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Courtesy of Hachette Book Group

April 7, 2019

‘Internment’ Reveals the Emotionality of Islamophobia’s Victims

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Set “15 minutes into the future,” Samira Ahmed’s second novel, Internment, paints a searing portrait of the American sociopolitical landscape. This isn’t an easy book to read. In many ways, I found myself not wanting to, finding excuses to push it off and unwilling to let myself be challenged. But once I started reading, I knew this wasn’t a book I could walk away from. Internment is a novel that demands to be read. It is emotional, passionate, angry and afraid. It wakes you up.

Internment is a familiar story of imprisonment, rebellion and the heartbreaking hope for change. In the novel, a family finds themselves stripped of everything they’ve ever known, shunted into an internment camp for Muslim-Americans and declared threats to national security. Their only crime — religion.

Ahmed’s novel shows how easily history can repeat itself. With Islamophobia and bigotry on the rise, the world of Internment is not that much of an exaggeration. And this world is horrifying. It challenges the ideals of every American. It asks us to decide: How far are we willing to go for the illusion of safety? Internment answers that question definitively, showing how fast and how far fear can spread, but it also offers us hope. Layla Amin, the 17-year-old narrator of the story, is scared and angry. She was born in America. This is her home, and as fear and ignorance steal her life, she fights back.

This book challenges the reader to do the same and speak out against the complicit silence of ignorance and fear. It asks you to look twice, to understand rather than hate and to decide what America really means to you.

In its political leanings, this book does not shy away from controversy. At times, it definitely comes on strong, even a little over the top, but whether one agrees with its expressed views or not, it cannot be denied that it comes from a very real place. The fear, the anger, the loneliness and sorrow are the strongest elements of the novel, sweeping you up in an emotional current that refuses to let you go.

As such an emotionally weighty book, the characters other than Layla do not ultimately feel as fleshed out. The director of the internment camp, in particular, seems more of an archetype than a person, a short-tempered man in love with his own power. His villainy is not subtle, his backstory and life unknown. He is not a villain we can sympathize with, but he isn’t really supposed to be. Though I would have liked a more complicated and realistic antagonist, such a portrayal may have diluted the starkness of the emotional stakes.

As a snapshot of the American cultural and political landscape, Samira Ahmed’s Internment hits high on the emotional register. It is an intense novel, but one that feels only too important to read. This book demands to be felt, and in that feeling, understood.

 

Jessica Lussier is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at jll335@cornell.edu.