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Book review: The Boat People by Sharon Bala

Reviewed by Krishna Sruthi Srivalsan 

The Boat People

 

Title: The Boat People
Author: Sharon Bala
Publisher: Doubleday
Pages: 332
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In the world of the privileged, one is inundated with a plethora of choices – what to eat, what to wear, where to study, where to work, how to go to work, where to travel… each second, we unconsciously make decisions, choosing the best amongst the options available to us. It has become so ingrained in our psyche that we take choice for granted. What if you did not have a choice? Sharon Bala’s debut novel The Boat People examines this haunting question.

The book draws inspiration from an incident in 2010 where a Thai cargo ship named ‘MV Sun Sea’ docked at the coast of British Columbia, carrying on board nearly 500 Sri Lankan refugees. In the land of the free, the refugees aboard the ship found themselves suspected of terrorism, having forged ties with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and detained. Having fled the horrors of the civil war in Sri Lanka, Bala’s protagonist Mahindan finds himself in frosty Vancouver with precisely this fate awaiting him.

While Mahindan is in the detention centre, his six-year-old son is taken away from him, and placed with a foster family. Priya, a law student of Tamil origin, finds herself embroiled in proving Mahindan’s innocence to the law and in the process unearths some dark secrets within her own family. Bala also weaves the internment of Canadian citizens of Japanese origin during the Second World War into her tapestry through Grace Nakamura, a government appointed adjudicator with the Refugee Board. Grace, previously with the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure, is inexperienced in refugee law and has a bias against the refugees, partly due to the stand taken by her boss, a government minister. As she struggles with the burden of deciding the fate of Mahindan and others like him, her own mother who is battling early rounds of Alzheimer’s’, reminds her of the injustice meted out to Japanese-Canadian citizens during the war. Cruelly reminded that they were ‘aliens’, with slogans such as, ‘No Japs from the Rockies to the Seas’ openly chanted, the Japanese-Canadians were treated with suspicion and regarded as a threat to the harmony of the state until proven innocent. Kumi, Grace’s mother, slowly witnesses her own mind unravelling, and yet holding on to the strings of the past, she reminds Grace not to inflict upon people a gross injustice that had once been inflicted on her own ancestors.

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The political power of translation

Chenxin Jiang, in lithub, on bringing the stories of the Syrian refugees into English

When Angela Merkel opened Germany’s borders to refugees in August 2015, I happened to be spending the summer in Berlin. For days, I did little but watch the news and read about Syrian families and other refugees streaming into German train stations. A year later, I moved to Berlin, keen to do whatever I could in the volunteer effort to welcome refugees. I signed up for a knitting club for Germans and refugees—but as a novice, I was more trouble than help for the organizers. I made a desultory effort to learn Arabic from a Living Language book. Before long, I grew busier with archival work and books to translate, and my store of enthusiasm dwindled. There were tens of thousands of refugees in Berlin alone, so what could any one person do? It never occurred to me that my work as a literary translator—from Italian, among other languages, into English—might have anything to do with the political causes about which I cared so deeply.

Then I received an email from an editor: would I like to translate a book written by an Italian doctor running a clinic on the island of Lampedusa, on the frontline of the humanitarian effort to rescue refugees on the dangerous sea route to Europe? Before I’d even had time to read the whole book, I said yes. And when I did read Tears of Salt, I was even more excited by the prospect of translating it. Together with co-author Lidia Tilotta, the Lampedusan doctor Pietro Bartolo recounts the stories of the refugees he’s rescued: families separated and reunited, women pregnant from rape, tragic accidents at sea.

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