A review of Internment by Samira Ahmed
Published 2019, Little, Brown, and Company
We are all probably familiar with the metaphor of the boiling frog and have all probably been told at some point that we are the frogs, luxuriating in hot water that’s about to kill us.
Samira Ahmed’s young adult novel Internment, wants to jolt us out of the pot and rise up against those responsible for the fire.
The novel opens with a book-burning and right away, it introduces us to Layla, a teen American-Muslim, and her frustration and incredulity at how basic civil liberties are being dismantled—while the people around her seem to merely watch in defeated silence. Ahmed adeptly pulls us into the same frustrations so that we are rolling our eyes with Layla every time somebody says “I can’t believe this is happening” or “No one thought it would come to this.” Because Layla knows, and we know, that we were warned. This is happening because we didn’t do anything.
And so, much like the conversation surrounding Greta Thunberg, the book accosts us with how children bear the burden of building a just society when adults fail. All around Layla, adults are failing by being the oppressors or by submitting themselves to oppression. Layla’s father is a poet and he wrote the verses that serve as the book’s epigraph—
Though you muffle my voice, I speak,
Though you clip my wings and cage me, I fly
Ang though you batter my body,
commanding me to kneel before you,
So we ask: What is resistance? Can absence of assertion also be considered resistance? Or are we merely pretending to resist when we take comfort in the abstract, when we offer our thoughts and prayers, when we settle for silently reminding ourselves of our dignity, humanity, and history? What does quietly holding on to memories of personhood and nationhood really do?
Compliance means safety. Is it actually better to fight and die than to obey and live? Going through the motions gives you the gift of invisibility, and in a world where being different puts you in danger, invisibility does seem like the key towards survival. For bystanders, silence maintains privilege. For the oppressed, silence maintains existence.
But what is the value of existence if one can only exist in oppression? “What about wanting to live?” Layla asks her mother.
She is holding on to a lesson from her nanni, who told her “you can’t simply pray for what you want. You have to act.” And act she does, inspiring people around her to do the same, but not without consequence. Much like anyone who challenges authority, Layla is vilified even in her own community as a troublemaker, an enemy of peace risking everyone’s lives. Why can’t she just put her head down? After all, even as prisoners with zero rights, at least they still have roofs over their heads and food to fill their belly. Why can’t she stop complaining and just count her blessings?
Because, it is one thing to appreciate what you have, and quite another to assert being given what you rightfully deserve. And when people believe that dictators are free and clear of murder when they build infrastructure or that letting transgender people get attacked is okay if it means women can feel safe in bathrooms, books like this become all the more important. Layla’s father tells her, “People are willing to trade their freedom, even for a false sense of protection.” Internment reminds us that when we sacrifice the rights of others for our own benefit, everybody loses.
This book is a brave book. It does not call out Trump by name, but mentions “a man who openly tweeted about his hatred of [Muslims] on a nearly daily basis” and “the kind of white [people] that think internment camps are going to make America great again.” Samira Ahmed reminds us how Trump and power-hungry people like him have been fear-mongering—”Look at them. They are different. They are out to get you.”—and calls out to us, to act now, to speak now, because those in power want to frighten us against in each other, to scare us into submission. All the signs are here and we cannot risk ignoring them any longer.