Internment by Samira Ahmed

Today, the two biggest world powers openly run racist concentration camps. So I was in two minds when, browsing the public library shelves, I stumbled on INTERNMENT by Samira Ahmed, a YA novel set in a near-future United States which begins detaining Muslim citizens in internment camps. The story of a teenage girl fomenting dissent within the first camp, the book seemed on one level attractive (children/young people need human stories to understand such matters, and they need exemplars of action and hope); and yet also almost inevitably inappropriate.

Is it in the power of fictional dramatisation to do justice to the peoples wronged by such camps, past, present and potential? Should it be attempted, and if so, how? To be sure, I love—I have been immeasurably enriched by—many works that seek to engage the horrors of fascism. But even with the most sensitive and accomplished creations, one reckons with the ethical question of fashioning beauty from blood—the risk of artistic vampirism.

What more when a book strives to hew, as INTERNMENT does, to contemporary YA conventions? A pacy and satisfying plot, depicting individual triumph, in a world of cruelties that are real and meaningful, but nevertheless defeasible. What if this form simply cannot contain this subject without becoming insulting, distended? What if this kind of human evil is just too much?

Reading the book only heightened my ambivalence. Samira Ahmed renders the sparky, witty and energetic Layla Amin and her family with liveliness and grace. Early scenes are particularly good at conveying the terror and disorientation of their initial displacement, and an important thread running through the book traces the bonds of friendship and solidarity built by Layla with fellow internees, as well as with a camp guard of complicated allegiances. What can and must we risk of ourselves—and others—in projects of political resistance? What might we sacrifice when we speak? What when we are silent? Faced with injustice, where are the various places we might stand on the spectrum from treacherous complicity to passive acquiescence to outright resistance?

These questions are repeatedly probed as Layla ignites rebellion, while standing together with others inside and outside the camp, including her biracial Jewish boyfriend and (in an unduly flattering fictional portrayal) Anonymous. While she ultimately succeeds in bringing down the camp, in a stirring portrait of the power of popular protest, we can never forget that this victory (or perhaps it’s better thought of as a reprieve) comes, like all progress, at a heavy cost.

It is an important message, and yet. I find myself vaguely dissatisfied on counts that range from relatively superficial to more serious, but which all connect up, perhaps, to the difficulty of the subject matter. How bad should the material conditions be in a fictional internment camp? How brutal the treatment? There is a very tricky calculus in thinking about what is reflective of history and reality without descending into some sort of horrible demand for dehumanising “authenticity”. Certainly Samira Ahmed does not take this issue lightly. Layla is a well-read teenager and makes her own clear-eyed acknowledgement of the WWII precedents (the Japanese-American internment camps, the Nazi abominations). I found it impossible, nevertheless, not to find her camp implausibly humane, next to the contemporary examples of migrant children in the US or detainees in Manus Island—and also to be unhappy at myself for harbouring such an absurd standard.

There is a parallel difficulty in the question of how this evil might be defeated. Layla and her fellow internees attain their freedom through the evergreen action movie device of media exposure, prompting popular outrage and protest. I am not sure how to respond to this narrative ploy. Perhaps it is increasingly unconvincing in the face of open, brazen commission of atrocity. Knowing has not closed the camps that exist. Yet sunlight is a tool that democrats (in which I include myself) still cling to, a hope we still indulge. To find it weak when presented in story form is to doubt oneself as much as the story. I also can’t help but feel some political cultural distance in considering the ready risk-taking of Layla’s comrades: perhaps such a thing makes more sense in the United States.

A final few gripes about comparatively minor points. One, why is the Director so persistently reduced to cartoonish elements of physical distastefulness (spit, bulging veins, whiskey breath), and indeed incompetence? Can’t his villainy in running such a place speak for itself? This seemed heavy-handed. Two, I had strong reservations about the clear subtext of romantic tension between Layla and Jake, turncoat prison guard. His heroism alone mildly strains the reader’s credulity, but it is perhaps on balance acceptable in the interests of plot. To further assign him a crush on Layla felt like a rather inappropriate importation from YA love triangle land. Jake’s own explicit acknowledgement that such a relationship would be inherently coercive feels a little too much like lip service next to all the scenes of sentimental devotion.

Lest I be misunderstood: if I have spilled a lot of words on criticism here, it is largely because the project of this book is ambitious and the product reflects real thought and craft, and is well worth engaging with, even if I’m left very much not knowing what to think.

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