If initial reviews and comments are any indication, those who pick up Sharon Bala’s first novel “The Boat People” will be pleased with her interpretation of a difficult refugee situation.
Those reviews have been positive and several literary prizes and awards she has already been afforded only further strengthen the quality of the work she will debut on Thursday, Jan. 18 at the Eastern Edge Gallery in St. John’s from 7:30-9 p.m.
“The Boat People” is about a group of refugees who survive a perilous ocean voyage only to face the threat of deportation amid accusations of terrorism.
Bala will read an excerpt from “The Boat People” which will also be available for sale at the event. In addition, musicians from the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra will perform.
“Right now, I am nervous about bad weather,’’ she said as the clock ticks towards the launch. So she hopes Mother Nature co-operates to allow people to come out and celebrate her book.
She is anxious to have her worked debuted and has gone through the progressions most new writers face, especially in the days leading into completion of their first novel.
“In the fall, I was nervous about it getting published and before I sold the book, I was pushing the demons aside of ‘what if I never get published?’ ” she said.
Once the final draft was complete and the editing process was done, she said she wondered how the people she loves in her life would view her book as she wanted them to like it.
Enter her mother, father and sister to the process.
“My mother read the first draft and she provided feedback more on the plot and characters. She read the first and last drafts and said to me ‘the finished product had improved from the first draft,’’ she said.
“My father read it and he told me afterwards that it was the first novel he has ever read,’’ she said.
“He caught a few spelling mistakes and talked to me about a few things in the book that resonated with him,’’ she added.
In addition, Bala said she has been texting back and forth with her sister about the novel.
“She said to me that she recognizes (some familiar personal things) this or that,’’ she said.
A close friend has messaged her after reading it and spoke about a scene at the end of the novel when an old woman with dementia whips a bottle of Ensure — a dietary supplement drink — at someone’s head.
“She asked me, is that my grandma and I said yes,’’ she said noting she had drawn on a story her friend had told her about her grandmother and the struggles she had with dementia.
Her affiliation with the Writer’s Alliance and the two awards she garnered for “The Boat People” — and just living in Newfoundland and Labrador and the support and inspiration the arts community has for aspiring writers — has made this journey special.
“I never would have been a writer unless I moved here. The cultural organizations in this province are very supportive of writers,’’ Bala said.
Winning the Percy James Award gave her a boost of confidence that led to her shopping the book around to agents and then being shortlisted for the Fresh Fish award led to her getting an agent. In addition, the Writer’s Alliance has provided her with plenty of great, free resources that have helped foster her writing.
Keeping it real
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, Bala’s novel is an unforgettable and necessary story for our times.
While the book is fictional, it does point to the struggle refugees from not only Sri Lanka, but all countries face across the globe.
The book follows Mahindan and nearly five hundred fellow refugees as they reach the shores of British Columbia as the young father and his six-year-old son seek to begin a new life by putting Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war behind them.
That dream was short-lived as Mahindan and the refugees were imprisoned, suspected of being members of the Tamil Tigers, a terrorist militia infamous for suicide attacks.
Mahindan fears the chances for their asylum are dwindling as suspicion surrounding their affiliations mount.
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.
Some of Bala’s inspiration for the novel came during a visit to Halifax’s Pier 21 museum, a location that has served as a place of inspiration for countless thousands of people who came to Canada seeking a better life.
So too did it serve as inspiration and a reminder of life and history and how the two are easily interchanged.
She and her husband were at the Pier 21 museum during some down time on a visit to Halifax in 2010, when something she saw at one of the exhibits stuck with her.
More than 6,000 kilometres away, in Vancouver, Tamil refugees were being anything but welcomed into Canada.
This gave her some clarity about her own situation and also struck a chord with her as she recounted the quote she had read that came from an immigration officer speaking to a Hungarian refugee hoping to start a better life in Canada in the 1950s was “You’ve come to a good country. There is room for you here.”
She gave those words to one of the characters in the novel that followed the question throughout its pages — and the theme of what kind of nation is Canada — dominated the book.
Bala — herself of Sri Lankan heritage — knew that people who had fled a civil war in her native country, were not being afforded the same opportunities that she had learned about at Pier 21.
“That could have been my family coming across on one of those ships instead of on a plane as my family did.”
That inspirational ship was the MV Sun Sea, a ship that was intercepted off the coast of British Columbia by Canadian authorities in 2010 after a three-month journey from Thailand.
The passengers claimed refugee status due to the armed conflict between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil fighters, but were detained on suspicion that some of them had links to the Tamil Tigers terrorist organization.
Sharon Bala lives in St. John’s where she is a member of The Port Authority writing group.
Her short story “Butter Tea at Starbucks” won the prestigious Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize in 2017.
In addition, she received the 2015 Percy Janes First Novel Award and was a finalist for the NLCU Fresh Fish Award for her first novel — “The Boat People” manuscript.
For more on the author and her work, visit SharonBala.com.