that we're very similar. One of the reasons my family left Sri Lanka was because of the war and the ethnic tension that had been brewing when my parents were growing up. And I thought, 'Those people on that boat, that could be us.' When I sat down to write The Boat People, it just came back to me." 

Lapses of time and judgment  

"There's this purgatory when you are a refugee and you are waiting to see if you're going to get status. I wanted to explore that part, that no one sees or knows about. The legality around it is so convoluted or complex that I thought the only way for the reader to fully understand it was to see it from three points of view — the refugee, his lawyer and the adjudicator. I also wanted to show the reader that these are not just difficult things for the person who has come to the country, it's also difficult for the adjudicator who make decisions that are not always straightforward or simple."

The revelations of research

"The refugee system is so arbitrary. Who we let in and the reasons why have to do with the mood the country is in when you arrive, who is in power and how you arrive. In the case of my character Mahindan, none of that has anything to do with who he is, where he's come from, what he's overcome and what he is going to bring to the country — none of those things seems to matter in his case. When I was doing the research, it felt like that's often what happens."

Sharon Bala's comments have been edited and condensed.