Dalila by Jason Donald
If ever there was a timely novel, Dalila by Jason Donald is it. A few weeks ago, a friend of mine said that, while he has no plans of ever writing a novel, if he were to write a novel, it would be about what is going on in Syria, from the perspective of characters around the country and outside of it.
Dalila is not that. But once you read it, you will understand why the above sentence seems somewhat relevant. This is the story of an asylum seeker, not from Syria, but from Kenya, seeking shelter and safety in the United Kingdom. It addresses a certain universitality in the experience of a person looking for promise in a world ravaged by violence and brutality, by loss and suffering. The pain that drives someone from their home country into the realm of the unknown is one that is shared beyond the particulars of situation or circumstance. And, to the degree that there is pain, there is also the perseverance, resilience and fight for survival that weaves itself into the Great Story, the loss we all experience, distinct but, all the while, the same.
About 10 days ago, I went to Donald's book reading, which is also where I purchased his second novel. It was at this time that I learned his protagonist was based on the culmination of seven years of field research, of being both teacher and neighbor to refugees. Through Dalila's voice rings the true story of many who have come before her. In writing her story, though fiction, we have a way of remembering the experiences of those who flee from horror to face a different kind of structural violence in the texture of the systems meant to support the most vulnerable.
Someone asked, after I described the premise of Dalila, whether Donald was also an anthropologist like me. Not by training, as far as I know, but certainly there was an element of ethnography to this work. One of the reasons it is such a powerful narrative is because it goes beyond a single story to a much bigger, contemporary discourse around the refugee crisis, existing in and far beyond Syria today. We let the news shape our vision of the world but take for granted the fact the people from all over the world have been forced to cross borders for the sake of their lives and the lives of their families, based on their gender, politics, ethnicity or race as far back as I could date. What Dalila showcases is that, despite these differences, what unites us is stronger. And this is also what anthropology tells us. Though we like to construct our understanding of the world based on social frames, by 'othering' and finding opposition, we share far more similarities. Ubuntu. I am only okay if you are okay.
This work also adds to a dialogue presented by medical anthropologist Didier Fassin in his book Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present. Fassin introduces the paradoxical and ambiguous nature of humanitarian reason - that so many of the structures put in place to protect people actually perpetuate further violence and inequality. That those already so vulnerable, ripped from their homes and the ones they love, are asked to further expose themselves through the repetitive tellings of their stories, through exposing their wounds, written on their bodies, for all the world to read.
Donald, too, exposes this and, through Dalila's story, we may better come to know the stories of others. We may even better come to know ourselves.