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The Boat People

by Sharon Bala

“Exhaustion whenever he thought of the future; terror when he remembered the past.” That is the dark introduction to Mahindan, the protagonist of Sharon Bala’s debut novel. Along with nearly 500 other Sri Lankan refugees, Mahindan lies on board the deck of a rusted cargo ship making its way toward Canadian shores. He spends the rest of the novel in a prison, separated from his six-year-old son, Sellian, waiting for bureaucratic meetings and legalities to advance as “the roll call of the dead” – his wife, her parents, and assorted friends – plays in his mind.

Bala constructs a deliberately multi-dimensional examination of the long process of detention reviews and admissibility hearings required to become an official refugee in Canada. Before the reader is told what horrors Mahindan endured, in what context, and how he survived, the novel’s other voices are already speaking, their interpretations and apprehensions of the refugee ship overlapping his experience. One of these voices belongs to Priya, an articling student at the law firm of Elliot, McFadden, and Lo. Priya begrudgingly accepts the work handed off to her by slovenly immigration lawyer Gigovaz when he learns that she’s a second-generation Sri Lankan. Another voice belongs to Grace Nakamura – she, too, is new at her job as an adjudicator with the Immigration and Refugee Board, where she must resolve the crucial hearings that decide the fate of each Tamil passenger.

Mahindan’s flashbacks to his home reveal the “heavy-lidded afternoons” of big family lunches and the “perfect contentment” possible in the years of the ceasefire, after the Tamil Tigers chased the Sinhalese government out of Kilinochchi. When a former classmate and “infamous bully” surprises Mahindan and his cousin Rama outside their temple, armed and outfitted in camouflage and flanked by several other Tigers, Rama has no choice but to join them. Mahindan reminds the Tigers that he’s a mechanic, capable of converting engines and repairing tractors, and they let him be, later leveraging this mercy for favours at his auto repair shop.

The most striking aspect of The Boat People lies in its quietly confident understanding that everyone is complicit in systems of racial and ethnic violence. By varying degrees, and with varying consequences, each character has to find ways to grapple with different kinds of conflict – and Bala’s assertion that no one is completely innocent intensifies her emotionally vivid prose. Priya, her ambitions set on corporate law, feels that her work representing refugees has left “the entire trajectory of her career blindsided by skin colour.” Until her connections with Mahindan and Sellian grow, and she asks her uncle about his own decades-old ties to the Tigers, she sees immigration law solely as a burden, rather than as a system that selectively weighs the value of human lives against national interests.

Similarly, Grace’s power as an adjudicator grows increasingly problematic as it’s revealed that her old boss and mentor, Fred, is using her as a mouthpiece for his own ideology: “‘These people are not who they say they are,’ Fred said. ‘The LTTE are using civilians as cover to sneak in. Don’t forget, these are the terrorists who invented suicide bombing. … You can’t put anything past them.’” As a Japanese-Canadian whose parents suffered through the internment camps of the 1940s, Grace is caught between trying to understand struggles similar to those of her now aging, Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother and acting on her first instinct: fear of the newly arrived “dangerous offenders.”

Mahindan, too, is tangled in the experience of violence and warfare. Coerced into repairing vehicles for the LTTE, he finds himself working on a bus that later explodes at an airport, taking 17 civilian lives. “Was he worse than the engineers who built these explosives? The man who invented gunpowder or the companies that profited from its sale?” War is an enormous industry, from which few bystanders can afford to escape. When Grace accuses him of terrorist ties, Mahindan wonders, “Did she not know what it was like to have so little agency? These Canadians, with all their creature comforts, had such meagre imaginations.”

The novel, which is based on actual events involving the MV Sun Sea’s arrival on the coast of B.C. in August 2010, frames itself as a critique of the Canadian government. The book’s epigraph, by Martin Luther King Jr., reads, “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.” This suggests either a potential – if naive – vision of unity between people of colour from different origins and class backgrounds or an ironic distance from that vision. Bala seems to lean toward the latter.

The story ends with a cliffhanger as Mahindan prepares to walk into a final hearing to decide whether he will stay with Sellian in Canada or be sent back to a country that waged a war on its own citizens. Is it possible for people to come to a place of empathy and compassion for a foreign stranger, despite their overwhelmingly different experiences of power? It’s a worthy question to explore, even if Bala doesn’t give us a straight answer.