The Boat People by Sharon BalaThe Boat People by Sharon Bala

The Boat People

bySharon Bala

Paperback | January 9, 2018

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In the tradition of Lawrence Hill’s The Illegal, Chris Cleave’s Little Bee, and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, and inspired by real incident, The Boat People is an extraordinary novel about a group of refugees who survive a perilous ocean voyage to reach Canada – only to face the threat of deportation and accusations of terrorism in their new land.
 
When the rusty cargo ship carrying Mahindan and five hundred fellow refugees from Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war reaches Canadian shores, the young father believes he and his six-year-old son can finally begin a new life. Instead, the group is thrown into prison, with government officials and news headlines speculating that hidden among the “boat people” are members of a terrorist organization infamous for their suicide attacks. As suspicion swirls and interrogation mounts, Mahindan fears the desperate actions he took to survive and escape Sri Lanka now jeopardize his and his son’s chances for asylum.
     Told through the alternating perspectives of Mahindan; his lawyer, Priya, a second-generation Sri Lankan-Canadian who reluctantly represents the refugees; and Grace, a third-generation Japanese-Canadian adjudicator who must decide Mahindan’s fate, The Boat People is a spellbinding and timely novel that provokes a deeply compassionate lens through which to view the current refugee crisis.
SHARON BALA lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland. She is a member of The Port Authority writing group. The Boat People is her first novel.
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Title:The Boat PeopleFormat:PaperbackDimensions:416 pages, 8.25 × 5.62 × 1.03 inPublished:January 9, 2018Publisher:McClelland & StewartLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0771024290

ISBN - 13:9780771024290

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Read from the Book

  Beginning July 2009   Mahindan was flat on his back when the screaming began, one arm right-angled over his eyes. He heard the whistle and thud of falling artillery, the cries of the dying. Mortar shells and rockets, the whole world on fire.     Then another sound. It cut through the clamour so that for a drawn-out second there was nothing else, only him and his son and the bomb that arched through the sky with a shrill banshee scream, spinning nose aimed straight for them. Mahindan fought to open his eyes. His limbs were pinned down and heavy. He struggled to move, to call out in terror, to clamber and run. The ground rumbled. The shell exploded, shards of hot metal spitting in its wake. The tent was rent in half. Mahindan jolted awake.     Heart like a sledgehammer, he sat up frantic, blinking into the darkness. He heard someone panting and long seconds later realized it was him. The echoing whine of flying shrapnel faded and he returned to the present, to the coir mat under him, back to the hold of the ship.     There were snores and snuffles, the small nocturnal noises of five hundred slumbering bodies. Beneath him, the engine’s monotonous whir. He reached out, instinctive, felt his son Sellian curled up beside him, then lay down again. The back of his neck was damp.     His pulse still raced. He smelled the sourness of his skin, the raw animal stink of the bodies all around. The man on the next mat slept with his mouth open. His snore was a revving motorcycle, so close Mahindan could almost feel the warm exhales.     He put his hand against Sellian’s back, felt it move up and down. Gradually, his own breathing slowed to the same rhythm. He ran a hand through his son’s hair, fine and silky, the soft strands of a child, then stroked his arm, felt the roughness of his skin, the long, thin scratches, the scabbed-over insect bites. Sellian was slight. Six years old and barely three feet tall. How little space the child occupied, coiled into himself, his thumb in his mouth. How precarious his existence, how miraculous his survival.     Mahindan’s vision adjusted and shapes emerged out of the gloom. The thin rails on either side of the ladder. Lamps strung up along an electrical cord. Outside the porthole window, it was still pitch-black.     Careful not to wake Sellian, he stood and gingerly made his way across the width of the ship toward the ladder, stepping between bodies huddled on thin mats and ducking under sleepers swaying overhead, cocooned in rope hammocks. It was hot and close, the atmosphere suffocating.     Hema’s thick plait trailed out on the dirty floor. Mahindan stooped to pick it up and laid it gently on her back as he passed by. Her two daughters shared the mat beside her; they lay on their sides facing each other, knees and foreheads touching. A few feet on, he passed the man with the amputated leg and averted his gaze.     During the day the ship was rowdy with voices, but now he heard only the slap of the electrical cord against the wall, everyone breathing in and out, recycling the same stale, diesel-scented air.     A boy cried out in his sleep, caught in a nightmare, and when Mahindan turned toward the sound, he saw Kumuran’s wife comfort her son. With both hands grasping the banisters, Mahindan hoisted himself up the ladder. Emerging onto the deck, inhaling the fresh scent of salt and sea, he felt immediately lighter. From overhead, the mast creaked and he gazed up to see the stars, the half-appam moon glowing alive in the sky. At the thought of appam – doughy, hot off the fire – his stomach gave a plaintive, hollow grumble.     It was dark, but he knew his way around the ship. A dozen plastic buckets were lined up along the stern. He squatted in front of one and formed his hands into a bowl. The water was tepid, murky with twigs and bits of seaweed. He splashed water on his face and the back of his neck, feeling the grit scratch his skin.     The boat – a sixty-metre freighter, past its prime and jerry-rigged for five hundred passengers – was cruising through calm waters, groaning under the weight of too much human cargo. Mahindan held on to the railing, rubbing a thumb against the blistered rust.     A few others were out, shadowy figures keeping silent vigil on both levels of the deck. They had been at sea for weeks or months, sunrises blurring into sunsets. Days spent on deck, tarps draped overhead to block out the sun, and the floor burning beneath them. Stormy nights when the ship would lurch and reel, Sellian cradled in Mahindan’s lap, their stomachs tumbling with the pitch and yaw of the angry ocean.     But the captain had said they were close and for days they had been expecting land, a man posted at all times in the crow’s nest.     Mahindan turned his back to the railing and slid down to sit on the deck. Exhaustion whenever he thought of the future; terror when he remembered the past. He yawned and pressed a cheek to raised knees, then tucked his arms in for warmth. At least here on the boat they were safe from attack. Ruksala, Prem, Chithra’s mother and father. The roll call of the dead lulled him to sleep. —— He awoke to commotion and gull shrieks. A boy ran down the length of the ship calling for his father. Appa! Appa! There were more people on the deck now, all of them speaking in loud, excited voices.     The man they called Ranga stood at the railing beside him, staring out. Mahindan was dismayed to see him.     Land is close, Ranga said.     Mahindan scanned the straight line of the ocean, trying not to blink. Nearby, a young man stood on the rail and levered his body half out of the boat. An older woman called out: Take care!     After all this time, finally we have arrived, Ranga said. He grinned at Mahindan and added: Because of you only, I am here.     Nothing to do with me, Mahindan said. We all took our own chance.     Mahindan kept his gaze fixed on the horizon. At first he saw the head of a pin, far in the distance, but as he kept watching, the vision emerged. Purple-brown land and blue mountains like ghosts rising in the background. The newspaperman came to join them as the slope of a forest appeared. Mahindan had spoken to him a few times but could not recall his name. Someone said he had been working for a paper in Colombo before he fled.     We will be intercepted, the newspaperman said. Americans or Canadians, who will catch us first?     Catch us? Ranga repeated, his voice rising to a squeak.     But now there were people streaming onto the deck, squeezing in for a view at the railing, and the newspaperman was jostled away. Mahindan edged aside too, relieved to put distance between himself and Ranga.     There were voices and bodies everywhere. Women plaited their hair over one shoulder. Men pulled their arms through their T-shirts. Most were barefoot. People pressed up around him. The boat creaked and Mahindan felt it list, as everyone crowded in. They stood shoulder to shoulder, people on both levels of the deck, hushing one another, children holding their breath. The trees, the mountains, the strip of beach they could now make out up ahead, it all seemed impossibly big, unreal after days and nights of nothing but sea and sky and the rumbling of the ship. Nightmares of rusted steel finally giving way, belching them all into the ocean.     Sellian appeared, squeezing himself between legs, one fist against his eyes. Appa, you left me!     How to leave? Mahindan said. Did you think I jumped in the ocean? He picked his son up in the crook of one arm and pointed. Look! We’re here.     The clouds burned orange. Mahindan squinted. People shouted and pointed. Look!     There was a tugboat in the water and a larger ship, its long nose turned up, speeding toward them, sleek and fast, with a tall white flagpole. The wind unfurled the flag, red and white, majestic in the flaming sky. They saw the leaf and a great resounding cheer shook the boat.     The captain cut the engine and they floated placid. Overhead, there was a chopping sound. Mahindan saw a helicopter, its blades slicing the sky, a red leaf painted on its belly. There were three boats now, all of them circling the ship, a welcome party. On the deck, people waved with both hands. The red-and-white flag snapped definitive.     Mahindan gripped his son. Sellian shivered in his arms, from fear, from exhilaration, he couldn’t tell. Soon Mahindan was shaking too, armpits dampening. His teeth clattered.     Their new life. It was just beginning.

Bookclub Guide

Discussion Questions for The Boat People   1. Why do you think the author chose The Boat People as her title? Throughout history, the term “boat people” has been used to refer to different waves of migrants. Who did you think the boat people of the title were going to be? What other examples of “boat people” are you aware of?   2. Consider the book’s epigraph by Martin Luther King Jr.: “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” How does this epigraph relate to the plot or set the stage for the themes explored in the book?   3. Author Sharon Bala has said that she wrote the novel as a “meditation on empathy.” Discuss how the novel explores both the need for empathy as well as how it is tested.   4. The novel is told through the perspectives of three characters: Priya, Grace, and Mahindan, both in the present and in the past. What do you think the reader gains by having access to these different points of view? What do each of these perspectives bring to the story? Whose story did you enjoy most? Whose story surprised you the most?   5. Examine the relationships between parents and their children in the book. How would you characterize these relationships? What does being a parent mean to Mahindan, Grace, Kumi, Appa, and Hema? What sacrifices have these parents made for their children? Discuss the expectations the parents have for their children.   6. On p.53, Grace’s mother, Kumi, describes how her parents “kept quiet” about what the family endured during the internment of Japanese Canadians, because they “thought they were protecting us.” Later, on p.109, Grace recalls her grandmother telling her to “Focus on tomorrow. No point regretting yesterday.” Priya’s parents and Uncle Romesh also choose not to tell Priya or Rat about their past in Sri Lanka but for different reasons. What would you have done in their shoes? How did you feel about the bond that develops between Kumi and her granddaughters as they join in her “family history project” (p.200)? How forthcoming have your own relatives been about your family’s past?    7. Kumi is suffering from Alzheimer’s. In what ways does her illness reflect some of the book’s themes?   8. On p.54, Priya recognizes Charlie “as someone both fluently Canadian and authentically Sri Lankan, one of those third-culture people who slipped in and out of identities like shoes.” How does Priya feel about her own ability to negotiate between her two identities? How does this compare with how Priya is viewed by her Sri Lankan clients?   9. On p.105, Grace and her daughters review the Japanese terms Issei, Nisei, Sansei, and Yonsei, literally first-, second-, third-, and fourth-generation. Priya and her brother, Rat (Michael), are first-generation Canadians, while Grace is a third-generation Canadian. Yet, despite being born in Canada, they each have their moments of cultural conflict. Examine these instances. As possible first-generation Canadians, how do you think Hema’s daughters (Tara and Padmini) and Sellian will fare in the future?   10. Many of the characters have to let go of certain possessions over the course of the novel. For example, Mahindan has to relinquish his grandfather’s suitcase, and Priya gives away some of her mother’s saris. What do other characters give up, both literally and metaphorically? In contrast, Kumi is constantly losing personal items, while at the same time trying to locate documentation such as deeds and ledgers related to the family’s former home and business. Sellian also manages to hold on to his Ganesha statue. Discuss the significance of what these characters surrender or hold on to, and how it reflects on their stories.   11. What is the significance of The Nature of Things episode described on p.84, especially in relation to what Fred Blair tells Grace in the final paragraph on p.91?   12. On p.103, about the game show hostess on The Price Is Right, Mahindan remarks, “She was not part of the compe­tition. Or she had already won. And this was the ultimate prize, being onstage among all the beautiful things.” Why does he think she is already a winner?   13. On p.32, the interpreter tells Mahindan, “You have come to a good place. There is room for you here.” Later, on p.119, former prime minister Brian Mulroney is quoted as saying, “Canada is not in the business of turning refugees away. If we err, let it be on the side of compassion.” Discuss the portrayal of the Canadian refugee system in the book. Has it changed your perspective on the traditional representation of Canada as a welcoming nation?   14. Discuss the concept of the “model migrant.” Over the course of the novel, we learn of the morally ambiguous choices made by Mahindan and Uncle Romesh. What would you have done? How did you feel about the comparisons Mahindan makes on p.146?    15. What did you make of Grace’s interactions with Fred Blair and Mitchell Hurst, respectively? Do you feel Mitchell Hurst’s suspicion is justified?   16. In “Back to hell” (p.148), Grace bristles at what she perceives to be ambiguities in Hema’s testimony, whether it’s the use of the word caught instead of recruited, or the varying reports about whether the army soldiers were shooting at the defectors or helping them to escape. Do you feel her reaction is warranted? What do you make of Grace’s tendency to avoid referring to the refugee claimants by name?   17. Are Grace’s fears justified or is she being over-cautious? What decision do you think she makes in the end?   18. Many of the migrants learn to speak English over the course of the novel. Did their experiences remind you of your own experiences while learning English, French, or another language?   19. Has your perspective on immigrants and refugees changed after reading this book? Is there anything you now see differently?   20. Were you of the same mind regarding whether Mahindan should be allowed to stay or not throughout the novel? At what points did you waver one way or the other? How did you feel in the end?   21. Discuss the book’s ending. Why do you think the author chose to end the book when she does?     22. Some of the book’s most riveting scenes take place in Sri Lanka during the civil war. What other books have you read that take place during a time of war, civil or otherwise? How did those portrayals compare to the scenes in this novel? Had you heard of the Sri Lankan Civil War before reading this book? What were your impressions of Sri Lanka prior to reading this novel?   23. When asked about how the historical events of her novel increasingly appear pulled from today’s headlines, Bala has said that she never expected the book’s plot to “sound like warning bells rather than history lessons.” How is the novel relevant for us today?   24. Who would you recommend The Boat People to? Why?          

Editorial Reviews

Advance Praise: "The Boat People is a burning flare of a novel, at once incendiary and illuminating. With a rare combination of precision, empathy and insight, Sharon Bala has crafted an unflinching examination of what happens when the fundamental human need for safety collides with the cold calculus of bureaucracy. In the best tradition of fearless literature, it shatters our comfortable illusions about who we really are, reveals just how asymmetrical the privilege of belonging can be. This is a brilliant debut – a story that needs to be told, told beautifully."  —Omar El Akkad, author of American War"The Boat People is full of drama and character, sharp bold sentences and movement of all sorts, global and interior. Gorgeous writing, compassionate and urgent." —Lisa Moore“The Boat People is a powerful, gripping moral drama told with deep compassion and humanity. Sharon Bala takes us behind the headlines about refugees and asylum seekers straight into the beating hearts of unforgettable human beings. A timely tale and a beautiful, remarkable debut.”      —Lynne Kutsukake, author of The Translation of Love“This wise and compassionate novel is an intimate portrait of one of the great humanitarian crises of our time. Its power lies in its breadth, for it examines not just those who come to our country seeking refuge, but also those who determine their fate. As such it implicates us all in the ongoing crisis.”     —Shyam Selvadurai, author of The Hungry Ghosts and Funny Boy“The Boat People is a beautifully crafted story with a big heart. This novel has an urgency and relevance that cuts to the bone and will resonate with readers of all stripes. Bala offers no easy answers and no political posturing, but her magnificent storytelling will leave readers wondering about their own convictions, asking themselves, ‘What would I do? What would I have done?’ The spirits of Bala’s complicated, well-developed characters will linger with you like ghosts; you will look for them in the newspaper, on the evening news, everywhere, and when you encounter them, you will pause and wonder, not only about them but about yourself.” —Michael Stone, author of Border Child