Sharon Bala lives in St. John’s where she is a member of The Port Authority writing group. Her short story “Butter Tea at Starbucks” won the prestigious Writers’ Trust / McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize in 2017. The Boat People is her first novel.
I never wanted to write a book about refugees. And yet that is exactly what my debut novel, The Boat People, is about.
In August 2010 a rusty cargo ship arrived on Vancouver Island, off Canada’s west coast. On board were nearly 500 Tamil men, women, and children, survivors of Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war. Today, when anyone thinks of Canada and refugees, what they imagine is the Prime Minister welcoming Syrian families at the airport with a big smile and winter coats. But eight years ago, there was a different government in power, one that wanted nothing to do with asylum-seekers, especially ones who showed up en masse and by boat. The Tamils were labelled illegals and terrorists, husbands separated from wives, children ripped from their parents’ arms, the whole lot of them thrown into prison.
From the opposite end of the country, four time zones and 4,600 miles away, I watched the drama unfold, feeling both distant from, and connected to, the newcomers. My family is also from Sri Lanka and it is only good luck that brought us to Canada in the 80s as immigrants instead of two decades later as refugees. I wasn’t a writer in 2010, not yet. But three years later, when I sat down to draft my first novel, that ship and its passengers still haunted me.
Write what you know. That was the plan. To tell a story about a sprawling, multi-generational Sri Lankan family. To explore questions of belonging and identity – national and individual – how these things are constructed and ever changing, perhaps false. To write about the divide between immigrant parents and their western-born children, a chasm that widens with time and succeeding generations.
I planned to set the novel in Toronto, in the land-locked center of the country, and use the arrival of a refugee ship far away on the west coast as a news item, off-stage action that would provoke debate and discussion at the dinner table. A plot device to reveal character and the culture gap. This was not going to be a novel about boats and refugees. It would not be a story of war and sorrow. None of it would take place in Sri Lanka, a country I barely know. Nope. No way.
Almost immediately, the plan fell apart. As I researched the ship, and then by extension the war, it became clear that one of the characters would have to be a refugee, that I’d need to write scenes set in Sri Lanka, worse still, during the war.
Stories have their own momentum. Writers can draw up elaborate plots and timelines but if a character saunters on stage with a compelling story, the enterprise is fated. Better to set aside the master plan and follow your character, let him take the lead. But this was not a lesson I learned easily. We fought, my book and I, every step of the way. Draft after draft, friends and fellow writers, my agent, my editors, even my mother, all said the same thing: “These refugees are the heart of the story. Write more about them.”
If I close my eyes and listen, I can still hear the loud, brash voices of that big extended family, all those characters I never created. I picture them squeezed around a table, eating and talking with their hands, disagreeing, laughing, shouting over and interrupting each other. I could have written that novel. It would have been easy. But it wouldn’t have been any good.
Here is what I’ve learned: write what you know is incomplete advice. Start with what you know. Then leave your comfort zone. Explore what you don’t know, the things that frighten you. Walk toward the darkness and write from deep inside that terrifying place.