Tamil Culture

One of the great unexpected joys of publishing The Boat People is feeling the love from the Sri Lankan community. There are kind posts on Instagram and I hear from readers directly. But I also get hints from time to time that the wonderful support the book's been receiving (particularly in the Toronto media) is a result of Tamil-Canadians giving it a boost behind the scenes. I'm talking about you, Tamil producers. I see you and I thank you.

And of course there are Sri Lankan and Tamil specific outlets too, because the diaspora is at its largest right here in Canada. A couple of months ago, Ara, one of the co-founders of Tamil Culture reached out to me. I'd never heard of Tamil Culture before but here is how I attempt to describe it: it's an online platform, The Huffington Post meets Shaadi meets LinkedIn meets Facebook, a one-stop shop for the younger generation of Tamils all around the world. I'm probably not doing it justice. Go check it out for yourself. And while you're there, here's a fun interview I did with writer Shanelle Kandiah. We talked about how I became a novelist, the inspiration and research behind The Boat People, and of course... what my parents make of all this!

Imaginary friends

While signing books in Halifax last week, a reader asked me if I was still in touch with any of the people from the boat. I think she must have assumed I'd interviewed real people from the MV Sun Sea, which of course I hadn't. I have no idea who any of the real refugees were and Mahindan et. al are totally imaginary. But I also thought a lot about her question afterward because it's true that for years I was in communion with all of my characters. They were continually changing and growing and forming and re-forming in my mind as I researched and drafted and revised the novel. But then last April, when I submitted the final manuscript, I drew a line in the sand and put an end to the creation. And now, while I do talk about those characters a lot, I no longer engage with them. They are out in the world being re-imagined anew by every reader. They are no longer my characters to create. They feel like old friends, people I reminisce about but never hear from.

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to chat with Anna Bowen at the Eden Mills podcast (30 mins). We talked a lot about characters, as well as the research that went into the novel, and the scenes that wouldn't have existed if not for my editors. We also talked about a bit of bonus content that you can find here.

I'll be taking part in the Eden Mills Writers' Festival in September and I'm really, really looking forward to it.

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.

 

Right coast, left coast, and all the news in between

Reading at the Association for New Canadians Training Centre. Photo by Andrew Sampson, CBC.

On Tuesday night the CBC and the Association for New Canadians hosted a local Canada Reads event in St. John's and it was a full house. I usually know the crowd at literary events but standing at the podium, looking out at the audience, I thought "who ARE all these people?"And that's when it hit me that this is what happens when the CBC promotion machine starts churning. It's not just friends and friends of friends supporting my book anymore. (I know...I know...why is this STILL a surprise?)

I have to hand it to the CBC and the ANC: they pulled off a fantastic evening with very little notice. There was music, food, and a great group of speakers who told their own arrival stories. I was struck in particular by the gentleman who arrived in Canada seven months ago after spending 17 years in a refugee camp. Seventeen years. Let that sink in. This is what people endure just to come here, just to have all these freedoms and privileges that most of us Canadians blithely take for granted.

L to R: Luwam, Bwisengo, Celestine, and Aveen share their stories while the CBC's Heather Barrett listens. English teacher Grace is on the far right. Photo by Andrew Sampson, CBC.

The five newcomers who shared their stories were seriously, seriously impressive. One young woman is about to graduate highschool with a full scholarship to Memorial University. After the staged part of the event, people stuck around to socialize and I heard the word "resilience" in more than a couple of conversations. Resilience is part of it, sure. But I think there's something else going on here. When good fortune isn't given to you on a platter you don't have the option to be lazy. It's something I've been thinking about a lot since Tuesday.

Segments of Tuesday's event will be aired on Weekend Arts Morning so tune in for that (I'll post a link to the podcast version when it's up). And Andrew Sampson (who kindly let me use his photos) wrote an article about the event.


Signing books. Photo by Andrew Sampson, CBC

In other news, The Boat People received a very favourable review in the Winnipeg Free Press. Here are a couple of my favourite lines: "Bala’s strength is in showing the human side of everyone involved" and "Many details of the situation — trying to evaluate individuals amidst federal government concern about letting in criminals — might have been dull and bureaucratic if Bala’s narrative were not so clear and engaging."

Reporter Dana Gee interviewed me recently for a piece that ran in both The Vancouver Sun and The Province. We talked about the best and worst parts of novel writing, character creation, and the engine of rage that powered my work.

I was on the St. John's Morning show on Thursday chatting with host Jamie Fitzpatrick (author of The End of Music, one of my very favourite books of 2017) and my Canada Reads champion Mozhdah. The segment isn't online yet but for those of you who missed it, I'll post a note as soon as it's up.

Next week I'm off to Vancouver for a couple of days of interviews and an evening event at the Vancouver Public Library. If you are in Van-city, the event is free but you do need to get tickets. Presented by the Vancouver Writers Festival, Incite is a free reading series featuring Canadian authors. I'll be reading from The Boat People and answering questions along with few writers Kim Fu, Djamila Ibrahim, and Guillaume Morisette. As always, I'm as excited for the reading and Q&A as I am to meet fellow authors.

Kerry Clare at 49th Shelf asked me to recommend a reading list for fans of The Boat People. The piece went live earlier this week.

American War toppled me off the top of the mountain and The Boat People is #2 on the CBC Bestseller list this week. No hard feelings. I absolutely adore Omar's book (see aforementioned reading list). We are both going to be at a couple of events in the next few months and I can't wait. Keep an eye on the events page. I post upcoming events, appearances, and readings as soon as they are confirmed.

And speaking of Canada Reads authors, all the finalists will be speaking with Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter in the coming weeks. This week's episode features Mark Sakamoto speaking about his luminescent book Forgiveness. The conversation is well worth a listen.

Finally, check out the book's new cover! My first sticker! (Not available in stores just yet)

Numero uno

A few updates:

I'm on this week's episode of CBC Radio's The Next Chapter. The episode is archived and you can listen online or download the podcast to your phone. Shelagh and I had a short chat about news headlines, purgatory, and quotes we remember from Pier 21.

I had a longer talk with host Angela Antle on CBC Radio's Atlantic Voice. She devoted this weekend's full episode to my book and we discussed everything from the importance of editors and writing groups to word choices and Canada Reads. Listen online or download to your favourite podcast app.

At the end of the month, I'll be taking part in the Incite Reading Series at the Vancouver Public Library. I'll be on stage with Kim Fu, Djamila Ibrahim, and Guillaume Morissette. The event is free but please register if you'd like to come. There are a few other readings and public appearances in the works and I keep the events page pretty up-to-date.

Shelf Awareness gave The Boat People a really lovely starred review. Here's an excerpt: In her emotional debut, Sharon Bala composes empathetic characters and encourages her audience to endure their struggles. She grips her readers and dives into the humanity of the world she's created; when they resurface, they'll be gasping for air. Breathlessly beautiful,The Boat People reminds everyone of the value of compassion in a world claiming no shortage of hatred and violence.

And finally, The Boat People was on the Globe & Mail's best seller list again (for the third time in a row) last week AND was THE NUMBER ONE best seller on the CBC's list. Why the difference? The Globe & Mail collects its data mainly from larger sellers like Amazon, Chapters, and Costco and the CBC focuses its numbers more on independent booksellers. In any case, it's really, really wonderful to see the book being embraced by all fine establishments where books are sold. I've been getting photos of the book front and centre in all kinds of shops across the country, from Nelson, BC to Calgary, AB to North Bay, ON to, of course, good old Broken Books right here in St. John's.