‘The Boat People’ Author Wins Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction

  • July 18th, 2019

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The University of Alabama School of Law and the ABA Journal announced that Sharon Bala, author of The Boat People,” will receive the 2019 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction at an Aug. 29 ceremony at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Cover of The Boat People
The Boat People has won the 2019 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction

Bala is the ninth winner of the Prize. The award, authorized by Lee, is given to a book-length work of fiction that best illuminates the role of lawyers in society and their power to effect change.

“It’s an absolute honor to learn that “The Boat People” has won the  2019 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction,” Bala said. “Writing this novel was a meditation on empathy. My greatest hope is that it has the same effect on readers.”

Nine years ago, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the publication of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and to honor former law student and author Harper Lee, The University of Alabama School of Law and the ABA Journal partnered to create the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction.

 A distinguished panel of writers and scholars selected the 2019 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction.

They are: Robert Barnes, reporter, U.S. Supreme CourtThe Washington Post; Steven Hobbs, Tom Bevill Chairholder of Law, UA School of Law; Claire Matturro, author and alumna, UA School of Law; Dr. Utz McKnight, chair of the department of gender and race studies and UA professor of political science; and Gin Phillips, author, “Fierce Kingdom.”

The selection committee said the debut novel is well-written and resonates with readers. “The Boat People” follows the story of a group of Sri Lankan refugees who escape a bloody civil war only to arrive on Vancouver Island’s shores to face the threat of deportation and accusations of terrorism.

“”The Boat People’ touched me, haunted me, and educated me—in much the same way ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ did when I first read it as an impressionable child,” said Claire Hamner Matturro, a UA School of Law graduate and author. “It’s the kind of book I wish the whole world could read with an open mind and an open heart.”

Bala will be honored with a signed special edition of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

The 2019 prize will be awarded at the Library of Congress in conjunction with the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. After the award is presented, the selection committee will discuss Bala ’s “The Boat People” in relation to Lee’s work.

“‘The Boat People’ is timely and powerful. Even those who think they are versed in the various vantage points involved in the complex area of immigration will gain a deeper appreciation of the nuances by reading Sharon Bala’s first novel,” said Molly McDonough, editor and publisher of the ABA Journal. “The book explores the perspectives of desperate refugees; the attorneys who–voluntarily or not–are trying to help them; and the adjudicators who are asked to make potentially life-or-death decisions with little to no evidence.” 

About UA’s Law School

One of America’s leading public law schools and consistently ranked as one of the best values in legal education, The University of Alabama School of Law offers a challenging curriculum with over 150 electives, several dual enrollment opportunities, Master of Laws degrees, and a J.S.D. With a student-to-faculty ratio of 6.4:1, the law school offers students a rigorous, hands-on learning experience, with strong student engagement in clinical programs, legal journals, moot court teams and trial advocacy. 


Monique Fields, manager of communications, School of Law, 205-348-5195, mfields@law.ua.edu; UA communications, 205-348-5320

The University of Alabama, part of The University of Alabama System, is the state’s flagship university. UA shapes a better world through its teaching, research and service. With a global reputation for excellence, UA provides an inclusive, forward-thinking environment and nearly 200 degree programs on a beautiful, student-centered campus. A leader in cutting-edge research, UA advances discovery, creative inquiry and knowledge through more than 30 research centers. As the state’s largest higher education institution, UA drives economic growth in Alabama and beyond.