Asy­lum-seek­ers in­spire novel

Metro Canada (Toronto) - - Life - Sue Carter Sue Carter is the edi­tor at Quill & Quire mag­a­zine.

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.”

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