Book Box Love

"Fiction holds a mirror up to real life and says to the reader: Look!" - Sharon Bala

Sharon Bala, Photo © Nadra Ginting 2017

Sharon Bala is the author of The Boat People, Book Box Love's choice for the July 2018 (and premiere!) book box.   We were thrilled to have the chance to interview Sharon.

When you first heard the news of Sri Lankan Tamil Refugees arriving on boat in Vancouver in 2010, did you already feel the spark of a novel? How did your ideas for the narrative develop?

About a month after the MV Sun Sea arrived I visited the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax. Here I was on the east coast, in a museum that celebrated Canada’s openness and generosity toward newcomers and meanwhile on the west coast, the latest group of asylum-seekers had been shackled and thrown into prison. I was struck both by the country’s hypocrisy and my own good fortune. My family is also from Sri Lanka and it was only good luck that separated me from the refugees on the west coast.

I wasn’t a writer in 2010 but that gratitude and fury stayed with me. Three years later, when I sat down to write a novel, I poured all of those long steeped emotions onto the page.

In The Boat People, the insights the reader gets into different characters perspectives, prejudices, and hopes is so powerful. How did you approach creating characters we can so intimately empathize with?

Fiction holds a mirror up to real life and says to the reader: Look! The characters in The Boat People are imaginary but very little in the book is invented. When the power cuts out and Mahindan’s wife Chithra grumbles that the Tigers can’t even keep the lights on, that came from something I said about my province’s government during a 3-day black out one winter in St. John’s. Grace’s refusal to acknowledge the similarities between her family’s story and Mahindan’s plight is based on a phenomenon I have noticed: often the people who are hardest on new immigrants are old immigrants. So many things the characters say and do in the book come straight from things I have witnessed, experienced, read about or done myself in real life.

The trick to making readers empathize with characters is simple: you must empathize with them yourself. I put myself in each character’s shoes, tried to see the world through their eyes, and in doing so, I began to imagine their motivations. So even when I didn’t agree with their actions, I could still understand their rationale. By the way, this is also how you create fictional characters who are believable.

The family bonds are so rich throughout all aspects of the book. Did your own family insights influence your characters and storylines?

Originally, the book was meant to be about a large multi-generational Sri Lankan-Canadian family. But then, as these things always go, it morphed into the story of a single father. Sri Lankans tend to have large extended family networks but because of the constraints of novel-writing, Mahindan, Sellian, and even’s Priya’s small family, are very much alone. The inter-generational tension that I originally wanted to explore exists a little more in Grace’s storyline and I had a lot of fun writing the sections with her teenage daughters, especially when her mother Kumi was on the scene.

We understand you undertook extensive research to write The Boat People. Did anything about the refugee processing system in Canada surprise or frustrate you?

I had always assumed that when it came to refugees, decisions about who got in and who was kept out were made in systematic ways by experienced and well trained judges. But looking at online biographies of Immigration and Refugee Board adjudicators, I saw that some had resumes that looked like Mitchell Hurst’s and some had resumes that looked like Grace’s. And some were fundraisers and lobbyists. People’s lives and futures hang in the balance and it was a surprise to see who was making the big decisions.

The fact is the system is capricious. Thousands of asylum-seekers arrive every year, most of them at the airport. When people come by plane, their cases progress quietly through the system. But when the rare boat arrives there is always a public hue and cry.

Often, how you are treated as an asylum-seeker has less to do with who you are, where you are from, and the circumstances of your flight, and more to do with factors inside our country. Who is in power? What mood is the country in? How is our economy? What message does the Prime Minister want to project to voters and the rest of the world?

At the moment, I am most concerned about our Safe Third Country Agreement which denies entry to asylum-seekers who have travelled through countries designated “safe.” The United States, for example is a “safe” country. Given that the White House has just declared they won’t accept women seeking asylum because of sexual or gang violence, I find this agreement appalling.

We know all great writers are readers. Why do you think reading and storytelling is so special?

Humans crave stories. Around a fire. In an amphitheater. Over beers at a bar. In the pages of a book. We tell stories and we hear stories and we read stories and we need stories. The best stories are the ones that do it all: entertain, enthrall, and educate.

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