"Where are the quotation marks?"

Why are there no quotation marks in your book? This is one of the most common questions I get from readers. It's a good one. It was one my editors challenged me to answer as well (because good editors hold you to account for every. single. thing.).

Quotation marks dictate. They tell the reader: "this is who is speaking and here are the exact words they used in this exact order." Sometimes as a writer this is exactly what I want to do: tell the reader something. In The Boat People I did not want to tell the reader very much. There are many places in the book where I purposely left room for ambiguity. After all, this is what the book is about: the slipperiness of truth. Are stories true? Who gets to tell them? Or as Meg and Brianne might ask: What is truth, even?

There are many points in the book too where I wanted to blur the lines between direct and indirect dialogue, between thoughts in a character's head and the words they say out loud. I wanted the reader to decide for themselves. Direct dialogue, like quotation marks, signal truth and accuracy. This is what the character said, these words in this order. But indirect dialogue is different. It is a kind of summation, the gist of what was said, as perceived by the listener.

In the scene Back to Hell, Grace listens to Hema give her testimony, mediated by the interpreter, and wonders: How much of this story is real? How much is hers? Is the interpreter doing his job faithfully? In this scene, and many others, I wanted the reader to be unsettled and uncertain, just as Grace is. Think about Mahindan, sitting there in hearings, not understanding a word of English, feeling bewildered by the legal proceedings in this strange new land. By making things uncertain, a little difficult even, I hope to put the reader in his shoes.