By Seemi Aziz, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ and Celeste Trimble, St. Martin’s University, Lacey, WA
Continuing on the theme of displacement and its representations in young adult and children’s literature, we turn our attention to Internment by Samira Ahmed. Layla Amin is an everyday American minding her own business before an Islamophobic president of USA orders a round up all Muslims and throws them in internment/detention camps due to the faith that they follow. Layla’s father is a professor at a university and writes poems with revolutionary content. He loses his job and his books are burned. The detention camp that the Amins are relocated to is situated close to the actual detention camp that the Japanese internment camps were located in California. It is headed by a director who thinks he is above the law and orders attacks on the inhabitants and is deliberately cruel to the women. Layla takes action and riles up the rest of the teenagers in the camp to conduct demonstrations in order to be released from the camp. There is a national uproar as her blog posts and videos get out to the public, which brings reporters and other people to be stationed outside the camp and sends Red Cross workers in the camp as observers. Some guards (especially one in particular) and Layla’s Jewish boyfriend, on the outside help. It is a novel that has hope in its culmination.
This book has already received a ton of attention. Various reviews and awards for this book are as follows: Booklist starred, 02/01/19, Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, 02/01/19, Horn Book Magazine, 03/01/19, Kirkus Reviews starred, 01/01/19, New York Times, 03/10/19, Publishers Weekly starred, 01/07/19, School Library Connection starred, 03/01/19, and School Library Journal starred, 03/01/19.
SEEMI: I really appreciate this book and wondered throughout reading it as to how it was permitted to be published in this political climate. Granted, it is futuristic, but the underlying messages are so very relevant to today where the national and global conversations are going against immigration and the thoughts are so very anti-Muslim. With immigration separation of families and their children in cages the conversation needs to grow as to what needs to be done. This book brings to the fore such issues and is rife with issues/concerns and readies the reader for further thought and conversations.
I also appreciate the representation of good and bad in both communities. The “minders” who sell their souls to the devil and the close group of the director that are evil. But then there are the good in the guards and Layla’s boyfriend. This creates a balance necessary for a good story. I do wonder if such a situation did arise, would there be a such a hopeful ending?
CELESTE: Internment is not futuristic. It is an alternate version of our current moment, shortly after the 2016 election, a version in which not only was the Muslim ban implemented, but all Muslims living in the U.S. are interned. Although the novel is heavy handed at times, the frightening thing about it is that it seems like a reality that could happen. It is not enough of a dystopia, it is too close to the reality that many of us fear. And in that way, it is very effective and, yes, courageous. Sadly, one of the least realistic elements is the element of hope. The idea that there could be a powerful man, high up in the ranks of the Exclusion Guards, who might risk his own life to come to the aid of Layla and all the internees. My reaction is telling of our contemporary political climate, that I find it more likely that internment would happen, than likely that a high-ranking Guard would be an ally to the interned.
SEEMI: I fearfully agree with your last comment. The deeply-held negative views about Muslims are global and the noose seems to be tightening ever so slowly. The people who could be there to aid will surely be a small number and maybe not in such a powerful position where he has the ear of the director. This book takes the reality to a whole new level. Hope is shown in people outside the camp, but the movement started within the camp with the younger more passionate group. I fear for the future of Muslims globally. This novel is thought-provoking and can initiate further necessary discussions in classrooms. Oppression and displacement will always have reactions and there will always be martyrs. If you see what is happening within Muslim countries throughout the world (mostly by Western powers) one is forced to think about why and how some reckless Muslims behave in the way, they do. Innocents die in the war on terror. But two wrongs never make a right. Groups like ISIS are formed by inculcating fear in the masses. They are the least of Muslims, if they are Muslims at all. The discourse that is frames Muslims today needs to have an end; I just do not know how.
CELESTE: But beneath this deeply unsettling fear that this novel is more realistic than dystopic is the powerful idea that youth will lead the movement to ensure, or move towards, justice for all. When Layla decides to write about what is occurring in the camps, to tell the story that the Director of the camps and the Exclusion Authority is trying to keep from the American public, despite all the risks, she does so because it is necessary. “I have to do something…. we have to tell people. I don’t think people on the outside will tolerate this if they know” (p. 187). Her courage in the face of real threats from those in power, not only threats against herself but also against those she loves, is an inspiration. This kind of youth leading action against injustice is not a new trope in YA, nor in real life, but it speaks to me in a particularly strong way right now. I think of the students from Parkland, Florida, speaking out against gun violence are a part of this collective voice. I’m also thinking about Greta Thunburg speaking so passionately about climate change and holding a global audience. This novel is another voice in this youth action collective, but a fictional one. The fictional voice holds so much importance, though, because it allows the reader to imagine themselves speaking out and acting with courage in the face of oppression alongside the brave adolescents who are doing so in our real world right now.
SEEMI: I agree with the recent real-life events where the youth are deciding to stand up and speak truth to power in the examples you provide. This book is specifically aligned with that and also the power of the strength and will of the common man to bring down formidable organizations. This is why I appreciate this narrative in particular.
Author: Samira Ahmed
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Date Published: March 19, 2019
Throughout July 2019, Celeste and Seemi give their takes on books on the theme of displacements and its representations. Check back each Wednesday to follow the conversation!