Novelist Sharon Bala shares stories of immigration, luck and ‘the good place’ with new Canadians

Canada Reads finalist about Tamil refugees generating buzz across county

Sharon Bala reads from her novel The Boat People at the Association of New Canadians in St. John’s. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

Sharon Bala has come a long way since the days when she used to obsessively watch The Price Is Right as a kid new to Canada.

Speaking Tuesday night to a jam-packed crowd in her adopted home of St. John’s, Bala — author of the bestselling novel The Boat People, a finalist in CBC’s Canada Reads competition this year — said she is still struck by the similarities of watching someone trying to win at Plinko and the way some immigrants are granted entry into this country.

“Trying to apply as a refugee or show up and claim asylum, it’s a bit like a game,” Bala said at a forum at the Association of New Canadians (ANC) in St. John’s.

“You’re just hoping that you get in and whether or not you do is so much dependent on luck and timing.”

Just one month after it landed on bookshelves across the country, Bala’s debut novel continues to generate buzz for its compassionate look at refugees seeking asylum in Canada.

The Boat People is one of five finalists in this year’s Canada Reads competition and is currently sitting at No. 1 on CBC Books’ fiction bestsellers list, reflecting sales at independent booksellers.

On Tuesday, Bala was the guest of honour at a Canada Reads event hosted by Weekend AM’s Heather Barrett at the ANC in St. John’s.

A Sri Lankan immigrant herself, Bala was inspired to write The Boat People by the real-life story of a group of Tamil refugees who arrived in Vancouver in 2010 on a cargo ship and were detained after government officials began to suspect they had connections to the Tamil Tigers.

“They arrive on the west coast of Canada and they try to claim asylum, but the government at the time doesn’t believe them, doesn’t trust them, and puts them all in jail,” said Bala.

A full room came out to listen to Bala read, and musical accompaniment was provided by Bangladesh student Norbert Gomes. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

It’s a riveting novel about heartbreak, the ways in which immigrants are often subjected to the luck of the draw when they seek asylum, and how Canadians choose whether to succumb to fear or give newcomers the benefit of the doubt.

Former refugees talk life in Canada

Inside the ANC, former refugees listened intently as Bala read from her novel, and then shared their own stories of arrival.

All of them know what it feels like to arrive in a new and foreign country.

Celestial Bimpa is one of the most recent refugees to touch down in N.L.

Originally from Congo, he came to St. John’s with his wife and three children just seven months ago after spending the past 17 years living in a refugee camp.

For him, St. John’s represents hope — an opportunity for a better future and a new beginning for his family.

“When you come here in Canada, there is a big opportunity, a big door to open,” said Bimpa.

“My dream was maybe to find a place that my children can just continue studying, they can have a good health opportunity, and I was so proud the first time that they came to let me know that [you] would travel to Canada.”

Aveen Eibo is from Syria. She used to run a beauty salon in her home country, and initially struggled to adapt to her new country.

But now, she’s pushing forward with a dream to reopen that long closed studio right here in the city.

“I worked in my country, I had my salon 10 years — I hope I try again and work as a hairstylist,” said Eibo.

Luham Mehsonte, who has been in Canada for two years, is originally from Eritrea but has spent much of her life in Sudan.

A student at Holy Heart of Mary High School, she recently found out she’s been awarded a full scholarship to study at Memorial University.

“It covers four years for my university. It covers everything, like even campus. Everything, it’s $20,000 so it’s a big scholarship,” said Mehsonte.

She plans to study nursing, and said there’s no reason other newcomers to the province cannot follow her lead.

“I came with no English, so in three years [here] I speak good English, so I can tell them … they can do anything they want.”

Policies can change on a dime

All of the characters in The Boat People are fictional, said Bala, but a lot of the things they go through really happened.

Families were placed in separate prisons and detention facilities, some children of refugees were put into foster care, and adjudicators decided the fate of asylum claims.

One of the things Bala wants to make clear with the book is that the political climate of Canada can — and does — change on a dime.

“One of the [new immigrants] who were speaking here said, ‘You have come to a good country,’ and it’s true, in this moment right now, it is a good country,” said Bala.

It was a good country too, she said, in 1986 when a different group of Tamil refugees arrived in Canada off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.

They were rescued by Newfoundland skipper Gus Dalton and granted asylum and supported by Brian Mulroney, the prime minister at the time.

In a quote that’s repeated in Bala’s book, he explained his decision by saying, “We don’t want people jumping to the head of the line . . . [but] if we err, we will always err on the side of justice and on the side of compassion.”

“But,” said Bala, “just a couple of decades later, 2010, different Tamil refugees escaping the same war who come to the other side of the country, it’s not a good country at that point.”

‘Here is the good place’

It’s not a spoiler to say that The Boat People ends on a note of uncertainty, and readers will be left with some unanswered questions.

A full house listens to Sharon Bala read from her debut novel.

Readers simply cannot know if the refugees they are introduced to in the novel will be OK, or what awaits those who are sent back to live in Sri Lanka.

But the event on Tuesday made clear that there is a future for those who make it here, and are given a chance to start something new in Canada.

Near the end of the evening, Bimpa grabbed the microphone one last time.

He looked to the crowd.

“Here … is the good place.”

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