I received a copy of The Boat People for volunteering at the Giller Light Bash in November. With the topics of immigration and refugees in the news a lot, I figured it would be an ambitious novel and I wasn’t disappointed.
Told from multiple perspectives, The Boat People is the story of a group of Sri Lankan refugees who survive the ocean journey to Canada, only to face suspicion, threats, and interrogations.
Mahindan is a widowed father grateful to be on Canadian soil after years of turmoil in his home country. He hopes Canada will offer a better future for his six-year-old son, but with government officials and the media looking for any excuse to deport the newcomers, he worries that the lengths he went to escape Sri Lanka could harm his and his son’s chances.
Fighting for Mahindan’s right to stay in the country is Priya, a reluctant immigration lawyer. And judging his case is Grace, a third-generation Japanese-Canadian adjudicator.
Based on real-life events, The Boat People is a compelling story that sheds light on the high-stakes world of refugee hearings.
Let’s get into it…
Wow. This book is so ambitious y’all. Not only does it take on what some would call a hot-button issue, it does so with empathy and nuance. Debut novelist Sharon Bala deserves a wealth of praise for all the research and thought she put into exploring complex moral and legal situations as well as for her writing prowess.
The novel transitions between past and present as Mahindan faces refugee hearings and the circumstances of his coming to Canada are revealed. This format highlights the contrast between Canada and Sri Lanka and the disappointment of finding safety only to be stripped of freedom.
With its in-depth portrayal of the legal processes surrounding becoming refugees, The Boat People also highlights the diversity of refugee experiences. Though Mahindan’s story gets the most attention, the group of Sri Lankan’s includes a mother with her teenage daughters, a journalist, and a disabled man. Their reactions to imprisonment vary and so does what happens at their hearings.
Priya’s and Grace’s perspectives complement the refugee stories. Priya is Tamil herself, but growing up in Canada, she didn’t interact with many other Sri Lankans. Grace is Japanese, but she, her mother, and her daughters have different relationships to their Japanese-Canadian identities. It is really interesting to see how Bala intertwines the narratives of different generations of Canadians with Mahindan’s and the other newcomers’ stories.
The Boat People not only contains characters of different ethnicities and cultures, but also presents a wide range of views on refugees, terrorism, and Canada. Bala treats each character with empathy and explores why they believe what they do. For example, Grace initially appears to follow the more conservative Canada first/protect our borders view of the refugees. But as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that she is concerned for the safety of her children, has a complicated relationship with her family’s past (Japanese internment), and is struggling with personal loyalty to a mentor. Yet, she isn’t made of stone. The stories she hears during the hearings complicate her worldview, and she becomes more aware of her biases and shortcomings as an adjudicator.
Priya, on the other hand, is a reluctant representative of the refugees. She originally wants to be a corporate lawyer and is resentful when she’s appointed to the refugee cases seemingly for no other reason than her own ethnicity. Yet, like Grace, she is swayed by the stories she hears.
In everything, Bala’s writing is nuanced. Sri Lanka isn’t just a war-torn country, it is a home where people lived happily and operated businesses. Canada is both racist and refuge. Mahindan and the other refugees aren’t all exceptional, they have flaws as well as virtues. Grace isn’t a heartless adjudicator and Priya isn’t a selfless advocate. The novel could easily be one-sided, could easily rely on archetypes, but it doesn’t. It explores and emphasizes a range of humanity. It does not provide any easy answers, but it presents empathy as a powerful and important part of addressing refugee crises.
Final thoughts: The Boat People is a stunning portrayal of the lives of refugees and those involved in the refugee hearing process. Though it deals with difficult – emotional and legal – subject matter, its characters make it hard to put down.