Queen’s alum puts face to refugee crisis

Sharon Bala nominated for Amazon First Novel award

The Boat People is Sharon Bala’s first novel.
Photo from author website

Weaving together historical fact, psychological insight and her own imagination, The Boat People is Sharon Bala’s award nominated first novel. 

Bala, who graduated from Queen’s in 2001 with a medial degree in history and psychology, has always loved writing but her path to it was never straightforward. 

“It’s very hard to turn an arts degree into a career right away,” she told The Journal over the phone. 

While Bala’s works today appear in short-fiction anthologies and the New Yorker, she never thought she would become a fiction writer. 

“If you had told me while I was in school that [writing] was going to be my full-time job, I honestly wouldn’t have believed you,” she said. “It feels like a dream I didn’t know I had [that came] true.” 

Bala’s fiction writing career began when she took an evening writing class in St. John’s, Newfoundland in 2010. She began working on short stories with a writing group, which led herto begin drafting her first book. 

Straight from the headlines, The Boat People is about refugees arriving in Canada from Sri Lanka in 2010, fleeing a civil war. In the novel, Bala’s history and psychology degrees intersect as she meshes fact with fiction.

The book interprets the true events of a contentious court case determining the refugee status of those who arrive in Canada on the MV Sun Sea, through the perspectives of her three fictional characters. Bala examines identity, perception and prejudice through the eyes of her protagonists.

The central character is a refugee named Mahindan who hopes to find a better life for himself and his son in Canada after the death of his wife. Priya, a law  student, reluctantly represents him in an arduous trial. 

The third perspective is the judge, Grace, a third generation Japanese-Canadian who is confronted by the ethical dilemma of whether or not to allow the refugees to enter Canada.

The plot showcases Bala’s research-heavy writing style, relying on primary source material and developing the plot by pouring over press releases and news reports.

However, Bala had to use her imagination due to a media-ban on the identities of the refugees, as the Canadian government aimed to protect them from the surveillance and pressures of the trial. No details about the refugees were allowed to be published, leading media to refer to them only as numbers rather than their names. 

Bala’s writing is inherently political, putting a face on the refugee crisis that remains relevant to this day. 

“Every refugee crisis is the same in many ways, but also very unique,” Bala said, explaining the connections between the waves of refugees coming to Canada. While each group came in a similar manner—on boats arriving to Canadian shores, their reception is not always the same. 

Although Bala’s writing is grounded in the news of the time, the content is universal. Bala’s approach to writing about these themes was developed through academic writing at university.

Her undergraduate studies at Queen’s influenced not only her style but also her subject matter. This is reflected in her short story published in 2017 called Reading Week, which is based on her time at Queen’s in the late nineties. 

“Writing that story was a fun nostalgic trip,” she said. 

Bala flipped through her old class notes for research, putting herself back in the mindset of her younger self. 

While her love of fiction was pushed to the side, her work towards her BA at Queen’s shaped how she approaches storytelling. “The kind of skills I gained in research with my history degree have been really useful in helping me do the back work that goes into writing my stories,” Bala said.

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