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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Book Review: Brother by David Chariandy

I’ve had David Chariandy’s Brother on my To Read list since it made the Canada Reads list but when FictionFan reviewed it I knew I needed to bump it up the list. (FictionFan’s review here.)

Brother is set in Scarborough, in the 1980s/early 90s. Scarborough was incorporated into Greater Toronto in 1999 but at this time it was its own area and was a magnet for new immigrants to Canada. I know Scarborough a little because my grandmother lived there and we visited many summers. My impression of her Scaroborough neighbourhood as compared to that depicted by Chariandy is pretty different though. Chariandy’s novel takes place in an area known as The Park. Apartments crammed with life and families, many of them new immigrants to Canada. To me, this is a very Canadian scene – people of all ethnicities and backgrounds living in a close, confused mix.

Our narrator is Michael, a first generation Trinidadian. He and his brother Francis living in the Park, raised by their mother, their father having quit the scene years ago. The main action of the story takes place when Michael and Francis are teenagers. They are close brothers, close in age, but also with an emotional barrier between them. Francis is cool, daring, a little unsteady but largely compassionate. Michael is the tag-along younger brother, far more unsure of himself. They are decent teenage boys with a mother who works overtime constantly and spends hours of her day travelling by bus to and from work. And so they are left alone much of the time, as are their peers in the Park. This is the first Canadian generation, their parents working impossibly hard in hopes that these children will have something more, something better.

The other part of the story – the book moves back and forth between these parts – takes place ten years later. Francis is gone and we aren’t told where or why until close to the end. Michael and his mother still live in the same apartment. Michael is now the hard-working adult, caring for his increasingly unresponsive and confused mother. The return of an old friend to the Park forces Michael to think back about the last summer he and his brother shared.

Chariandy does a terrific job of portraying the sibling relationship between Michael and Francis. The closeness engendered by sharing a home, sharing a bloodline, sharing day to day life. Combined with the distance that can grow between two very different young men with very different desires out of life and reactions to the circumstances that they find themselves in.

This is also a powerful story of the first generation and immigrant experience. While it’s not my own, I grew up in a multicultural Canadian city and many of my peers were first generation Canadians. Many of my neighbours and classmates were immigrants. My neighbourhood was different than the Park but we were surrounded by a multitude of languages and cultures. In my opinion, this is one of the best qualities about Canada and one to be embraced. Chariandy balances this against some of the real and heart-breaking issues that immigrants to Canada face, especially ones from developing nations. He doesn’t shy away from the hard issues. I’m glad that this book was a part of the Canada Reads longlist because I really think it’s one every Canadian should read. And if you’re not Canadian, I think you’ll still be swept up in Chariandy’s strong writing and memorable characters.

 

Book Review: Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson

Monkey Beach - Eden Robinson (Vintage Canada, 2001)

Monkey Beach – Eden Robinson (Vintage Canada, 2001)

While Monkey Beach takes place in British Columbia, the same province in which I live, it really is worlds away. Set in the tiny Haisla community of Kitamaat, we follow Lisamarie Hill in the aftermath of her brother Jimmy’s disappearance. The First Nations community (Edited to add: It was brought to my attention that “First Nations” is a specifically Canadian term that not everyone is familiar with. It’s a general term used to refer to  Aboriginal Canadians, other than Inuit or Métis.)  is close-knit and intricately connected. There is heavy history, both ancient and modern and Lisa’s life is peopled with ghosts. Literally and figuratively.

While the present action of the story begins directly after Jimmy’s vanishes at sea, most of the story is actually about Lisa’s childhood. Her relationship with her loving but volatile and mysterious Uncle Mick and her Ma-ma-oo, who teaches Lisa much about their traditional ways but won’t speak about the more recent past of her own life.

Eden Robinson blends realism – Jimmy’s Olympic-hopeful dreams, issues with drugs both locally and the issues that follow members of the community to the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, the brutal reality of sexual assault – with magic realism. People and spirits appear to Lisa – a sort of gift that she isn’t sure she wants or that benefits her. The boundaries between these two worlds are often blurred, both for the reader and for Lisa. Robinson does well here in letting just the right amount of confusion reign. We aren’t quite sure what’s real – or what we’re expected to believe – just as Lisa isn’t sure. And the more confused and frenetic Lisa’s life grows, the more the two worlds seem to slip together.

This is a very Canadian story. The pull between tradition and modernity is a difficult one and Robinson excellently expresses the troubles of many First Nations communities while, at the same time, creating real, honest, and believable characters. I loved Lisa’s family relationship with her mother and father. Sometimes it seems that solid, loving families in First Nations communities are not portrayed in media enough but the Hills are an excellent example of one. Some knowledge of First Nations issues in Canada – residential schools, for example – is helpful when reading Monkey Beach but Robinson does a decent job of explaining what’s necessary (while still assuming her reader is intelligent).

Monkey Beach is well-deserving of the praise it’s received over the years (Giller Prize winner, Governor General’s Award Nominee, Canada Reads Finalist) and should definitely be read by Canadians today.