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The Boat People: A Novel by Sharon Bala

The Boat People: A Novel

by Sharon Bala

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The Boat People, Sharon Bala, author

The author states that this novel was inspired by true events. Boats carrying large numbers of Tamil asylum seeking refugees, from Sri Lanka, arrived in British Columbia in 2009 and 2010. I did look up the event and found that the refugees said they were fleeing the terror and violence of the Sri Lankan Civil War. Although the author does not discuss this aspect of the mass departure, except possibly in a cursory fashion, these events threatened to overwhelm the Canadian resources and forced the politicians to begin to rethink their open door policy which was making them a target for asylum seekers. The author, instead, stresses the aftermath of their arrival in which all of the refugees were detained, arrested, questioned and imprisoned for lengthy periods of time to await the adjudication of their cases, often with untrained and inexperienced judges. Would they be allowed to stay or would they be deported which most refugees believed was a death sentence? Still, I kept thinking, at least these boats weren’t turned back like the St. Louis was forced to do, during WWII. It was sent back to Europe where the Nazis possibly awaited them. At least the Sri Lankans still had hope. The Jews had despair.

In the novel, the Canadian government feared that there were human smugglers among the refugees, and that there might even be escaping terrorists hidden within the group that truly was in need of asylum. This situation is eerily similar to the current problems facing the United States today, with illegal immigrants attempting to gain asylum by sneaking into the country rather than by going in through the front door to be legally processed. Admittedly, that process is lengthy, but law-abiding citizens are penalized by those who cut the line strictly for financial advantage. The politicians play to the emotional side of their supporters, using the illegal immigration issue as a pawn, either for or against absorbing them. Those for open borders want to ignore the financial cost and security concerns. Those against illegal immigration want to stress the danger of the stranger, which can be real. All arguments have an element of truth. Unfortunately, often, emotions rather than common sense rule the day. The squeaky wheel gets the oil and attention, often unwarranted and with dangerous implications. Social media fans the flames of unrest.

The novel stresses the reasons that people seek asylum. The Sri Lankan refugees were not seeking financial benefit, although it could become a byproduct of asylum; they were seeking security from the horrors taking place in their own country, a country they once loved and would prefer to have remained in, if they were not systematically being kidnapped or attacked and murdered. The novel illuminates the lengths to which people will go to save themselves and/or their families. Often, they broke the law, cheated each other and lied when they never would have done so before.

The cast of characters the author describes is very diverse and presents many sides of the immigration issue, even the internment of the Japanese and other Sri Lankan conflicts are front and center. Oddly, though, in the context of WWII, she does not even mention the plight of the Jews. Arguably, she designed her characters to include certain backgrounds, subjects and not others. They were all developed well, illustrating just how they formed their opinions about immigration and its possible solutions. Bias was a major theme.

Grace, of Japanese descent, whose family was interned during WWII, was politically appointed by Fred, a photo op loving politician who seemed to believe he could influence her decisions. She was a judge who adjudicated some of the refugee cases. She was more disposed against the immigrants, at first, as she was influenced by his opinions. Priya, whose family was from Sri Lanka, was an intern, preparing for a job in corporate America when she was sidelined into working for Gigovaz, the lawyer who was unconditionally advocating for the refugees. She was not happy about the assignment as it took her off her career path, and she did not identify with the Tamil culture, nor did she speak the language. Charlita was a journalist who spoke the language of the Tamils and was eager to absorb them all, giving them the benefit of the doubt. Singh, who represented the Canada Border Service Agency, basically started with the assumption that they were all guilty of something. The investigatory process was long and tedious, with decisions often made according to the bias of the decision maker. The people in the system were all overworked, easily frustrated and exhausted.

I thought that the author presented all sides and all aspects of the immigration problem, including housing, well-being, feeding and education. Children were provided with safe spaces. Adults were interviewed. Papers, where they existed, were checked. The decisions were affected by politics, emotion and public opinion, all of which should, logically, be excluded from the process. The issue really concerns need and legality. Judgment should, ideally, be unbiased, but often it is not. More often, politics and social media seek to unfairly and unjustly affect the outcome, and those with an agenda proceed based on their raw emotion and mob mentality which is fanned by politicians who exploit those very sentiments.

So, the two parallel stories will tear at the reader’s heartstrings. One story takes place in Sri Lanka and is about a father, Mahindan, and his 5 year old son as they flee from a nightmare existence in their homeland which has already robbed them of their relatives and home. The other is about a father and son, in Canada, now separated by a bureaucracy and a system which has buried him in the morass of paper and opinion associated with his need for asylum. Mahindan, therefore, is still a captive, albeit in a far different and far better situation than he was in Sri Lanka. He is fed, clothed, educated and even entertained, for most of his confinement. There are no bombs falling. His son is in a wonderful, rather ideal foster home, becoming a Canadian, but they miss each other. He realizes that the gap between them widens while they are apart, but their love for each other is never diminished. Observers will want the father and son reunited quickly; they will want to rush to judgment. They will smart at the slowness of the process which is truly incapable of discerning fact from fiction. Are their papers genuine? What if someone has no papers and no history? The system is truly incapable of moving more quickly with such great numbers of immigrants and so many unknowns.

Of course, also, Mahindan is portrayed as a very worthy addition to Canadian society. He has a skill; he was raised in moderate comfort. He is educated and well-mannered. He is trying to assimilate into the Canadian culture and learn the language. He is the idealized immigrant, simply a victim of circumstances beyond his control who deserves asylum. In this book, the characters, admirably, really do a lot of introspection to understand the plight of the immigrant and themselves They attempt to thresh out the problems in order to solve them. The advocates are willing to put their own skin in the game and take a sincere, personal interest in their clients.

The subject is current; the problems are real; the system is flawed. Desperate situations make people do desperate things. Sometimes, under duress, our judgment is flawed. In the end, however, most people try to do what is best for their country and the immigrant, impartially and compassionately

Immigration has become a convenient flashpoint to create unrest and anger and to shine a spotlight on a problem with no easy solution in order to score political points. I see one major byproduct of the immigration issue that bothers me most. Often, those that flee their own country because of injustice then seek to recreate it with its warts and foibles in their new homeland, as we in America are witnessing with the growth of gangs like MS13 and efforts to eliminate our borders and install socialism in place of capitalism.

I enjoyed the book, I learned a lot from the insights of the author, but I believe she painted a far too idealistic image of the immigrant, perhaps to advance her own political agenda. I am sure she did, now that I checked her web page. She accused America of kidnapping children and posted a picture that is a dishonest representation of a crying child separated from her mother at the border. The child and her mother are together and were never separated, according to the child’s father. The picture was cherry picked and posted by a journalist before it was vetted, obviously to promote an anti-Trump agenda. ( )
  thewanderingjew | Jul 2, 2018 |
This story is narrated from three perspectives. Mahindan, a Tamil, arrives in Vancouver aboard a rusted cargo ship (along with 500 other refugees) seeking asylum for himself and his six-year-old son, Sellian. Priya, a second-generation Sri-Lankan-Canadian, is an articling student who wants to specialize in corporate law but is reluctantly coerced into helping the firm’s immigration lawyer who has Mahindan as one of his clients. Grace, a third-generation Japanese-Canadian, is a political appointee who is charged with adjudicating refugee cases and will determine Mahindan’s ultimate fate.

The theme of the book is that, except for Indigenous Peoples, all Canadians are the descendants of immigrants who came to the country seeking refuge and hoping for a better life. The epigraph is a Martin Luther King quotation: “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” All the major characters are refugees or the children of immigrants. Grace, for example, tells her daughters, “If your great-grandfather hadn’t gotten on that ship a century ago, none of us would be here” (106). The problem is that people forget that their ancestors were like Mahindan; Grace’s mother points out that Grace is in danger of repeating racist actions of the past: “Certain people felt too rooted, too comfortable. They took it for granted that they deserved to be here more than us. Entitlement closed their hearts” (275).

Mahindan is a very nuanced character. He, like all the refugees on the ship, is considered the enemy until he can prove that he is innocent and so worthy of protection. The problem is that he did work for the Tamil Tigers whom the Canadian government has designated a terrorist group. As a mechanic, he worked on vehicles for the Tigers because he had no choice: “If I had refused, [the Tiger cadre] would have beaten me. If I had refused again, he would have killed me. . . . My wife was pregnant at the time. . . . With my son. The cadre would have set fire to our house, allowed my wife to burn inside” (198). To get himself and his son to safety, he had to do things that went against his morals, but he was desperate.

Mahindan may not be innocent, but Priya’s situation emphasizes that no one is. She ends up learning about some hidden family history which shows that members of her own family had made choices like Mahindan’s. Priya’s uncle says, “Priya, what do you think happens when you terrorize a people, force them to flee, take away their options, then put them in a cage all together? Will they not try and break down the bars? . . . It is very convenient, no? These labels. Terrorist” (230).

Grace is the weakest character because she is used by the author, rather heavy-handedly, to make a political statement. Grace is appointed by Blair, a cabinet minister, and is ill-equipped for her position. An immigration lawyer describes people like Grace: “Half those adjudicators are patronage appointments. Do you think they’ve studied the Act? Done their due diligence? Or do you think they just let Blair drip his poison in their ears? Illegals. Snakeheads. Terrorists. You scare people stupid and then you pull their strings” (119). At the beginning, Grace comes across as very unfeeling. When Mahindan is separated from his son, Grace thinks, “of all the times she had spent working late or away at conferences when the girls were small. These little absences were only short chapters in long parent-child histories” (90). Blair, her boss, seems as clueless: “We have to encourage people to go through the proper channels and not just jump on the first boat that sails into the harbour” (339). Initially, Grace seems to have difficulty seeing connections between her actions and those of government officials who during World War II designated her family as enemy aliens. Fortunately, later she questions her superior so there is hope that Mahindan’s admissibility hearing might have a positive outcome.

The book really does show the complex situation in which refugees find themselves. They flee horrific situations and are often take desperate measures to find a safe haven. Even if they do make it to supposedly safe shores, they face a long process of reviews and hearings. Though the book was quickly eliminated from Canada Reads 2018, I do think that the book is one that can open people’s eyes.

Note: Please check out my reader's blog (https://schatjesshelves.blogspot.ca/) and follow me on Twitter (@DCYakabuski). ( )
  Schatje | May 16, 2018 |
When a ship with some five hundred refugees from Sri Lanka arrives in Vancouver seeking asylum, it sparks political controversy and fear. Rather than being welcomed, they are thrown into detention centers while Canada decides what to do with them. This is complicated by allegations that at least some of the refugees are terrorists.

The Boat People explores the process of reviewing and deciding just who can and cannot enter Canada from the point of view of three people who are all new to the process, Mahindan, a refugee; Priay, his lawyer; and Grace, the adjudicator who will ultimately decide his fate. This is the first time for all of them, so all of them are learning the ropes and learning how justice can be hard to find.

Mahindan is a single father whose son lives with a foster family while he remains in detention. With his wife dead and his village bombed, he fled with his son and joined the refugees on the cargo ship. He was a mechanic and did his best to avoid involuntary drafting into the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). By doing occasional vehicle repair, he stayed out of the LTTE, however, one of the vehicles he worked on was used in a terrorist attack. Does this make him complicit?

Priya is a Sri Lankan woman, a new lawyer, whose firm assigned her to work with the refugees even though she has no interest in refugee law. She feels that if she were not Sri Lankan, she would never have been given this assignment. So she begins with feelings of resentment and distances herself from the refugees. After all, she is Canadian. However, as she learns more about what the refugees have gone through and what her own family endured, she becomes an advocate in more than her job description.

Grace is a woman who attached her career to a conservative politician, rising with him as his career advanced. He is a nativist who fear-mongers shamelessly. He appoints Grace to this position as an adjudicator even though she has no experience or qualifications certain she will do his bidding. Meanwhile, her grandmother is slipping into Alzheimer’s forgetfulness while also reliving her anger at being interned during World War II and losing the family business. Grace’s children are learning from her grandmother and pointing out parallels between the Japanese of then to the Tamil of today, comparisons Grace does not want to hear.

The Boat People speaks to contemporary events effectively and captures the complexity of immigration politics. Yet, somehow I found it less compelling than expected. Personally, I think we accept far too few refugees and am appalled by political fear-mongering about immigrants and refugees. But in some ways, this felt a bit contrived. For example, within three pages of meeting Priya, I knew how her story would be about changing her attitude. It is a trite story, the lawyer assigned to an emotional case who is changed by it from indifference to advocacy and activism. Of course, it’s commonplace because it really happens, but still, feeling like I know the way the story would go so soon into the story is disappointing, especially when I don’t get surprised along the way.

Mahindan’s story appealed to me the most. It gets at the truth of being a refugee. People don’t do it lightly. Life must become insupportable before they take such an uncertain risk. Warsan Shire wrote, “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” Bala paints the mouth of the shark and it’s scary, dangerous, and deadly.

Grace is less appealing, yet she is perhaps the one who is asked to make the greatest transformation–that is if she does. How the story resolves is up to the reader, after all. Will we believe Grace transcends her fears or will we decide she is too dependent on her patron to ever be her own woman? It depends on what we make of her.

I received an e-galley of The Boat People from the publisher through NetGalley.

The Boat People at Penguin Random House
Sharon Bala author site

https://tonstantweaderreviews.wordpress.com/2018/04/16/9780385542296/ ( )
  Tonstant.Weader | Apr 18, 2018 |
This story of refugees from Sri Lanka seeking asylum in Vancouver, Canada was a compelling reminder that I can not understand what a person might have to do to survive because I have not walked in their shoes. Looking through my window does not give a clear view. Books like this helps! ( )
  SignoraEdie | Apr 17, 2018 |
A fascinating and illuminating look into our refugee system, at the least the one that was around for the " boat people " that arrived on British Columbia's shores in 2009 and 2010, under the Stephen Harper Government. This book is fiction, but loosely based on the arrival of two ships , the Ocean Lady and the M.V. Sea Sun. Both ships arrived on BC's shore's , carrying 550 Tamil immigrants from Sri Lanka. This is the story of the dreadful events that led up to people fleeing Sri Lanka, and the very unfortunate and unconscionable way that the refugees were treated. On one hand, there were kind people wanting to help the refugees, but on the other hand, the government separated families and incarcerated many of the refugees until lengthy background checks could be done.

I'm giving it 4 stars because I really feel it's an important book for all Canadians to read and understand what refugees go through as they are processed through the system. I also gained a great deal of knowledge about the the civil war in Sri Lanka and how we often assume that the Tamil people are " Tamil Tigers."

My criticisms would be that perhaps the book was a bit overlong and was not at subtle in its story telling. I felt a bit like I was being lectured at by the author, and her prose was a bit clunky. That said, I think it is a very important book to read.

4 stars. Recommended. ( )
  vancouverdeb | Mar 18, 2018 |
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A real ship of refugees inspires a novel about the messy consequences of war... The headlines inspired Bala to write and launch her first novel as books about migrants are at flood tide. This one toggles between Sri Lankan flashbacks and Vancouver, British Columbia, where the passengers come ashore, mistaking the helicopter and Canadian ships for a welcome party...This is never a subtle book...Bala’s writing is generally crisp, with occasional glints of humor. ..This first book has a workshopped feel as well as a few memorable passages.. But compared to nuanced recent literature set amid Sri Lankan strife—On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman or The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam—this is thin fare.

A strong premise runs aground trying to form a set of convictions into a novel.
This news story provided the inspiration for Newfoundland-based author Sharon Bala's debut novel, The Boat People. The narrative is divided between Vancouver in the present and Sri Lanka in recollections..Bala displays her talent as a compassionate, reflective author early when she conveys this heartbreaking and absurd misunderstanding in two ways, through her characters....As the novel progresses, Bala carefully replaces the reader's instinctive sympathy with much more challenging ambivalence...Bala has vividly conjured worlds, both on Canadian soil and back in Sri Lanka, that show the dualities of living in any country – and that show how powerful the need for safety, the need for home, is in all of us. The characters Bala brings together in The Boat People are different and the same. They all want one thing: to be able to breathe. What we also get from a novel like this is a new way of seeing.
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We may have all come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now - Martin Luther King JR.
This book is for my parents, Mohan and Swarna Bala.
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Mahindan was flat on his back when the screaming began, one arm right - angled over his eyes.
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amazon ca:By the winner of The Journey Prize, and inspired by a real incident, The Boat People is a gripping and morally complex novel about a group of refugees who survive a perilous ocean voyage to reach Canada – only to face the threat of deportation and accusations of terrorism in their new land.

When the rusty cargo ship carrying Mahindan and five hundred fellow refugees reaches the shores of British Columbia, the young father is overcome with relief: he and his six-year-old son can finally put Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war behind them and begin new lives. Instead, the group is thrown into prison, with government officials and news headlines speculating that hidden among the “boat people” are members of a terrorist militia. As suspicion swirls and interrogation mounts, Mahindan fears the desperate actions he took to survive and escape Sri Lanka now jeopardize his and his son’s chances for asylum.
Told through the alternating perspectives of Mahindan; his lawyer Priya, who reluctantly represents the migrants; and Grace, a third-generation Japanese-Canadian adjudicator who must decide Mahindan’s fate, The Boat People is a high-stakes novel that offers a deeply compassionate lens through which to view the current refugee crisis. Inspired by real events, with vivid scenes that move between the eerie beauty of northern Sri Lanka and combative refugee hearings in Vancouver, where life and death decisions are made, Sharon Bala’s stunning debut is an unforgettable and necessary story for our times.
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"A debut novel about a thirty-five-year-old Sri Lankan refugee who has survived the harrowing experiences of civil war, a prison camp, and a perilous ocean voyage to Canada--but his journey has only begun, as he and his young son navigate the morass of the refugee system"--… (more)

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