Seventeen-year-old Layla Amin is an ordinary teenager, trying to live an ordinary life. But in the terrifying near-future United States in which she lives, Muslims like herself have been experiencing increasing discrimination. Then one night, after returning from a secret rendezvous with her boyfriend, agents from the Exclusion Authority show up at their door, dragging her and her parents away to Mobius, a Muslim internment camp. They were given only minutes to pack up necessities and a lifetime of memories. Now they're living in a trailer home behind barbed wire in the middle of the California desert. Layla is infuriated by the situation and by the seeming inaction of her parents and other adults around her. Then she begins making friends with other teens at the camp, and together, they start plotting a revolution against the camp's Director and his guards. With the help of her friends and a sympathetic guard on the inside and her boyfriend on the outside, Layla smuggles out blog posts detailing what it's like inside Mobius, and when the posts go viral, it stirs other Americans to stage a protest outside the camp's gates. But that alone won't be enough to change the government's new policies. It will take all of Layla's courage to stand up for the side of right in the face of violence and even possible death.
Internment is a stand-alone YA novel that's my first by Samira Ahmed. It's vaguely dystopian in nature. However, I hesitate to categorize it as such, because it doesn't really have the feel of a typical dystopian novel. There's no science fiction element to it in the form of an apocalyptic event having preceded the events of the story. If anything, it feels more contemporary in nature and a little too realistic to our current political climate. Also, as the author mentions in her note at the end, the story takes place "fifteen minutes into the future," which indicates a setting in the very near future. This particular story is about how a presidential candidate who made openly Islmaphobic statements on the campaign trail was still elected to office and then promptly set about rounding up all people in the U.S. who are of the Muslim faith. They're locked up in an internment camp called Mobius in the California desert near Manzanar, the site of one of the most infamous Japanese internment camps during WWII. The heroine of the story, Layla, is a typical seventeen-year-old who has a Jewish boyfriend she's in love with. Suddenly one night the Exclusion Authority shows up at her house and she finds herself and her parents shipped off to Mobius. She quickly becomes angered and frustrated by the injustice of the situation and the seeming inaction of the adults around her, who mostly appear to be too afraid to do anything. So she bands together with other young people in the camp to stage peaceful protests in an attempt to affect change. As their actions make the Director more and more angry, lives are put at risk, including Layla's and her parents'. But even in the face of possible torture and death, Layla refuses to give up.
Layla is the first-person narrator of the story. She's just an ordinary girl who likes many of the same things that most teens enjoy. She's also crazy about her boyfriend, David. The story opens with curfews in effect, but Layla sneaks out of the house to meet up with David. Along the way, she runs into a woman she knows who's headed to a big book burning event to destroy books by Muslim authors (including books of poetry by Layla's own father), which kind of sets the stage for the type of environment in which she's living. Layla nearly gets caught by a neighbor on the way home, but David runs interference for her. However, not long after returning home, the Exclusion Authority shows up, dragging her and her family away to Mobius. Inside Mobius, she finds it increasingly difficult to go along with the status quo. She befriends several other teens around her own age, and she's also befriended by Jake, a camp guard, who shows kindness toward her. At first, she isn't sure whether to trust him, but gradually he convinces her that he's on her side and that there are other guards who feel the same. The young internees begin talking of staging some kind of revolt. Meanwhile, Layla begins writing blog posts, which Jake helps her smuggle out of the camp. These posts rile up the public, and protesters eventually show up at Mobius' gates. The teens settle on a course of action that will hopefully lead to maximum exposure, but the Director and his cronies respond with violence. Gradually the situation continues to escalate until it becomes more and more dangerous for the internees, but Layla refuses to back down. With the support of her Muslim friends, Jake, and other friendly guards on the inside, and David and the other protesters on the outside, she's emboldened to take further action to secure their freedom. But it could cost them their lives.
Overall, I was impressed with Layla as the heroine of the story. She starts out with the simple hopes and dreams that any teenager has: attending prom, graduating, going to college. But the world in which she lives won't allow her those normalcies, merely because of her faith. Once she finds herself locked up in Mobius, it's an untenable situation for her, as I'm sure it would be for anyone. She does make mistakes early on, but I think she exhibits growth from her initially selfish motivations of wanting to see/hear her boyfriend and gradually starts taking actions more out of concern for everyone who is now locked up. While many of the people around her respond with going along in order to not get in trouble, Layla chooses to engage in "good trouble." I admired that she and her friends used Ghandi as their guidepost, deciding to stage only peaceful protests even when they're met with violence in return. She also shows a great deal of courage and fortitude in going against the grain, even though she knows of fellow internees who've simply disappeared and are rumored to have been taken to black-ops sites to be tortured. I think Layla is a good role model for teens, showing them that some things are simply important enough that you need to take a stand for what's right, no matter the cost.
With YA stories, I always discuss potentially objectionable content to help teens, parents and educators decide if certain books are right for them. There's not really any sexual content to speak of in this book. Layla and David share a few kisses, but nothing more. Because there are cameras everywhere, Jake sometimes takes Layla into her bedroom (where there are no cameras) to talk, saying that the Director wouldn't find that suspicious. On the contrary, it would be considered "normal" for a guard to possibly be having sex with an internee. But he's always a gentleman and never does anything inappropriate. There is, however, a decent amount of language including religious profanities and several uses of the f-word. Then there is the violence. Simply locking people up who've done nothing wrong is, in and of itself, an act of violence, and one that teens should give some serious thought to since it's happened before in our country's history. But then there's the added layer of the Director and his guards roughing people up for merely standing up for their constitutional rights. Several people are beaten and bloodied throughout the story and two characters whom readers are sure to come to care about die for the cause. I think, though, that it just underscores the unjustness of it all and how sometimes people do unfortunately die for the side of right. I've read more violent stories, though, so I think that most mature teens could handle the subject matter, and as for the language, it's probably nothing worse than what they're likely exposed to at school anyway. So overall, I think the strong message the story contained outweighs its possible detractors.
Overall, Internment was a good story that I liked. However, it felt somewhat slow-paced to me. Also, although I can't quite put my finger on why, I felt like there was a little something missing for me. I just wasn't feeling the intensity of the story as deeply as I wanted to. Even now, more than a week after finishing it, I'm not entirely sure why, which is unusual for me. After reading other reviews, it might have something to do with the story not having solid enough world-building to suit me, or it might be because there wasn't quite enough nuance to the storytelling. It may also be because the characters other than Layla are somewhat lacking in depth and motivation. Then again, the author is relatively new (this is only her second published book), and the writing style seemed to lack some of the maturity you might see in a more seasoned author. In any case, whatever my issue was (or maybe it was all of the above), the story does gradually gain steam as Layla and her friends start staging their protests, and by the end, I even got a little teary-eyed over events that occur. In spite of some weaknesses, I did still like the book, mainly because of the message it contains about doing what's right even in the face of violence or potential death, which is a thought-provoking one that I think teens need to consider. It also puts a more modern--if fictional--face on the events of WWII Japanese internment, which is something teens really need to learn about. I also think that it's good for young people--everyone really--to read more diverse stories, because it can foster empathy that might help prevent something like this from happening, although if anyone believes it would never happen again, I'd say that they were being very naive. That's why examining things like this through the safe lens of storytelling can be so important. For all these reasons, I would recommend Internment, and it has also made me curious to check out Samira Ahmed's other work.
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