Sharon Bala's debut, The Boat People—which has become a bestseller, a Canada Reads finalist, and been critically acclaimed since it was published in January—is wholly deserving of all its success. It's a novel that manages to be timely and topical but also moving and evocative, a beautifully rendered work of literature. And now we're grateful to Bala for sharing with us some of the books behind her book with this recommended reading list.
The Boat People is about a widower and his young son, survivors of the Sri Lankan civil war who come to Canada seeking asylum and a fresh start. Yes, this is a book about war and refugees but it’s also about so many other things: identity, belonging, family secrets, inter-generational conflict, and nationalism.
A book about so many interconnecting themes requires a tremendous amount of research. I learned so much about Canada’s history, about the different waves of people who washed up on our shores, about refugee law, the Sri Lankan civil war, the Japanese internment, war-time propaganda, Alzheimer's, and PTSD…even menopause. But after the textbook research was through, once I had watched the documentaries, listened to interviews, and read research papers, then I turned with relief to literature. That was where I found the deeper emotional truths and in the end, so many of the books of my shelves seemed to be in conversation with the novel I had written.
Obasan, by Joy Kogawa
Anne Frank’s Diary was one of those school books of my youth that really marked me, that made history and politics devastatingly personal. So why didn’t the Ontario curriculum also include Joy Kogawa’s Obasan? Both books deal with the same kind of atrocity—a country turning against, and imprisoning its own citizens—and yet one points the finger at the Germans and the other implicates us. Everything is political, including the elementary school curriculum. And Obasan too is a political book but its strongest notes are emotional. This is a novel about yearning and loss and a dark family secret lying in wait like an undetonated bomb.
Forgiveness, by Mark Sakamoto
All my emotions—fury, sorrow, indignation, joy—were close to the surface as I read Mark Sakamoto’s Forgiveness. Part memoir, part family history, this book felt so familiar because our books cover much of the same ground. But unlike my Japanese-Canadian characters, who have suppressed rather than dealt with the trauma of the internment, Sakamoto’s family have made their peace, forgiving but not forgetting. Their journey is illuminating for its humanity and empathy.
One of the things that struck me as I researched Canada’s refugee system was its arbitrary nature. How do you arrive: by boat or by plane? What mood is the country in when you get here? Which government is in power and what’s their relationship with the country you just fled? These are the factors that can determine a refugee claim. In her book, All We Leave Behind, veteran journalist Carol Off exposes the system’s capriciousness. Her book centres on the Aryubwal family who suffered seven years of purgatory waiting for their refugee application to be accepted. This was a family who had funding, a private sponsor, and a dogged Canadian reporter on their side. And still it took more than seven years. Off’s book is one I’d like to force a couple of my characters to read.
Ru, by Kim Thuy
People have commented that my novel’s title is unintentionally misleading, the expression “boat people” being so firmly tied to the Vietnamese who came here in the 70s. I thought a lot about the Vietnamese as I wrote my book, particularly in 2015 when we celebrated the 40th anniversary of their arrival. The Vietnamese “boat people” received a generous welcome but what I love about Kim Thuy’s Ru is how deeply she explores the grief and loss that accompanied those arrivals. Despite their good fortunate and the country’s warm welcome, acclimatizing to this new land was a struggle and they were of course looking backward and mourning all they had lost and had to leave. Thuy explores the complicated tangle of gratitude and sorrow with poetry and quietude. Hers was one of the books I looked to as a teacher as I was writing my own.
Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan
What happens when your country turns against you? It happened in Germany in the '30s. It happened in Sri Lanka after independence. It happened in Canada in the 40s. There is nothing new under the sun. Edugyan’s novel traverses this same territory, exploring race and belonging, issues that also loom large in my book. A blonde haired, blue eyed man runs for a tram. He looks the perfect Aryan but secretly he is Jewish. Edugyan plays with the slippery nature of identity, what can and cannot be hidden, how much of who we are is self-defined and how much is imposed on us by others.
Funny Boy, by Shyam Selvadurai
Funny Boy was the first book by a Sri Lankan-Canadian author that I read and identified with. In Selvadurai’s characters—their mannerisms and turns of phrase—I recognized people I knew and loved. This too is a book about belonging, about a main character who is the odd one out, thefunny boywho is punished for dressing up as a bride, who must hide his sexuality, and in the end is forced to flee his homeland because he has the wrong ethnicity. Set in Sri Lanka during the late '70s and early '80s, the years when the tensions that were simmering hit the boiling point, Funny Boy can act as a kind of prologue to The Boat People.
Cinnamon Gardens, by Shyam Selvadurai
The Boat People’s protagonist Mahindan, reminisces often about his grandfather, a man who benefitted in many ways from the British colonial legacy. A high-ranking civil servant, he enjoyed a comfortable upper middle class lifestyle in the upmarket part of Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo. In creating Mahindan’s grandfather, I was thinking of Tamils of a certain generation, the kind who feature prominently in Cinnamon Gardens. Selvadurai’s second novel is set in 1920s Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then called). These were the years when the country was beginning to reach for self-government and independence, years when Sinhalese and Tamils still saw themselves as united and worked together to wrest control of their country back from the British. Reading the book with the benefit of hindsight, I had to wonder: would the Tamil characters have acted differently if they knew what independence would mean? Politics is just the background though. This book is about so much more characters hiding their true natures, presenting one face to the world while being themselves only under cover, families holding their skeletons tight in their fists, a girl coming-of-age, negotiating who she wants to be with society’s expectations.
American War, by Omar El Akkad
I read American War like a driver rubbernecks at a seven-car pile up. After spending so much time researching and thinking about drone warfare, refugees, war, and suicide bombings, and all the other horrors that are commonplace in so much of the world, there was something riveting about reading a novel where all of this is transposed onto the American landscape. El Akkad brings his experience as a journalist to bear on his fiction and that is no doubt why so much of this book feels absolutely true and real. American War has been called dystopian but I think that’s an inaccurate characterization, and frankly pretty arrogant. No country is immune to civil war or catastrophic climate change. What American War shows us is that ultimately we are all the same, regardless of geography or language. When pushed to the brink we all have the capacity to act in great and terrible ways.
About The Boat People: 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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