Dalila, by Jason Donald, Jonathan Cape, 368 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1910702482
We have all seen them and pretended not to notice. At passport control, the unlucky few who are separated from the shuffling herd, asked to sit and wait. By accident of birth, we have the freedom to travel the world for work and enjoyment. By accident of birth, they do not. We carry on, through the arrivals doors which open for us to new opportunities and pleasures. They wait for as long as it takes, and are led away through other doors to a different reality.
To read Jason Donald’s latest novel, Dalila, a fly-on-the-wall story of one woman’s journey through the British asylum system, is to enter that alternative reality. The story begins in Heathrow airport, where Dalila goes from being one of the crowd to one of the excluded. Walking in Dalila’s shoes is an uncomfortable experience. The only survivor in her immediate family, she is beset by danger on all sides. She has escaped a violent sect-like criminal gang in Nairobi, only to fall into the clutches of people traffickers ready to exploit her.
If reading fiction is an exercise in empathy, Dalila delivers a perfect lesson in understanding and sharing the feelings of another. Donald keeps the reader close to her throughout the novel, vividly chronicling her fear, loneliness and heartache. We see Dalila grapple with her role as an item to be processed, and her valiant attempts to overcome the depression induced by this powerlessness, in part by reaching out to others.
Along the way, her encounters with other asylum seekers and refugees introduce vignettes of other people’s lives, adding depth to a narrative in which the protagonist is just a person waiting. The stories of the others serve as cautionary or inspirational tales. Will Dalila despair like the father of the Turkish family facing deportation? Will she rebel like her Ethiopian flatmate Ma’aza? Or will she resign herself, as the old man Daniel has, to the fact that everyone loses – “the single truth of our lives”?
In the speeches of the wise and kindly Daniel, the author strays into some of the rare polemical moments of the novel. “The way we are treated is not for nothing. Believe me, I have seen this. The enforced idleness, the stress we must live under, all of it is an effort to reduce our lives, to hide us away, to keep us out of their offices or universities or hospitals. Most of all they want to remove us, to send us away. Why? Because our suffering frightens them. Because they see what we have lost. Because they refuse to accept that they are just like us.”
At the same time, Daniel’s philosophical musings on his past and present suffering are also some of the most beautiful and thought-provoking passages of the book.
Dalila’s eyes provide us with an unsympathetic view of British society, the view from below. Her main point of contact with the country is the hostile and intimidating asylum system. The lies Dalila told at Heathrow, as instructed by her handlers, thwart her subsequent asylum application, marking her as a suspect case. Her efforts to be resourceful and positive, gathering evidence to support her case, and her naive ambition to be a journalist are all the more poignant as we see her being overwhelmed by negative circumstances. Her quest – to be granted mercy by the system – seems sadly unattainable, no matter how hard she tries.
Although Dalila’s gradually revealed backstory is unremittingly tragic, the novel is not all bleak, largely thanks to the resilience of its heroine. As well as feeling her dread and worry, the reader can also take comfort where Dalila takes comfort, in friendship and kindness (both her own and the kindness of others). When she is transferred to Glasgow, even the small decision to leave her apartment requires great courage, as anyone who has been alone and friendless in a foreign place will understand.
Gradually she begins to build relationships with other people – neighbours, fellow asylum seekers, volunteers – adding to the momentum of the novel. The colourful depiction of Glasgow’s deprived communities is sympathetic without being sentimental. Through helping others, she helps herself, but the ominous Festival Court immigration centre to which she has to report every week looms over everyone’s lives. This is the place unsuccessful applicants disappear from, whisked away without warning to detention centres prior to deportation. The reappearance of the vengeful people traffickers also adds to the tension.
When the action moves to the notorious Yarl’s Wood detention centre, we meet a community of the desperate and the damned, crushed spirits locked up in the kind of high security environment reserved for the most dangerous and unwanted members of society. This is the end of the road for asylum seekers. But hope is also found in this part of the story in the actions of individuals, the willingness to be fair and compassionate yourself even if you cannot be treated fairly and compassionately. Every aspect of the asylum experience was thoroughly researched by the author, who visited Yarl’s Wood and volunteered with a Glasgow charity helping refugees and asylum seekers.
The inspiration for this book came when Donald was living in the deprived suburb of Govan, teaching English while completing his creative writing master’s. The author became increasingly involved in the lives of asylum seekers in his neighbourhood in a very natural way. As he grew closer to his students, the disappearance of one, taken into detention in a dawn raid, became his problem too. This book is personal, and the personal is political, Donald says.
Donald took a risk in writing from the point of view of an African woman, but the risk has paid off. Dalila’s sympathetic, intelligent and vulnerable voice rings true throughout. A Kenyan reviewer would know best but it appears that Donald’s research of the “xaxa generation”, gang culture, social media use and speech patterns was thorough.
The political aspect of the book lies in the choice of story and character. If Dickens were alive today he would also be writing about refugees and asylum seekers, the dispossessed of our times. The danger with a political story like this is that the reader may feel manipulated or preached at. Although the book has clearly been written to inspire compassion, the novel largely steers clear of the polemical trap. The British asylum process is faithfully documented and found to be unfit for purpose. But what approach should wealthy countries be taking towards arrivals from unstable or failing states? How far does the duty to protect go? If the current system is inadequate, what should replace it? These are some of the important questions raised by this book. The reader can of course make up his or her own mind but the contribution of Dalila’s story serves as reminder never to remove compassion from the equation.
Clare O’Dea’s The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths was reviewed in the May 2017 issue of the drb http://www.drb.ie/essays/the-swiss-laid-bare