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Joan Sullivan: Novel tells story of refugees

Book cover
Book cover - Submitted

Sharan Bala has woven believable, full-fledged characters in ‘The Boat People’

The Boat People

By Sharon Bala

McClelland & Stewart

$24.95.  400 pages

Sharon Bala’s debut novel is a rich and timely work. It’s tempting to say it’s ripped from the headlines, but it’s also torn form the history books. “The Boat People” are 500 Sri Lankans who’ve spent everything they had to get their families to a safe place. That’s one specific news item, but of course people have always been on the move, fleeing from trouble or seeking a brighter future. First Nations excepted, everyone’s background is as an immigrant. 

But, even though we share this travelling DNA, newcomers have usually toted the baggage of suspicion, evoked derision (or much worse), and been marginalized. After all what is their real goal in relocating to this new country? Will they accept our values, or (secretly) nurture their own? Are they terrorists? Bala’s entwining of so many incomer histories is just one of this novel’s strengths.

 “The Boat People” has three main characters and the narrative switches between their perspectives.

Mahindan has managed to get himself and his little son, Sellian, aboard that ship heading for Canada. The Tamils are packed below deck, escaping the civil war in Sri Lanka, smuggling themselves across the Pacific. They know they are breaking some laws, but they are not criminals, they have their proper documentation. They ackowledge they are losing their home, but anticipate building a new one, amid neighbours who will never know some of the horrors they (and their children) have experienced.

But their trajectory runs into the barrier of political and public opinion. Maybe these refugees are legitimate, maybe they aren’t. It needs to be carefully determined just who is who. The Tamil Tigers, the LTTE, have been fighting their government for years, and the Canadian government has banned supporting them. And in any case why did they chose to take an illegal route? Doesn’t that make them queue-jumpers who don’t respect the process? Mahindan and Sellian and their fellow passengers are detained, Mahindan taken in shackles, and deportation is a very real threat — and a death sentence.

Priya is an articling law student, assigned by her firm assisting Mr. Gigovaz with his pro bono work with the refugees. Having set her sights on the cleaner, more prestigious field of corporate law, she’s not pleased. True, she is of Sri Lankan heritage, though she doesn’t speak much of the language and her father has actually dissuaded her from becoming active in any Sri Lankan groups — politics being something best left behind. But with Mahindan as a client Priya becomes part of this stressful, murky, fretful process.

Grace is a civil servant, a long associate of MP Fred Blair, now Minister of Public Safety and able to reward Grace’s years of hard work with a plum: adjudicating the refugees.

“These people are not who they say they are,” he tells her. “The LTTE are using civilians as cover to sneak in. Don’t forget, these are the terrorists who invented suicide bombing.”

Grace takes the work without much thought or preparation, but her mother, Kumi, whose Japanese-born parents, Issei, were interned during the Second World War, certainly has some opinions about it.

Each emerges a fully-fledged person: Mahindan sympathetic but not uncorrupted; Priya more and more alert to the issues at stake; Grace timidly blinkered but with enough honesty to try and balance caution and compassion — even as her mother persistently reminds her that what happened before could happen again.

The obstacles and bureaucratic whims the refugees must negotiate are arbitrary and jarring. Regularly hearings end with nothing decided but that there must be another hearing, in three or four weeks. In this exchange, Amarjit Singh, the lawyer representing Border Services, attempts what she perceives is a fait accompli proving one refugee is masking her true identity, as proved by a necklace:

Singh spoke directly to Grace. Our intelligence suggests this is a specific tha-li, not the generic one that formalizes all marriages. As I said, this one is only given to LTTE members. To signify the husband’s bravery, it has two tiger teeth with a tiger symbol in the middle.

[Priya] spoke a little louder. I’m Tamil and I’m telling you there is no such thing as a Tiger thali.

Singh turned to her: Do you know that for sure? When was the last time you were in Sri Lanka?

[Priya] banged her fist on the table and the sketch artist startled.

You can’t even pronounce it right, she yelled. So how would you know?

People have always had to answer the question: how would you know? How would you know what would you do to protect your family? Those who left their native country have made one choice. Those receiving them must make another.

Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.

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