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The Boat People Reader’s Guide

By Sharon Bala

The Boat People by Sharon Bala


Discussion Questions for The Boat People
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: Priya, Grace, and 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, Kumi, Appa, and Hema? What sacrifices have these parents made for their children? Discuss the expectations the parents have for their children.
6. Kumi is suffering from Alzheimer’s. In what ways does her illness reflect some of the book’s themes?
7. 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.
8. Has your perspective on immigrants and refugees changed after reading this book? Is there anything you now see differently?
9. 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 did you feel in the end?
10. Discuss the book’s ending. Why do you think the author chose to end the book when she does? 
11. 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?
12. 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? 
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