1843 and other nice reviews

The Economist's 1843 (their culture magazine) has spotlighted The Boat People in their "What the world is reading" section this month. You can read the entire piece in print or online. Here's the bit I like best: “Already on several bestseller lists in Canada, Bala’s fiction has been praised for its timely appeal and its ability to capture this journey through the perspective of refugees.”

As I've said before, it's been an unexpected gift to hear from readers about the different ways they engaged with the book and in particular how their own life experiences shaped the way they interacted with the characters and storylines. I've been feeling pretty smug about the diversity of feedback. This is exactly what I hoped: that the novel would be a different book for every reader.

So I was thrilled to hear a couple of reviews on the radio this week. Bahareh Shigematsu talked about how the book brought back memories of her family's experiences as refugees from Iran as well as how it made her think about current events. "A lot more people should read this and find out about the history of our country. And it's not just history. It's current events. It's happening now." I had a little chuckle hearing how much Grace infuriated her! I was frustrated with Grace too. Just as I am frustrated with people like her who are so keen on building walls and closing doors to people in need. And I was so touched by this piece by Daniel Tseghay and in particular his thoughts on a scene that struck a particular chord with him. You can hear his radio review here (skip forward to 58:39).

Elsewhere online, the CBC asked the five Canada Reads finalists to write a little about their writing spaces. You can read my essay here.

The book once again made the CBC and Globe & Mail best-seller lists this week. The Canada Reads debates start on Monday. I'm a little sad, to be honest. I've read all the books and just love them. Each is important and riveting and necessary. Craig Davidson - who is just as genuine and funny in person as he is on the page - said something insightful in January when we were all together for the launch. This isn't about us or our books now, he said. It's about the champions and what happens around the table. I'm paraphrasing and probably badly but the sentiment is sound. Nothing that's said next week will change my opinion or the experience I had reading The Marrow Thieves or American War or Precious Cargo or Forgiveness. Still, I'm going to be cringing and queasy for all of us as I tune in.

At the same time, it really doesn't matter. I mean, yes, of course it matters. Winning authors and books get more publicity and opportunities and royalties, definitely more top-of-mind reader awareness. But landing on the short list has been an incredible boost for the book. And it's a thrill to have my book championed by someone whose ambition, activism, music, and work ethic I really respect. I have every confidence that Mozhdah is going to speak with passion and eloquence and be a credit to my novel.

So it's difficult to imagine feeling disappointed if we lose. Especially because of something I discovered earlier this week. But THAT is a subject for tomorrow's post.

 

THE NEW YORKER!

The Boat People got a nice little review in the March 19th issue of THE NEW YORKER. The mention is in the briefly noted books section alongside new releases by Peter Carey and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. THE NEW YORKER. I mean...what else is there to say?

Also this week: the novel is back on the best-seller lists (#2 on the CBC and #7 on the Globe & Mail). And I'm still loving the messages and cards and texts and emails from friends (and strangers). My favourite at the moment is a note from my pal Jess in PEI who, among other things, wrote: "I am endlessly impressed. I literally turn every page and think to myself: holy fuck." I love and appreciate all the blurbs on my book but there's something hilarious and arresting about the reviews from non-writers.

If you are in Quebec City this Thursday, March 15, there is a Canada Reads event taking place at The Morrin Centre at 7pm. I won't be there but author Neil Bissoondath will be talking about my book. You can hear a little teaser and his thoughts during an interview with CBC Radio's Breakaway host Saroja Coelho here. And if you can't make the event, parts of it will be aired on Breakaway next week. I'll post a link when it's online. (I feel like I say this often about links and then never get around to posting them. I'm working on it. A link round up of some sort is coming. Promise!)

And finally, recommended reads! Here is a short story that I loved and listened to three times last week. It's Antonya Nelson's "Naked Ladies" read by Lorrie Moore. I also just devoured Elisabeth de Mariaffi's latest novel HysteriaIt's a thriller set in the 50s. That's really all you need to know. And I'm nearing the end of Madeleine Thien's Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which of course I'm the last person in this country to read. It's beautiful and I'm totally stuck in, wanting to know what happens next.

Springtime in Vancouver

On Tuesday there was a snow day in St. John's and I escaped to Vancouver where it was spring. I was there, of course, for the Incite: New Voices of CanLit event at the Vancouver Public Library. Three cheers to the Vancouver Writers Fest for putting on such a stellar event. I was especially impressed with how well they curated the authors. I had never met Kim Fu, Guillaume Morissette or Djamila Ibrahim before but the four of us had a great chemistry on and off stage. That doesn't often happen. (And we spontaneously colour coordinated with the library's colour scheme...ha!) It was really special to be at the Vancouver Public Library too because in The Boat People's fictional Vancouver, 350 West Georgia is the site of the Immigration and Refugee Board Building. As my editor Anita said: reading in that space was like bringing the story home.

With the teacher at Westside (photo courtesy of  Westside's instagram )

With the teacher at Westside (photo courtesy of Westside's instagram)

My publicists took full advantage of my visit and packed the schedule with interviews and appearances. I began Wednesday with something better than coffee: a taping of Can't Lit with the hilarious, vivacious, sharp- tongued duo of Jen Sookfong Lee and Dina Del Bucchia. (I'll post an update when the episode is live.) I've been listening to Can't Lit for a while so being a guest was a real treat.

Then it was off to Westside School's Miniversity for a reading, Q&A, and another podcast interview. First, Westside doesn't look like any highschool you've ever seen. It's more like the open-plan offices of a start-up company. Second, the students are SMART. They were engaged and asked good, thought-provoking questions. It was my first school visit and Westside set the bar high. Plus, they gave me a mango as a parting gift. Someone clearly did their homework. (Please send mangoes, people)

After taping one of my favourite interviews. (Photo courtesy of Roundhouse Radio and Minelle)

After taping one of my favourite interviews. (Photo courtesy of Roundhouse Radio and Minelle)

While I was in town, The Tyee ran a review of The Boat People. It was a wonderful, hilarious piece by Crawford Kilian but BE WARNED: THERE ARE MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS. If you've already finished the book, you are safe to read the review here. I love the classification of The Boat People as 'political horror.' Yes. It is horrific. Parenthetically, I hadn't actually realized I'd written a political book until quite late in the game. One day, I was walking down the street listening to a podcast where some foolish (male...natch) person was opining: "women don't write political books." And I thought: "don't we? wait a second...I did!"

Saying women don't write political books is idiotic. Everything is political. Austen, Eliot, Gallant, Roy...we are all political authors writing about political things. Second, I suspect that most of us don't go into our projects thinking: "right. This is going to be political." We just write books and because we are thinking human beings, our books end up being about world events or personal traumas or relationships between people and guess what? All that stuff is political. Sex is political. Washing the dishes is political. Culture is political. Refugee law is political. Men don't have a monopoly on politics. /Rant

Back to Vancouver! While there, I also taped an episode of CBC's North by Northwest with Sheryl Mackay and an interview with Joe Planta at thecommentary.ca. Stay tuned for links when both those interviews go live.

And finally, my very last interview was a long chat with Minelle Mahtani for Roundhouse Radio's Sense of Place (available now so go have a listen). They have a segment called "Acknowledgements" where they bring in an author and someone they thanked in their acknowledgements page.

David, me, and Minelle. Photo courtesy of Roundhouse Radio.

David, me, and Minelle. Photo courtesy of Roundhouse Radio.

On our way to Roundhouse, my publicist Laura promised this would be one of my favourite interviews. She wasn't overselling. Minelle is an incredible interviewer. She asks deep, thoughtful questions and knows how to get at the big stuff, the emotional stuff. Plus she listens. I mean really listens. Two thirds of the way through our interview we brought in Lisa Moore. The conversation was wide-ranging. We discussed dialogue, location, language, bigotry, bureaucracy, and found a similarity between my novel and Lisa's February. And bonus: David Chariandy dropped by, unexpectedly, to eavesdrop. Knowing that both Lisa and David were listening in to my chat with Minelle wasn't at all nerve-wracking....nope, not at all! In all seriousness: what a lovely way to cap off my time in Vancouver, speaking with Minelle and Lisa and David and listening to them discuss literature with each other.

And did I mention it was spring in Vancouver, my favourite Canadian city? So lovely. Please invite me back!

ps. The Boat People was #1 on the CBC's Bestseller list last week and #5 on the Globe & Mail's list.

 

About last week

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Last Tuesday The Boat People was announced as a finalist for this year's Canada Reads! And really the only thing better than being a finalist is having my book on the same pile as these beauties. I read American War last Fall and have been pushing it on everyone ever since but last week I also got a chance to read The Marrow Thieves and Forgiveness (Precious Cargo is up next) and trust me, the competition is fierce. These are all beautiful, important books, and I have been saying this since the long-list came out: there is room on bookshelves and nightstands and e-readers for more than just one book. Go read them all!

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So I spent two days in Toronto last week doing interviews and posing awkwardly for photo shoots and just generally feeling like my own glamorous stunt double. The best part was meeting the other authors and panellists and getting to chat with my champion Mozhdah Jamalzadah who, among her other impressive accomplishments,  has sung for the Obamas NO BIG DEAL.

The ten of us were sequestered away at CBC HQ going from interview to interview and then on Tuesday night we were on stage at a live launch event. You can watch it here. I've been using the word surreal a lot lately but starting every day with hair and make-up really took surreal to another level.

As nice as it was to be feted and just generally taken care of (CBC Books are really good at that, by the way), the highlight of my week was Wednesday afternoon when I went over to Penguin Random House's offices for a staff book club. Well, I thought I was walking into a book club. Actually, I walked into a champagne surprise party. My publishing house is wonderful. Truly, I feel so fortunate. The number of people who came out to book club, who asked thoughtful, insightful questions, who seemed genuinely invested in the characters...THIS is the reason the book is doing so well (second week in a row on the best-seller list, y'all!) A few photos below, courtesy of Laura Chapnick from Penguin Random House's publicity team.

Other nice things that have happened of late: Author Kerry Clare wrote a very kind review of the book on her book blog Pickle Me This. Kerry writes funny and incisive posts so it was an honour to make her reading list. The Chronicle Herald ran an interview I did with reporter Elissa Barnard  and then there was this story in the Canadian Press that called me a "young author." Youth is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose but I'll take it! And The Georgia Straight published this wonderful story. Books reporter David Chau spoke to me before the holidays for an hour and a half. It was such a fun chat but afterward I felt so bad for him - having to transcribe the recording and then figure out what parts to write up. He did an admirable job. January, you were a very fine month. Roll on, February!