The last time I interviewed Jason Donald, he and his wife were living in a second-floor flat in Ibrox. His first novel, Choke Chain, set in apartheid South Africa of the 1980s, was just about to come out, and this was his first interview. In the novel, his 12-year-old protagonist says that it’s easy to remember things: all you have to do is to pretend you are a camera. When you blink, that’s the shutter falling. Blink, click: and that’s the picture in your head forever.
Eight years on, and here’s another first interview – this time about his second novel, Dalila. These days, he’s no longer living up a close in Govan but overlooking Lake Geneva in Switzerland, where his wife works as a trainer “for an international athlete” (he doesn’t elaborate) and where he teaches creative writing and runs a writers’ retreat. Dalila is out in the middle of January, but my guess is that we’ll be hearing a lot more about it later on as well. Not only is its subject the hot-button issue of asylum seekers, but it has been taken up by Oscar-winning playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons, Atonement), who has written a filmscript. Casting has already begun and talks in LA with production companies look promising.
Blink, click. Those two snapshots of a writer, eight years apart, don’t seem to have anything in common. In reality, they could hardly be more closely connected.
To find out why, it helps to have read Choke Chain. Although it was set in South Africa at a time when apartheid was still tearing the country to bits, you wouldn’t guess that either from reading it or from talking to Jason Donald about his own memories of growing up in Pretoria. His family had emigrated from Dundee when he was two, and he moved back to Scotland in 1992, when he was 16. In those intervening years in South Africa, although apartheid violence was at its height, it never impinged on his own childhood. Yes, there was racism, but just the white-on-white kind, Afrikaaner versus Brit. Only back in Britain could he see the realities of apartheid in focus.
That was one of the points about his first novel; although it was a pin-sharp portrait of a dysfunctional family through a child’s eyes, the wider background was blurry, unexplored. What kind of lives were out there, stuck on the margins, blanked out by the whites?
In Glasgow, Donald had already started to find out. Since the turn of the millennium, he had taught English as a foreign language to classes mostly composed of asylum seekers, first in libraries and community venues and then, for five years, at Cardonald College, just three blocks from his Ibrox flat. Festival Court, a looming presence in his new novel, was even nearer.
At first he didn’t know much what went on at Festival Court. Yet over the years, he got to know asylum seeker students socially, bumping into them on demos against the Iraq war, on the underground, in the streets, and he began to find out. He saw how the demographics in his classroom mirrored geopolitics: first a few extra Afghanis, then Iraqis, then Syrians fleeing the fighting in their homelands. And soon he started to notice something else: not just how suddenly asylum seekers appeared, but how suddenly some of them disappeared too.
The first one was a young girl, maybe about 19. “She didn’t turn up for her class, and when I asked around the college, people would say ‘Well, she’s just gone, she’s an asylum seeker’. And I’d say ‘Where?’ And they’d say ‘Well, we don’t know, she’s probably been moved or detained’. Yet if this had been a Scottish girl no-one had seen after four days we’d have been calling the police. But if she was an asylum seeker, everyone thought ‘Oh, she’s fine. She’s just gone somewhere’. That used to happen a lot with my students.”
Often where they had gone was Festival Court, just two blocks from where he lived. “It’s a very bland, generic-looking building. But for many asylum seekers, that is this country’s border: you could go into that building and you could be taken out of the country.
“A lot of my students were terrified of that building. And as some were living on the same street as me and going to the same college, I thought ‘I need to write about this. It’s something I can’t turn my back on’.”
He immersed himself in researching the lives of asylum seekers. He’d already befriended many, but volunteering at the Unity Centre, taking courses run by the Scottish Refugee Council about how best to help asylum seekers, and making weekly visits to those whose applications had been turned down and who had been sent to Dungavel detention centre taught him a lot more. By the time he started writing Dalila, he knew everything he needed.
He wrote up what he’d found out as a novel rather than non-fiction because first of all, that was his own particular skill, honed at Glasgow University’s MLitt course in creative writing, but mainly because he knew it would have more impact. He wanted his readers to identify with his protagonist, so he made it a bit easier for them. Dalila Mwathi is an Kenyan student journalist whose life, although far more threatened and dangerous than any she encounters in Glasgow, isn’t wildly dissimilar from that of her Scottish contemporaries. Because she is a Kenyan girl, English is her first language too; because she is a journalism student she knows how to tell her own story; and because she is young and computer-savvy she knows how to use Facebook to rally support.
For the first half of the novel, Donald pulls Dalila through the Kafkaesque people-sifting bureaucracy to which Britain subjects its asylum seekers. This is where Festival House comes in: she is assessed there, and provided with the bare minimum to survive on while her claim is appraised. But once she is in Glasgow – the only Scottish city given as an option to any asylum seeker landing in England and the one place to which they least want to go – Donald has to convey the feeling they nearly all have in common: that they’re trapped, lonely, forbidden from working lest they be thrown out of the country. All the time they are waiting, in a circle of purgatory reserved for themselves alone, for strangers to decide whether or not to send them back to a place where they may be killed.
To a novelist, this is a risky project. In the wrong hands, it could be uninvolving, worthy agitprop. The limbo that is an inherent part of
many asylum seekers’ lives poses another problem: how do you write about boredom without being boring?
But Dalila is written with such immense empathy that it avoids these pitfalls. There is, as he explains, a reason for that. “I was living in Glasgow and I discovered that there are similar things going on in my own neighbourhood to what had been happening in South Africa. That the authorities were breaking into people’s homes, targeting specific members of the population and removing them from their homes to a secure location.
“Then I find out that just down the road from my house is a reporting centre for these people, and that the government wants to remove them from the community and that they are going to great lengths to do so, to take them to detention centres.
“And all this was like my experience of South Africa. As a child, you mightn’t know such things were going on, because they were at the very edge of your consciousness. Unless you turned to look at it you could just live your life and ignore it and get by.
“I’ve got a second chance to do something about this. And as a writer I can’t turn away from it. I’ve been here before.”
*Dalila by Jason Donald is published by Cape on 16 January, price £16.99