Author Q&A: Sharon Bala

By Anna Bowen, April 2018

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“If there is something you are shying away from, if there is something that feels dangerous or scary or uncomfortable, you must turn and go toward it. You must go toward the thing that you don’t want to write about and write that thing.” 

Prompted by the 2010 arrival of a ship off the coast of British Columbia carrying nearly 500 Tamil refugees fleeing Sri Lanka after the civil war, Sharon Bala’s The Boat People takes a sharp look at Canada’s immigration system and the complications of belonging. The manuscript of The Boat People won the Percy Janes First Novel Award (May 2015), was short listed for the Fresh Fish Award (October 2015) and was a finalist for CBC’s Canada Reads 2018. Sharon’s story “Butter Tea at Starbucks” won the 2017 Journey Prize. Sharon is part of the Port Authority writing group in Saint John’s, Nfld.

AB Can you talk about what inspired you to write this book?

SB It was inspired by the arrival of two real ships – the Ocean Lady in October of 2009 and the MV Sun Sea which … came in the summer of 2010. When they arrived it was just at the end of the Sri Lankan civil war and a lot of Tamil people in Sri Lanka were still stuck in these prison camps and they escaped, got on boats, and made their way here.

I was living here in Saint John’s. My family is also from Sri Lanka — my father is Tamil — so we also left and came here because of that war, but we came in the mid-80s when the doors were open, and these other Tamils had come now in 2009 and 2010 when the doors were being slammed shut in their faces. And that disconnect is what drove me to write the novel…

I didn’t mean to write the novel about refugees, originally I wanted to write a novel about a big Canadian-Sri Lankan family… 

I find myself telling other emerging writers, if you find something that you are shying away from, if there is something that feels dangerous or uncomfortable or scary, you must turn and go towards that thing. You must go toward that thing you don’t want to write about and write that thing.

AB Was this move from what you had originally envisioned for the book to what it then became related to Lisa Moore’s advice to “put your characters in peril”?

SB [laughs] No, I think actually I put myself I peril in the sense that I set myself up to write this book where I had to do a lot of research about very horrible things like war and what comes out of war and also the difficult moral choices that people end up making when they are in those life or death situations. Even though Lisa gave me that advice, I was still doing a lot of things to avoid putting the characters in peril. Some of the flashback scenes in the novel didn’t get written until the second last draft … I knew all the hard parts of [Mahindan’s] life, but I didn’t write those scenes…It was really my editors who said, “you have to write those things” [laughs] and when I wrote those scenes I thought, yes, why didn’t I do this, I am such a wimp!

AB There is so much diversity in these characters, people who have immigrated at different times and from different places. How much was this intentional?

SB [Writers] are always researching, walking the world and filing all of what we see for later. I think it’s just the reality of what I see. Particularly you can’t set a book in Vancouver and not have a diversity of characters. But people ask me why two of the antagonists in the book come from immigrant families. I think when you look around at the world that is what you see. It’s not just Fred Blaire with his Irish ancestors who are trying to shut the door in peoples’ faces.

AB Can you talk about Grace’s character?

SB She is suffering from a kind of family amnesia, which is understandable in the context that her grandparents on both sides suffered the [Japanese] internment and because of that trauma the way that they coped with it was not to think about it … The story of “public safety was used against us as a reason to put us in detention” is the thing that has been forgotten in this family and that Grace’s mother Kumi is trying to resurrect. 

AB You wrote on your blog about the notion of resilience. Can you talk more about this idea?

SB Since the book came out, I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude, about how grateful I am to my parents who made a pretty big move across and ocean — I was seven, my sister was one, my grandmother was with us – they did all that so I didn’t have to. At this Canada Reads event in St. John’s the other week they had five new Canadians come and tell their stories. One man said he had arrived seven months ago from Mozambique where he had lived in a refugee camp for 17 years. I cannot even conceive of that amount of time – but that’s just because my life has been so easy. We do say that people have resilience … but if you’ve never known an easy life, it’s more a way of life … maybe it’s something we don’t have a word for in English, something we’ve never had to make a word for.

Watch for Sharon Bala’s short story, “Mutton Curry” in the spring 2018 issue of Maisonneuve.