Author: Sharon Bala
Publishing Date: 2018
Number of Pages: 332
Genre: Asian Fiction, Political Fiction
When the rusty cargo ship carrying five hundred refugees from Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war reaches Vancouver Island’s shores, Mahindan thinks he and his six-year-old son. Sellian, can finally start a new life. Instead, Sellian is ripped from his father’s arms and Mahindan, along with his fellow refugees, is thrown into prison.
Government officials and news headlines claim that hidden among the “boat people” are members of a terrorist organization infamous for their suicide attacks. As suspicion swirls and interrogation mounts, Mahindan fears the desperate actions he took to survive and escape Sri Lanka now jeopardize their chances of asylum.
Told through the alternating perspectives of Mahindan; his lawyer, Priya, a second-generation Sri Lankan Canadian who reluctantly represents the refugees; and Grace, a third-generation Japanese Canadian adjudicator who must decide Mahindan’s fate, The Boat People is a spellbinding, timely, and compassionate novel about the lengths a father will go to protect his son.
In September 2, 2015, the lifeless body of a Syrian child has washed ashore on the coast of Turkey after the boat his family was riding on sunk. His family, caught on the crossfire, was fleeing their war-ravaged homeland to seek refuge in Europe. The unfortunate picture became viral and has become the ubiquitous symbol of the recent refugee crisis. Moreover, this has awoken the consciousness of the world over on what is really happening in Syria. It has awoken the consciousness of several international organizations and writers as well. Lest everyone forget, the refugee situation is a global phenomenon affecting everyone, including the Sri Lankans.
When I was searching for books to be published in 2018 to be include in my Most Anticipated List, Sharon Bala’s The Boat People kept popping out. It was highly recommended by fellow readers who already had advance copies of the book. Moreover, it being about the refugee crisis immediately piqued my curiosity. I thought it wouldn’t be sold in the Philippines but surprisingly it was. The moment I saw a copy of the book, I bought it and lined it up for reading in my 2018 Asian Literature Month.
The Boat People relates the story of about 500 Sri Lankan refugees who tried to seek asylum in Canada after fleeing from their country which was divided by a bloody civil war that lasted for years. They believed that Canada’s open-door policy ensured their welcome with wide open arms. But they thought wrong. Upon alighting on the coast of Canada, they were seized and barricaded to be subjected to intense scrutiny and checking.
The Canadian government and several media outlets claimed that amongst these refugees are members of the terrorist organization that has wreaked havoc in Sri Lanka. Lawyers and judges were called in to evaluate the individual cases of the refugees. While some cases were approved, some were rejected. At the backbone of the story is Mahindan whose case was placed under intense scrutiny. Due to allegations of association with the Tamil Tigers, his son, Sellian was forcefully separated from him while his case is being heard. Mahindan’s story is every refugees’ story.
The story’s approach on the immigration crisis is balanced and objective. I am impressed with how Bala carefully fashioned the narrative to realistically reflect both sides of the spectrum – that of the refugees and that of the country they are seeking asylum in. To Bala’s credit, she gave her readers the power to choose which side of the coin to lean to without putting the blame on anyone. This all she did while highlighting the different issues arising from the current refugee crisis.
As is the case in the book, the biggest threat for an open door policy is the possible entry of notorious individuals who can interrupt the harmony of the country. The security of the country’s citizens is the chief concern of every head of state (read my lips – Donald Trump). This caused countries to tighten their border security. Understandably so, even though such actions are deemed as racist. Unfortunately, politics and the refugee crisis are intertwined making it difficult to find the perfect equilibrium. In the book, Bala was able to navigate her way through this difficulty.
The Boat People is also the story of the oppression of the Tamils and the civil war that has behind the division of Sri Lanka. The Tamils, who have long sought independence, were treated like second-class citizens even after the end of the civil war. The Tamils, to the rest of Sri Lanka, were viewed as terrorists and insurgents. This reputation, unfortunately, preceded them when they sailed to Canada. Just like Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, The Boat People depicted the correlation between wars and migration albeit the two books differed greatly.
The refugee situation is a gargantuan subject that the book ambitiously dealt on. However, it soared more on its vivid portraiture of a father’s love for his son. Mahindan and Sellian’s story evoked emotions. Every reader can easily relate to Mahindan’s deep affection for his son – from the troubles he had to go through and to the future he was looking forward to. In the din of the current refugee situation, the voices of parents being separated from their children ate muffled. It is heartbreaking to say the least and brings to mind a recent viral video of a Mexican mother being forcefully separated from his child by US border patrol police. The video had yet again earned the Trump administration the brunt of the general public’s ire.
Ironically, most of the characters tasked to assess and defend the viability of having the refugees enter Canadian borders have Asian heritages as well. At first, this baffled me but upon further reflection it made me realize the undertones brilliantly drew a different picture. Migrants, while adapting to the customs of their new homeland, tend to forget their heritage. The situation Grace and Priya found themselves in caused an internal struggle which is one of the major conflicts in the story. Where should their loyalties tie – duty or kinship?
Truly, the book is filled with wonderful merits and the story itself is wonderful. However, I lament the straightforwardness of the story. This plainness affected my appreciation for the book. There were tensions and the conflicts in the story but the way they were related lacked impact. It borders on dull and boring when it could have been otherwise. It didn’t play safe with the story but Bala played it safe on the literary elements. In the end, the narrative came off very loose. Too bad.
To close the review, I must say that I was a bit disappointed with the book. It raised interesting and relevant social and political points. As a literary piece, it came off as mediocre and bland. Sharon Bala had the right elements for a literary winner but somehow along the way, it all went awry. The only thing that really worked for me is the father’s undying love for his son. I am saddened really because the book could have made a bigger impact even though it wasn’t altogether bad.
However, I have to commend Sharon Bala though because her debut novel is a step on the right direction.
Recommended for readers looking for medium-length story about current and relevant political and social issues, those who are keen on gaining a perspective on the current refugee crisis, readers who have time to spare and those who like more straightforward narratives.
Not recommended for readers looking for well-written narratives, those who are looking for tight narratives, and those with no interest in Asian literature or books dealing in heavy themes.
About the Author
Sharon Bala was born on April 3, 1973. She is a member of The Port Authority writing group.
Her short stories were printed in several magazines and publications. She won the 2017 Journey Prize for her short story Butter Tea at Starbucks. The unpublished manuscripts of The Boat People also earned her the 2015 Percy Janes First Novel Award. In January 2018, The Boat People, her debut novel, was published.
She is currently residing in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador.