It’s the last Saturday of the month, which means it’s Give a Sh*t Book Club time! Our pick this month is The Boat People by Sharon Bala. Considering the current crisis at the U.S./Mexico border, with children being separated from parents and asylum seekers being treated like criminals, this seemed like a good time to learn what it’s like to be a refugee.
Although Bala’s book is set Canada, not the U.S., and her characters are from Sri Lanka, not Mexico and Central America, the themes of the novel felt highly relevant to me. It doesn’t matter what language you speak or what culture you come from, the desperation that comes from leaving your home and throwing yourself on the mercy of people who may not have any is universal.
What makes The Boat People so affecting, I think, are the multiple perspectives. You really get to see the issue from all angles, from the suffering Mahindan and his family endured in Sri Lanka, to Priya’s struggle to find her place in her career, to Grace’s confused floundering as she weighs the migrants’ fates. While I was certainly not a reader without an agenda--my views on immigration and how we should treat people who come here seeking a new life are already firm--I appreciated how nuanced Bala’s treatment of her characters is.
Grace, as the descendant of Japanese immigrants who had been interned during World War II, was not the person I was expecting as the government adjudicator. Her conversations with her mother were a fascinating exercise in doublethink--her mother would describe how her parents had lost everything due to fear and xenophobia, and then Grace would make excuses and insist that the situations she faced at work were different. At times I felt a flicker of sympathy for Grace, as it became clear how the job was wearing her down, but mostly I was frustrated at how enthralled she was by Blair and how willing she was to parrot his every hateful idea. Even at the very end of the book, I didn’t get the sense that she had changed very much or adjusted her thinking, even after everything she had seen and heard, and that frustrated me.
Priya, on the other hand, was a much more gratifying character to follow. She was willing to listen to her family members and learn from their experiences. I wasn’t terribly surprised by her uncle’s revelation that he had been a member of the Tigers before coming to Canada, as the narrative had been building to that, but I was glad that Priya responded well to him. I don’t think she would have reacted well if she had learned that about him earlier in the book, but by the time he told her, she had gotten to know her clients and realized that what seems simple from the safety of a privileged existence is not so cut and dried when you’re living daily in the midst of a war zone. People will do what they have to do to protect themselves and their loved ones.
Which brings me to Mahindan. He did things he was not proud of in order to survive and keep his family safe. The scenes when he and the others were being interrogated by Canadian officials were surreal--out of context, how do you explain why you worked on a bus that was eventually used in a bombing? In the moment, Mahindan felt he had no choice, but in the bright fluorescent lights of a country like Canada, it seems reasonable to assume that he could have said no. And to go through everything only to end up in another prison, this time separated from his son, was too cruel.
And then, that ending. Based on Mahindan’s last hopeful interaction with Sellian, I hoped somehow Grace would rule in his favor. But based on Grace’s last scene with her mother in the nursing home, she seemed as stuck in her regressive thinking as ever, and she was determined to grill him about the discarded identification papers. I hated not knowing what happened, but I think leaving the ending open was effective because it forced me as a reader to think through every possible fate that could have awaited Mahindan as he walked through the door to the hearing. There was no easy out for him, so there is no easy out for the reader. One thing I did cling to was that Priya had chosen to go into immigration law. Knowing that she had chosen to keep fighting for people like Mahindan gave me hope.
I think my main takeaway from The Boat People is that bureaucracy is inadequate to address immigration. We like bureaucracy because it attempts to make tidy what is impossibly untidy. It turns people into paper, and paper we can crumple up and toss away. The problem is that people are not paper. Rubber-stamp decisions have real consequences, like we saw in the book with Ranga. It’s easy to hate the abstract idea of an immigrant. It’s much harder to hate a person you’ve gotten to know.
I hope you got as much out of The Boat People as I did! Comments are open below. Can’t wait to hear what you thought of this one!