Asylum-seekers inspire novel
In October 2009, a group of Sri Lankan Tamils fleeing a violent civil war arrived in Vancouver, smuggled on board the Ocean Lady. Starving and exhausted, the asylum seekers believed they had found freedom in Canada, only to be arrested by border guards and the RCMP. A year later, 492 Sri Lankans aboard the MV Sun Sea were detained due to suspected ties to the Tamil Tigers, banned in Canada as a violent terrorist group.
While Sun Sea’s arrival made international news, few details emerged due to a court-ordered publication ban. And so in 2013, when Sharon Bala, a Sri Lankan–canadian writer based in St. John’s, began research for The Boat People — her debut novel inspired by the real-world events — she tried to piece together the story.
“I looked for everything I could find,” says Bala. “At the time I really wished I could get my hands on the [court] transcript, but now I’m glad I didn’t. I think it forced me to use my imagination. ”
Bala — who won the prestigious Writers’ Trust/mcclelland & Stewart Journey Prize last year — planned to set The Boat People in the past, inspired by family stories from Sri Lanka. But early feedback made her realize the story’s heart was Mahindan, a young migrant imprisoned off a ship and separated from his six-year-old son. His lawyer, Priya, a second-generation Sri Lankan–canadian, is reluctant to sacrifice career aspirations to work on his case. Then there’s Grace, a skeptical Japanese-canadian adjudicator who will decide Mahindan’s fate.
“I like the idea of multiple perspectives because I like playing with this idea of what is truth, and what really happened.”
As Bala was early into her manuscript, the Syrian war entered its second year and reports of fleeing migrants dying in boats horrified the world. Bala found parallels: She observed a sense of indomitable hope, which imbues The Boat People despite its heavy subject. “I allowed myself to let in things happening to influence the book,” says Bala. “I was learning as I was researching.”