For the Joy of Reading: Dalila

Jason Donald begins his riveting story of an asylum seeker by describing a queue at Heathrow.   It is a clever device because it is something with which we can all empathise.   We have all endured the sheer boredom of queueing.   So we can all sympathise with Dalila as she waits to present her passport to the immigration officials on duty.   And so, we are hooked into her story from the very outset.   A lot of that has to do with the skill of the writing.    Jason Donald, like the Ancient Mariner, is a natural storyteller and just like the wedding guest you will be “like one that hath been stunned, And is of sense forlorn: A sadder and a wiser man, He rose the morrow morn.”

Without giving to much of the plot away, when Dalila arrives in the UK, she lies to get herself into the country and then, finding herself threatened by the criminals who organised her journey from Kenya, she appeals for asylum.   The story then takes us through the process of an application for asylum.   Jason Donald makes all this real for us by introducing us to people on both sides of the process, and shows us their humanity.   So there is a security guard who does not want to clear up a pool of vomit, the Turkish family in despair at what may happen to them when their application is rejected, the charity worker doing his best, the drunken neighbours.   Jason Donald shows us people at their worst and at their best.

Dalila herself is not perfect.   She resents the fact that it is the Syrian refugees who are capturing all the headlines.   But slowly she learns the importance of the African concept Ubuntu.   (I have to confess that I thought this was a South African concept, because all the people that I have heard speaking about it are South Africans).   Ubuntu expresses the idea that I cannot be safe, content, secure if others are not safe, content and secure.   It is the complete rejection of Margaret Thatcher’s “no such thing as society” argument.   Ubuntu argues that our lives intersect, and that we are dependent upon each other.

This is the central concept of this book.    “Dalila” shows us these intersections for good or evil, and how even little things can change people’s lives.   “Dalila” does not offer any solutions about how we as a society should deal with asylum seekers, except one.   We should act with compassion.    We should ask ourselves how we would want to be treated if, God forbid, we should find ourselves in such circumstances.   That, I think, is the central message of this book.   It explores the conflicts between law and morality, and reminds us that executing the law without compassion is not justice.   It shows us the horrific consequences of bad decision-making, and it shows us how the human spirit can rise above adversity through the transcendent power of friendship.

I would be astonished by this book, but for one thing.   I have known Jason Donald since he published “Choke Chain” in 2009 and I booked him to speak in some of the libraries where I worked.   I also had the pleasure of commissioning him to write a short story “If You Belonged” for Scottish Libraries.   This story was about an asylum seeker resisting his physical deportation from the country.   I therefore have known for nearly a decade that Jason Donald is an intelligent and passionate writer, and I cannot be surprised therefore that “Dalila” is an extraordinary book.

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