Discussion Questions


1. Why do you think the author chose The Boat People as her title? Throughout history, the term “boat people” has been used to refer to different waves of migrants. Who did you think the boat people of the title were going to be? What other examples of “boat people” are you aware of?

2. Consider the book’s epigraph by Martin Luther King Jr.: “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” How does this epigraph relate to the plot or set the stage for the themes explored in the book?

3. Author Sharon Bala has said that she wrote the novel as a “meditation on empathy.” Discuss how the novel explores both the need for empathy as well as how it is tested.

4. The novel is told through the perspectives of three characters: that of Priya, of Grace, and of Mahindan both in the present and in the past. What do you think the reader gains by having access to these different points of view? What do each of these perspectives bring to the story? Whose story did you enjoy most? Whose story surprised you the most?

5. Examine the relationships between parents and their children in the book. How would you characterize these relationships? What does being a parent mean to Mahindan, Grace, Appa, and Hema? What sacrifices have these parents made for their children? Discuss the expectations the parents in turn have for their children.

6. On p.53, Grace’s mother, Kumi, describes how her parents “kept quiet” about what the family endured during the internment of Japanese Canadians, because they “thought they were protecting us.” Later, on p.109, Grace recalls her grandmother telling her to “Focus on tomorrow. No point regretting yesterday.” Priya’s parents and Uncle Romesh also choose not to tell Priya or Rat about their past in Sri Lanka but for different reasons. What would you have done in their shoes? How did you feel about the bond that develops between Kumi and her granddaughters as they join in her “family history project” (p.200)? How forthcoming have your own relatives been about your family’s past? 

7. Kumi is suffering from Alzheimer’s. In what ways does her illness reflect some of the book’s themes?

8. On p.54, Priya recognizes Charlie “as someone both fluently Canadian and authentically Sri Lankan, one of those third-culture people who slipped in and out of identities like shoes.” How does Priya feel about her own ability to negotiate between her two identities? How does this compare with how Priya is viewed by her Sri Lankan clients?

9. On p.105, Grace and her daughters review the Japanese terms Issei, Nisei, Sansei, and Yonsei, literally first-, second-, third-, and fourth-generation. Priya, her brother, Rat (Michael), and Grace are first- and third-generation Canadians, respectively, yet despite being born in Canada, they each have their moments of cultural conflict. Examine these instances. As possible first-generation Canadians, how do you think Hema’s daughters (Tara and Padmini) and Sellian will fare in the future?

10. Many of the characters have to let go of certain possessions over the course of the novel. For example, Mahindan has to relinquish his grandfather’s suitcase, and Priya gives away some of her mother’s saris. What do other characters give up, both literally and metaphorically? In contrast, Kumi is constantly losing personal items, while at the same time trying to locate documentation such as deeds and ledgers related to the family’s former home and business. Sellian also manages to hold on to his Ganesha statue. Discuss the significance of what these characters surrender or hold on to, and how it reflects on their stories.

11. What is the significance of The Nature of Things episode described on p.84, especially in relation to what Fred Blair tells Grace in the final paragraph on p.91?

12. On p.103, about the game show hostess on The Price Is Right, Mahindan remarks, “She was not part of the compe­tition. Or she had already won. And this was the ultimate prize, being onstage among all the beautiful things.” Why does he think she is already a winner?

13. On p.32, the interpreter tells Mahindan, “You have come to a good place. There is room for you here.” Later, on p.119, former prime minister Brian Mulroney is quoted as saying, “Canada is not in the business of turning refugees away. If we err, let it be on the side of compassion.” Discuss the portrayal of the Canadian refugee system in the book. Has it changed your perspective on the traditional representation of Canada as a welcoming nation?

14. Discuss the concept of the “model migrant.” Over the course of the novel, we learn of the morally ambiguous choices made by Mahindan and Uncle Romesh. What would you have done? How did you feel about the comparisons Mahindan makes on p.146? 

15. What did you make of Grace’s interactions with Fred Blair and Mitchell Hurst, respectively? Do you feel Mitchell Hurst’s suspicion is justified?

16. In “Back to hell” (p.148), Grace bristles at what she perceives to be ambiguities in Hema’s testimony, whether it’s the use of the word caught instead of recruited, or the varying reports about whether the army soldiers were shooting at the defectors or helping them to escape. Do you feel her reaction is warranted? What do you make of Grace’s tendency to avoid referring to the refugee claimants by name?

17. Are Grace’s fears justified or is she being over-cautious? What decision do you think she makes in the end?

18. Many of the migrants learn to speak English over the course of the novel. Did their experiences remind you of your own experiences while learning English, French, or another language?

19. Has your perspective on immigrants and refugees changed after reading this book? Is there anything you now see differently?

20. Were you of the same mind regarding whether Mahindan should be allowed to stay or not throughout the novel? At what points did you waver one way or the other? How do you feel in the end?

21. Discuss the book’s ending. Why do you think the author chose to end the book when she does?  

22. Some of the book’s most riveting scenes take place in Sri Lanka during the civil war. What other books have you read that take place during a time of war, civil or otherwise? How did those portrayals compare to the scenes in this novel? Had you heard of the Sri Lankan civil war before reading this book? What were your impressions of Sri Lanka prior to reading this novel?

23. When asked about how the historical events of her novel increasingly appear pulled from today’s headlines, Bala has said that she never expected the book’s plot to “sound like warning bells rather than history lessons.” How is the novel relevant for us today?

24. Who would you recommend The Boat People to? Why?