Two Empathic Books About Refugees

I just finished reading the compelling 2018 novel The The Boat People by the young Canadian writer Sharon Bala. It’s a gripping yet challenging story inspired by actual events in 2009 when two large boatfuls of Tamil refugees landed in Vancouver, BC, fleeing the horrors of the Sri Lankan civil war. Ms. Bala’s father, a Tamil, fled Sri Lanka after previous onslaughts of violence against his people by the Sinhalese majority in the 1980’s. She credits her father for providing some of the historical background to her story.

I was only dimly aware of the Sri Lankan civil war prior to reading this book. The author tells her story with frequent flashbacks that fill in scenes of the gruesome persecution of the mostly Hindu Tamils by the mostly-Buddhist Sinhalese majority for much of the 20th century. The “Tamil Tigers” were a militant insurgent group that took up arms against the Sinhalese in a failed attempt to gain an independent Tamil state on the island. The author does not hesitate to reveal the outright terrorist practices that the Tigers employed. In the end, the larger and better-armed Sinhalese armed forces crushed the Tamil resistance in 2009, and according to international human rights organizations, perpetrated significant human rights abuses on the Tamil civilian population as well.

Most of Ms. Bala’s novel takes place during the months after 500 Tamil “The Boat people” arrive in Vancouver awaiting disposition of their refugee applications. There are three main characters. Priya is an up-and-coming young law student who is recruited, against her inclination, to help represent some of the refugees. She is from a second-generation Tamil immigrant family, and she is mostly intent on furthering a lucrative career in corporate law. During her encounters with her Tamil clients, she is drawn, almost against her will, into the intimacies of their lives.  Grace is a third-generation Japanese Canadian lawyer who works for the Canadian federal government. She has just received a political appointment as an immigration judge and presides over the refugee hearings. Her political mentor is a conservative, terrorist-fearing Canadian nationalist who encourages her to take a firm stand against the refugees. Grace is torn between the urgings of her mentor and her aging mother’s late-in-life politicization over the rank injustices of Canada’s internment of its Japanese population during World War Two. Finally, there is Mahindan, a 36-year-old Tamil widower who has escaped a nightmarish detention camp after the civil war and invested his life savings to bring himself and his 6-year-old son to a new life in Canada. Mahindan’s refugee claims are initially thwarted when it is revealed that his work as a civilian auto mechanic included the servicing of a bus used in a Tamil Tiger terrorist attack. Mahindan’s son is placed in foster care and the heartbreaking separation of father and son is poignantly presented.

“The Boat People” is a masterfully written first novel. Each chapter reads like a well-told short story. The author’s imaginative skill in bringing the three main characters’ widely different perspectives together into a compelling, unified story is artfully and organically accomplished.  Ms. Bala has written that her main intention in writing the book was to increase the human empathy of her readers for the plight of refugees. In that she surely succeeded with this reader.

Another book I read this summer was a 2019 best-seller, American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins. This novel received some negative publicity at publication from some Hispanic writers claiming that Ms. Cummins lacked first-hand knowledge of the Mexican refugee characters in the book. Two of my book club sisters had read it and highly recommended it. I first watched an excellent interview of Ms. Cummins by the acclaimed NPR reviewer Maureen Corrigan. The interview dealt at length with the initial criticisms. Ms. Cummins won me over with the grace, openness, and sensitivity of her responses to them.

Like “The Boat People”, “American Dirt” is a dramatically intense read. Both novels depict ordinary people living ordinary lives until they are completely upended by shocking violence and cruelty. In this case, Lydia Quixano Perez is living a content, middle class life in Acapulco as mother and small bookstore owner. When her journalist husband publishes a story exposing the leader of the local drug cartel, the reprisals against her family are horrifying. Lydia manages to escape Acapulco with her 8-year-old son Luca, embarking on a thousand-mile journey north seeking safety in the U.S. Their life-threatening journey north through much of cartel-controlled Mexico is harrowing, including long, dangerous passages riding the open rooftops of freight trains. They magically bond with two teenage Indian sisters from Honduras, who are similarly fleeing for their lives from a male gang leader.

Both books have dramatic twists and turns that include incidents of rape, wanton disregard for human life, dire poverty, hunger, thirst and exposure to the elements. It’s not easy reading and required of me an ongoing assent to be a literary witness to the excruciating, undeserved sufferings of innocent people.

Janine Cummins doesn’t say it overtly, but her book also reflects a profound empathy for the unspoken misery of those fleeing their homelands in hope of finding safety and opportunity in a new land. Both novels end with realistic rays of light showing that the brutality of the refugee experience sometimes ends with positive outcomes. Mostly, I’m left with a sober appreciation for refugees, knowing that no one flees their homeland without great cause. And in the tradition of great literature, I also experience an uplifted spirit from having been willing to share in the extreme hardship of these fictional refugees, and to share in their dignity and essential uniqueness as fellow human beings.

Lastly, I want to share that these two novels gave me a renewed appreciation for printed books. I ventured into our local Barnes and Nobles bookstore to purchase the hardcover version of “American Dirt”. I did this after learning that Ms. Cummins comes from Gaithersburg, MD – a few miles from our home near Rockville. I wanted to support both the bookstore and Ms. Cummins in sustaining the culture of reading and discussion that good books can inspire. (My sisters Marian and Anna from Western New York have ventured down to Gaithersburg for our annual book festival for many years, pre-Covid. We’ve missed the festival immensely – especially the opportunity to speak directly with some of our favorite authors.)

 I read a soft-cover version of “The Boat People” that my sister Kathy sent me. Kathy has been a book club convener in New Brunswick, NJ for many years and has steered me to some great reads over the years. She’s a stalwart for physical books, preferring not to embrace the burgeoning culture of e-books that my wife and I are party to. I formed an emotional attachment with both books described here that had something to do with holding, touching, and paging back and forth through the physical book itself.

John Bayerl