Internment by Samira Ahmed Book Review

(For those who don’t know, that is 4/4, not 4/5. It’s a perfect score of 100!)

When I read Ahmed’s debut, which was Love, Hate, & Other Filters, I awarded it only 1 and a half stars, saying it was The Hate U Give lite, being too romance-heavy, taking too long for things to heat up and then they don’t heat up as much as they could’ve, and an epilogue that dismissed most of the romance anyway. This caused me reluctance to read this novel too, because I didn’t want to dislike a book about one of the most serious issues facing America and its citizens in history. But I read it. And I am truly impressed! Truly grateful! Truly galvanized!

Well, there are a few fictional dates in this book, but it is definitely in 2019. “There is only Then and Now. There is only what we once were and what we have become. Two and a half years since the election. Two years since the Nazis marched on DC. Eighteen months since the Muslim ban. One year since our answers on the census landed us on the registry. Nine months since the first book burning. Six months since the Exclusion Laws were enacted. Five months since…it’s too painful to spoil them all. Let’s just say now, Muslims are not only looked down upon in America, but there are laws that prevent them from having the majority of jobs and in times of war, they are seen as allowed to be moved somewhere else at the hands of the government, a government whose president recently declared that Muslims are a threat to America. This should sound familiar to every eye who reads this. Well, one of these Muslim Americans is Layla Amin, and one night all seems relatively okay for her; yes, her dad lost his job and his writing is no longer allowed…his books were at a local book burning…and Layla snuck out past the Muslim curfew to meet up with her Jewish boyfriend David. Both their parents agreed they shouldn’t date anymore, especially David’s right-wing conservative father. They both are resisting that. Layla’s parents had registered themselves as Muslim, even though Layla warned against it. It was a matter of pride vs. extra rights. Well, now it turns out it was a matter of pride vs. persecution, when one horrible night an army of officers breaks down the Amin door and says the three of them are among those selected to be forced to a camp near Manzanar. For those who don’t know, that is a place in California that had one of the concentration camps which held Japanese Americans during World War II. They only had ten minutes to say goodbye to their house and pack up a few belongings. Layla is given a UV stamp permanently imprinted into her skin, and her new home is basically a field of trailer parks, with a director saying obviously false claims to fool gullible minds that aren’t there, like how the camp was supposedly made for protection of Muslims from the outside world of hate, and he’s clearly enjoying spreading the who-are-you-kidding messages. The only positive thing about this is a few new friends, she gets to stay with her parents, and there’s a guard with a compass tattoo that seems to be lenient and non-violent. But Layla knows in her gut that this internment is not temporary, and that if someone doesn’t do something to stand up to the system, the people in power will keep her here indefinitely and fear monger the world to keep it that way. And maybe she has to be the one to do the standing.

There are so many quotes in this book that deserve to be framed. For instance: “What’s that thing people always say about history? Unless we know our history, we’re doomed to repeat it? Never forget? Isn’t that the lesson? But we always forget. Forgetting is in the American grain.” Or, “You know, America is a melting pot. America is a mixed salad. America is a shining city on a hill. America is the country where a skinny kid with a funny name can defeat the odds and become president. But America doesn’t seem like any of those things anymore. Maybe it never was.” … Did you feel any chills reading those? I sure did. The book even lifts itself up further on its history lesson by reminding us of true stories in World War II that in this day and age feel modern; of a group of students, the leaders being Hans and Sophie Scholl, a group of German college students who handed out pamphlets urging their friends to resist the Nazis, and they were executed by guillotine. Or, even more realistic sounding, when children in concentration camps were forced to give happy smiles and even put on a play for safety inspectors to prevent people allowed exclusion from the camps from getting the word out about the abuse they were undergoing, and they were later all killed. While reading Internment, I was reminded of how horrible people will never completely go away but we at least need leaders who will protect their citizens, and most of the ones in our world today do not. I thought deep and hard about the migrant detention centres in the U.S. today where the conditions are so poor, a judge had to force the Trump administration to give their detainees soap and toothbrushes. I cried inside and out in a way a book hasn’t made me do in a very long time.

Remembering how Love, Hate, & Other Filters was structured, I thought there would be a romance subplot taking up most of the book and distracting from the injustices. I’m so happy to say I haven’t been more wrong on a book in years. And yet there’s a romance that is so sweet, couples should read this book together and ask themselves what they’d do, what rules they’d break, to keep each other safe. Families should read this book together and think about how when you’re a caring parent, the only thing you want is for your child to be safe, whereas that child feels they have less to lose, and they want to do what it takes to stop the corrupt system. It’s regular for a parent to be scared for their kid. Maybe one day us teens with this book targeted for us will feel the same way.

The perfect way to make us care about people is to figure out the best way to put someone into their shoes, and my heart was pounding, not nearly as fast as Layla’s was when their house out of the blue got surrounded with their orders, but the pain of having to leave the only home I’d ever known within ten minutes without knowing if I’d ever see it again, saying goodbye to my neighbourhood, my friends, my town, where I grew up with my childhood dog, the only life I’d manage to carve for myself, is one of the most depressing pains I can imagine; seeing it happen through Layla’s eyes, especially knowing the fact this is happening everywhere right now in America, made the pain even worse. I immediately wanted Layla and her parents to somehow escape.

This book also achieved the perfect storytelling strategy; the book is told completely from Layla’s point of view, but she also has David on the outside who’s able to relay information to her. I’m very glad we don’t have David’s point of view, because by having the whole story taking place from the point of view of someone behind bars, we feel that same uncertainty of what is happening in front of the bars, of if the world is paying attention for them or is preparing another camp a few miles away. We feel the locked doors, the guards, the hopelessness more. It’s good we don’t get David’s side of this story because this is Layla’s story, and everyone with a gun wants her incarcerated. Well, almost everyone. Like Alex from Escape from Furnace, we really have no idea when, how, or even if the protagonist will escape, or escape with all arms and legs still working.

Compass Tattoo (and we later learn his name) is one of my favourite parts of this book. He comes off as caring, and respectful, and tries to prevent life from being too bad for Layla. Yet I was worried just like her that he was feigning being respectful to find out her secrets. Despite this hesitation, I thought about how Compass Tattoo was just such a compassionate and kind security guard, just like in those videos where you see officers rescuing puppies off the streets, the sort of cops general people yearn for, and yet so many others are in a system where law enforcers are supposed to feel fear and exercise brutality to intimidate people…and how some, even most in the detention centre in this book and in real life, enjoy it. I hope you don’t laugh at me, but to see someone not like that made me cry both sad and happy tears.

And you know? This book’s main message looks at all the dangers we’re told: about how if we start to rebel against a system, so many times we’re shot down, sometimes our salary takes a hit, lots of people will tell us there’s no point and we’re too small, and if we somehow do make it big, a group of sadistic beyond-repair people will smear us to make us look like imbeciles, especially if we’re young. And the book tells us these are methods of fear that we have the power to resist. And that yes, rebellions aren’t easy. But with the commitment that goes far beyond social media and over to the press and picket signs and videos, no, it’s not impossible to make a difference. You just need the commitment, and with the right friends by your side holding your hand, you’re a powerhouse.

Samira Ahmed has proven to us what a punch in the gut to corruption and xenophobia she is when she gives it her all, and in Internment she holds nothing back. I rarely say this, but I say it now with complete honesty: I love this book!

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