The COVID-19 pandemic has created both challenges and opportunities for Canadians. With work-from-home and stay-at-home measures in place, it limited Canadians’ ability to connect with one another. At the same time, for many, it afforded more downtime — for those with a love of reading, that meant a greater opportunity to dive into new books, poems, stories and adventures.
RBC and the Writers’ Trust of Canada seized the moment to create a connection between writers and readers in a unique way. RBC Book Club celebrates and profiles Canadian writers while giving clients exclusive access to learn the writer’s journey, get behind-the-scenes insight into their process and even discover advice for those who aspire to write themselves.
Sharon Bala’s debut novel, The Boat People, won the 2015 Percy Janes First Novel Award for unpublished manuscripts and became a #1 national bestseller, winning the 2019 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction and the 2020 Newfoundland and Labrador Book Award.
Inspired by real events, The Boat People is a complex and multi-dimensional novel about a group of refugees who survive a perilous ocean journey from war-torn Sri Lanka, only to find themselves in prison upon their arrival on Canadian shores, sentenced to months of detention reviews to determine whether or not they would be allowed to stay.
Told from the perspectives of its three core characters, The Boat People draws readers in with a captivating storyline and leaves them questioning the certitude of truth, innocence and patriotism.
In the second RBC Book Club event, Bala discusses her writer’s journey and the themes that inspire her work. Hosted by Tracy Bentley, Regional Vice President of Private Banking at RBC and moderated by writer and broadcaster Jamie Fitzpatrick, the event was a thought-provoking conversation between Sharon, Jamie, RBC and the audience. Here are highlights of the discussion.
Q: What events inspired The Boat People?
Bala: The arrival of two cargo ships carrying Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka inspired the novel. The Ocean Lady arrived in 2009 and the MV Sun Sea in August 2010. When the ships arrived, to say the country was unwelcoming is a real euphemism. There was a lot of cruelty. I began thinking about my own family, which is from the north of Sri Lanka — and how I was living here in St. John’s as a citizen and how this terrible thing that was happening could have easily been happening to me.
In 2010 after the arrival of the MV Sun Sea, I was thinking about the birth lottery — who gets to be born in which country and at which moments. So much of life is like a dice roll before you’re even born — so many important things about your life come predetermined. At that time, these thoughts were just percolating as I wasn’t a writer yet. In 2013 after writing short stories, I felt ready to write a novel and the thoughts I’d been having years earlier came back to me. That’s how the novel began.
Q: It’s been a few years since this book first appeared. Has your relationship with it changed since it left your desk?
Bala: It’s not my book anymore. Once I published The Boat People and it went out into the world it stopped being mine. Now, it belongs to the readers. In the first two years when I was heavily promoting the book and meeting readers, people would tell me their thoughts about the characters and get into fights, particularly about Grace. I love that people come to the book with different experiences and each reader has a different relationship with the novel.
Q: When the migrants reach Vancouver, why did you think it was important to give glances into life in Sri Lanka?
Bala: When the boat arrives, all 503 refugees are taken to prison — men in one, women in another, the children with the women. I really felt that when Mahindan and the other characters were in prison, that’s not who they are. Who they are is who they were before they got onto the boat — the people in their own country, in their own language, with their feet on their own native land. I wanted to show who they were outside of being a refugee.
Without flashbacks, you wouldn’t have met the other people in their lives in Sri Lanka, or how difficult the decision was to leave their country. As a writer, I wouldn’t have been able to explore the nuanced part of their characters — a story where the protagonist is behind bars and has no agency is stagnant. To be dynamic, I had to show Mahindan physically and literally in motion, in Sri Lanka.
Q: You show the dehumanizing aspects of refugee policy through Grace, the adjudicator. Did you intend her as a villain?
Bala: I really enjoy Grace because when I meet readers, especially in book clubs, they fight among themselves. In St. John’s I was in someone’s living room and I think everyone forgot I was there as they started fighting about Grace. Is she a villain? It depends on the reader. Some find her very villainous, and others can see where she’s coming from. For me, it was very important to make her not too easily a villain. She’s in a very difficult position and is totally unprepared for her role as an adjudicator.
To me, she’s not a villain. For Mahindan and Priya she is, but when you get to the parts from her point of view, you discover the many pressures she deals with in her own life.
Q: Was it always your intention to write it from different perspectives?
Bala: Yes, it was always going to be written from multiple perspectives — I love reading stories where in one scene you get the perspective of one character and then you get the scene again from another character’s point of view. I’ve always been interested in how characters view themselves, how they’re viewed by others and the disconnect between those perspectives.
And in the refugee process, so much is about the migrants telling their stories. I was thinking about the slipperiness of truth, memory and story and how all of these things are malleable and changeable. What is truth? What is the real story? Is there one? Who can even know?
So there were always going to be multiple perspectives. Also, it was never going to be Mahindan’s story alone — this story isn’t about Sri Lanka, it’s about Canada. It’s not about these characters and what they’ve been through, but rather it’s about us as a nation, how we see ourselves and how we see others. I was more interested in who Canada is as a country than I was interested in civil war and conflict.
Q: The Boat People takes place some years ago. How do you think it relates to 2021?
Bala: The story of migration and conflict is perennial. Ethnic tension is happening everywhere in the world, including Canada. The lessons are the same — it doesn’t matter the colour of the skin of the characters.
There are themes and questions I think about today that were in the novel: Who gets to raise whose children? Who gets to decide what culture is the better culture? We’re reminded of these issues with the discovery of the 215 bodies in Kamloops. With the tragedy out of London, the same questions come up — and when things like that happen, it’s sometimes described as being the actions of a lone wolf. But that one guy comes out of a system and culture. We’re talking about these things in the present moment but we should have been talking about them a long time ago.
Q: Do you feel fiction has a role to play in inspiring change?
Bala: I feel that fiction can play a role beyond entertainment or escapism. I think books can often be escapist, but the best stories — whether they’re on a screen, on a page or on a stage — are the ones that are both. You escape to another world, into a perspective that’s different than yours. You might laugh and find it entertaining, but it might also make you think. Even the best children’s stories and picture books do that. I think maybe one book shouldn’t have the responsibility of doing all that work, but certainly, a number of narratives put together are how we both perpetuate tropes as well as good information.
Q: When did know you wanted to become a writer?
Bala: I wrote as a kid — I remember writing in Grade 3 on the foolscap paper my teacher would hand out, which was so much fun. I wrote all the way through high school and went to university and said to myself: That was a fun hobby — and didn’t write anything for 10 years. I had a full first career in PR and communications. When I moved to St. John’s I didn’t know anyone, and the winters were very long. I took a writing course in the evenings just for fun and by the end of the semester, I had a number of short stories. I remembered how much I loved to write and I completely re-learned how to do it. When my 9-5 contract job was coming to an end, I decided to spend more time and get more serious about writing. I began writing short stories – that’s how it began.
Q: What advice would you have for emerging or prospective authors?
Bala: Send out your work widely and accept that rejection is part of the process. Rejection is really tough, but it never ends, so if you’re going to be a writer you might as well settle into it. Think of it as building a muscle — a rejection muscle that lets you push back against rejection and try not to let it get you down. At the same time, be open to throwing things away. I have lost count of how many novels I’ve thrown out — it always feels like heartbreak and deeply frustrating, but don’t look back — just keep going forward.
Q: You have won a number of awards. What is the impact of prizes and awards on your confidence and production as a writer?
Bala: The first big prize I won was in 2012 for a short story and it was an Arts and Letters Award in Newfoundland. That win came after a slate of rejection, so it felt amazing. A couple of years later, The Boat People won an unpublished manuscript award, which was a huge ego boost and gave me the confidence to send the manuscript out to agents.
The Writers’ Trust Journey Prize was the first really big prize I won. It’s $10,000 and usually, when you publish a short story you get $50. Getting the $10,000 was amazing but because it came out two months before The Boat People came out, it really helped get the marketing and publicity team to bring the book some recognition. It opened a lot of doors.
The next year, I was on the jury for the Journey Prize. Being on the other side, you can see how difficult the decisions are and how many good stories don’t get recognized. That has helped me when facing rejection, and not to take it as a personal slight against my work. There are definitely stories that didn’t make the Journey Prize anthology the next year that were great stories.
The Writers’ Trust of Canada is a nonprofit organization that champions Canadian writers at every stage of their career, providing funding, recognition, space and time to create transformative work. In 2020, the Writers’ Trust distributed $970,000 to Canadian writers, including close to $400,000 of emergency funding to Canadian writers who were in crisis as a result of the pandemic. Since 2006, the RBC Foundation has sponsored the Writers’ Trust Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers, which celebrates authors of fiction and poetry, providing much-needed support and recognition at the start of a new writer’s career.
The Boat People can be purchased in paperback, digital and audio formats.
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