Book Review: The Boat People by Sharon Bala

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I almost didn’t finish this book. It is well-written, well-researched, and compelling. It was shortlisted for the most recent Canada Reads competition. I’d read several very positive reviews. (Anne’s over at ivereadthis.com forced me to move the book up my To Read list.)  I did finish The Boat People and I’m glad I did but it was such a hard, frustrating read.

This is a book about refugees. Specifically, a boatload of approximately 500 Tamil refugees who arrive in Canada, fleeing violence in Sri Lanka. While the book is fiction, it is inspired by real life situations and, of course, the real history of Sri Lanka. This book was yet another reminder of how flawed the governmental process of accepting refugees is in Canada. (See: All We Leave Behind by Carol Off). A reminder of the horrors that refugees go through to enter Canada and how their struggles don’t magically end when they arrive. (See: Your Heart is the Size of Your Fist by Martina Scholtens. It’s a reminder that people don’t leave everything they’ve ever known – their homes, their families, their jobs, their language – and get on a crammed and filthy boat to enter a country they don’t know unless they are truly, truly desperate.

The Boat People is ambitious in its scope, covering multiple aspects of this refugee crisis. Mahindan and his son Sellian show the perspective of the refugees, complete with flashbacks to their lives in Sri Lanka. Upon arrival, the refugees are “housed” in a prison while they await hearing after hearing, a process that drags out for months. Because Sellian is only six-years-old, he is housed with the women, separated from his father. This is a heartbreaking scene and, as a parent, one that was especially hard to read. My instinct was that no one could have convinced me to give up my child but Bala does a good job of showing Mahindan’s thoughts and his desire to do whatever is best for his son. This is further shown in the scenes in Sri Lanka, as we are shown their former life and the increasing dangers the Tamils faced.

Priya is a young law student, a first generation Sri Lankan, who wants to pursue corporate law but is pulled into the refugee hearings. At first it is only because of her own Tamil background but as she becomes more and more involved in the lives of the refugees she also learns more of her own family history and gains a greater understanding of the complexities of refugee experience.

Grace is one of the adjudicators who presides over the hearings. She is newly appointed and quite black-and-white in her thinking. Her sections infuriated me the most given how close-minded she was. I understand that here Bala wished to show the other side – the fear and misunderstanding that many Canadians do feel toward refugees, especially when they arrive in mass numbers. I felt though that she swung too far in the other direction and Grace became something of a caricature. Grace herself is of Japanese descent, third generation, the granddaughter of Japanese-Canadians who were interred during World War Two. Grace’s twin daughters and her mother become interested in their family history and what was stolen from them by the government but Grace continually discourages them. At one point, one of her teenage daughters is surprised that Japanese names are written in reverse (last name first). This seems like such basic knowledge of Japanese culture that it paints Grace in a really negative light. Why has she kept almost all Japanese knowledge from her children?

One of the things I love about Canada is that we are a multicultural country, full of immigrants and refugees. It can be all to easy to think of ourselves as more worthy of being Canadian than a newer arrival but the vast majority of Canadians come from elsewhere.  I think we are our best version when we remember this and embrace it.

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: The Boat People by Sharon Bala”

  1. Thanks for the shout-out! And that’s a good observation about Grace, I don’t think I thought about how black and white she was until you pointed that out. What frustrated you about the read? Grace, or more than that?

    1. The frustration mostly came from Grace. But also the whole situation and how flawed the system seems to be. I think it was more frustrating being based in reality in our own country.

  2. Lately, I’ve taken in the task of reading memoirs written by women who lived through wars in their home countries, which typically leads them to be refugees. I wanted to learn more about non-Western countries through a human, rather than textbook, perspective. So far, the stories are the same: mass murder and genocide, but when they become refugees other countries are like, “Ew, go home and get a job in your own country.”

    1. I just don’t understand that attitude in countries like the US and Canada where so many of are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, often escaping from violence. Like, my grandmother wasn’t a refugee per se but she came over on a boat and didn’t speak English. It would be so hypocritical of me to say her reasons were valid but someone fleeing civil war or other violence isn’t welcome here.

      Memoirs are such a great way to learn about history! That’s a great task to take on.

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