February 22, 2020

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Brave new world

Sharon Bala's engaging debut novel tackles Tamil asylum-seekers in B.C.

Nadia Ginting photo</p><p>Sharon Bala’s writing shows the human side of her three main characters throughout their struggles.</p>

Nadia Ginting photo

Sharon Bala’s writing shows the human side of her three main characters throughout their struggles.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/2/2018 (735 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The recent surge of asylum-seekers and refugees into Canada makes Sharon Bala’s first novel timely and important.

Based on a notorious event — 500 Sri Lankan Tamils fleeing by cargo ship to British Columbia in 2010 — The Boat People presents the viewpoints of those arriving as well as those who must decide if they can stay.

Born in Dubai, author Sharon Bala moved to Ontario when she was seven and currently lives in St. John’s, N.L. She won the 2017 Journey Prize for best short story in a Canadian literary journal.

Bala’s strength is in showing the human side of everyone involved. She concentrates on three main characters: Mahindan, a Tamil widower in his mid-30; Priya, a young female Sri Lankan-Canadian who, as a law student, is involved with pleading the case of the boat people in their bid to stay in Canada; and Grace, a Japanese-Canadian mother filling the role of adjudicator at the hearings.

Many details of the situation — trying to evaluate individuals amidst federal government concern about letting in criminals — might have been dull and bureaucratic if Bala’s narrative were not so clear and engaging.

Most of the novel is devoted to Mahindan: his crude ocean trip with his six-year-old son Sellian; his being detained in a B.C. prison while Sellian is taken away from him and placed in the custody of foster parents; and his numerous nervous appearances before the Immigration and Refugee Board.

In flashbacks, Bala shows Mahindan’s life as a mechanic in Sri Lanka, his heartbreak over his wife’s death in childbirth and the terrifying suppression of Tamils by the ruling Sinhalese.

Bala captures the frustration of a man simply trying to make a living in a hostile environment, coping with the terrifying reality of conflict in his native land and the great range of emotions he experiences in Canada while trying to understand and learn English and wanting a serene life for his son.

Priya is articling with a veteran lawyer named Gigovaz, who takes her along to the hearings, where she hopes to learn immigration law. Despite her ancestry, Priya knows no Tamil and must rely on interpreters who, in Bala’s hands, take on personalities of their own. As well, Bala provides a close look at members of Priya’s family.

The role of adjudicator in such immigration matters is new to Grace. She’s a good friend of a federal cabinet minister who believes all refugees are potential terrorists. She has leanings that way too, but is well aware of how Japanese-Canadians were treated by Canada during the Second World War. And her mother, Kumi, is not about to let her forget it.

For Grace, "more nerve-racking were the ambiguous cases, the ones where there was more conjecture than solid evidence. Don’t you ever worry about letting the wrong person in?" she asks her mentor, Mitchell Hurst. "I worry about sending the wrong person back," he replies.

Grace, too, is seen in her domestic life, with her husband and her twin teen girls. Her coping with her mother, her growing kids and her job makes for a lively and accurate portrayal of a contemporary Canadian woman.

The Boat People is a comprehensive and enlightening novel on a topic that should concern all thinking Canadians.

Dave Williamson is a Winnipeg writer whose latest book, Visiting Fellow, is a novel about a Canadian in Tasmania.


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