For Mark, a social worker in Toronto, and one of two main characters in Chris Benjamin’s debut novel, Drive-By Saviours, that idea has lost its meaning. Then Mark meets Bumi, who immigrated (rather, fled) to Canada from Indonesia. “The driving theme of it is that idea of trying to help people without knowing what you’re doing, or knowing enough about the people you’re trying to help,” says Benjamin over coffee in Halifax, where he works as a journalist specializing in stories on sustainability, social justice and culture.
Bumi grew up in a (fictional) fishing village on a small island off Makassar, a city of about two million. “He’s a bit of a boy-wonder,” Benjamin says.
As a kid, Bumi designs an innovative fishing net. He repurposes pop bottles on the shore for flotation. He’s good at math and languages. And he attends a school in the city funded by international aid, money that actually trickles down from the corrupt and authoritarian Suharto regime, which ruled for 31 years ending in 1998.
While taking a master’s in environmental studies at Toronto’s York University, Benjamin went to Indonesia, just after Suharto, through the school’s exchange program.
He visited fishing villages and learned of the real fear parents had about losing their kids to this educational system, which he describes as similar to the residential schools in Canada. They disrupted local, natural community and family practices: “This is children at a young age helping their parents do what they do. This is how it works. It’s not a sweatshop by any means.”
At school in the city, Bumi develops obsessive compulsive disorder, political outspokenness to a degree some view as radicalism, especially for those times. All this, coupled with his uncommon intelligence, makes him a figure of fear and ultimately blame when a group of children die mysteriously.
Fearful and facing accusers, Bumi flees to Canada. On a subway in Toronto, he meets the social worker. Benjamin wrote much of the early draft of Drive-By Saviours during his long commute by public transit in Toronto starting in 2003. He worked for the Toronto Regional Conservation Authority and Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants. He and his wife, a social worker, moved to Halifax (Benjamin grew up in Beaverbank) three years ago.
Issues such as immigration and environment inform the novel. “I didn’t want to force all these issues in there but they kind of came out.”