INTERNMENT reaches for lofty subject matter, but is more like a Twitter thread than a story: a collection of rants straight from the author, funneled through stick-figure characters so it can pretend to be a novel. Poorly written and frustrating. One star.

“Rebellions are built on hope.

Set in a horrifying near-future United States, seventeen-year-old Layla Amin and her parents are forced into an internment camp for Muslim American citizens.

With the help of newly made friends also trapped within the internment camp, her boyfriend on the outside, and an unexpected alliance, Layla begins a journey to fight for freedom, leading a revolution against the internment camp’s Director and his guards.

Heart-racing and emotional, Internment challenges readers to fight complicit silence that exists in our society today.”

I thought for a long time about this one, trying to find some way I could give this book two stars. I have a lot of goodwill towards Samira Ahmed from other stuff, and I so wanted this to be good.

But my review policy is pretty clear about what constitutes a one-star read for me. If I personally disliked a book, and think it is, from a craft perspective, poorly written, and think it is, in some way, bad for the world, or at least the world of literature. Internment clearly fits the bill.

book cover: love, hate, and other filters
I liked Ahmed’s debut, which had a similar voice-of-the-author protagonist. I was hoping that her second novel would build on LH&OF’s strengths while shaking off the problems… but it did the opposite.

It you scroll through the Goodreads for Internment, you’ll find that the positive reviews generally look the same. They concentrate on the book’s messages, repeating words like “important” and “powerful” and “timely.” The implication of these reviews is that they are giving the book a high rating first and foremost because they agree with the books social and political messages.

It is very telling that the reviews that mention the quality of the writing are almost always highly critical of the prose, characters, and plot.

I have some of the same problems with Internment that I had with the very similar Vox. The book is setting out to prove that this nightmare scenario isn’t hysteria or hyperbole, that it “could happen here”… but we’re basically expected to take the author’s word for it. As I said in my Vox review,

The book is saying, “oh, you think this couldn’t happen? Well, here’s a fictional story of it HAPPENING. Boom. Don’t you feel dumb now?

And something about that doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence… (or a feeling that the author respects her readers)

The book never makes an effort to explain why all this is happening. The order of events seem to be:

  1. Trump is terrible and Islamaphobic
  2. ??????
  3. Muslims are put in internment camps

It’s not that Ahmed’s case is unconvincing; it’s that it’s nonexistent. The author doesn’t seem to make an effort to show who and how these events are happening at this moment.

I think this is because she feels she doesn’t need to, that it should be obvious. But to any reader that comes hoping to engage with actual history, it isn’t. As this Goodreads review points out, this scenario would actually have been much closer to reality in the wake of 9/11:

In fact, the events of this book seems even more plausible in the bush era when being islamophobic was “acceptable” and a key part of the “war on terror”, and detentions were already a reality.

Rushda via Goodreads

I’m may write a second post that examines these problems in more detail. Ahmed uses constant historical callbacks, but doesn’t meaningfully engage with American history, which is a problem for a book that wants to reference current events so specifically.

In my opinion, the book has very little redeeming literary value to make up for these problems. If I were being kind, I’d call the writing “highly stylized”–the teenagers don’t speak (or act, really) like teenagers… or even people. They’re less characters than they are mash-ups of bizzarely specific facts and melodramatic quotes.

Is this how the end begins?

Layla, Internment, Samira Ahmed, pg 11 hardback

The strongest part of the book is definitely the scene where Layla and her family are taken from their home. With only minutes to pack, Layla doesn’t have time to wrap her mind around what’s happening as she throws items in her bag. The scene is absolutely devastating. Ahmed did a particularly great job of showing the trauma of Layla surrending her cell phone. Layla worries that she’s being silly to be this distressed over a phone, even as she loses the thing that connects her to the outside world. If you pulled the third chapter and turned it into a short story, it might be very affecting.

The book never returns to that quality. Instead, we get a parade of trivial, almost comical caracitures, from the moustache-twirling camp Director to the inexplicible Good White Guy guard. The writing is stilted, the characters are thin, and the slow-moving plot never becomes interesting.

Internment is trying so hard to be about everything that it ends up being about nothing except a string of left-wing talking points, including mass shootings and climate change and immigration. It reads more like a Twitter thread than a book–a collection of rants straight from the author, funneled through stick-figure characters so it can pretend to be a novel.

“”Like Sharia law for Christians.” I roll my eyes, since every Muslim understands the hypocricy of right-wing xenophobes. They’re all terrified of a word they don’t understand, scared that religious law is going to infiltrate the land, but meanwhile they support the death penalty, are anti-choice, and think creationism should be taught in schools because of… wait for it… religion.”

This is supposedly Layla’s first-person perspective, but is obviously the voice of the author, who goes on many similar rants in Layla’s voice. In what way are paragraphs like this throughful engagement in good faith? (page 112, hardcover)

That makes for a bad book whatever the audience, but is particularly dangerous in Young Adult. It’s crucial that YA books dealing in controversial or heavy subject matter respect and care for their readers. Ahmed doesn’t trust her readers to bring their own knowledge and perspectives to her book and engage meaningfully in her message; Internment just doesn’t leave room for thought.

We have a word for explicit political messages funneled through low-quality art with the intention of shocking and scaring your audience into agreeing without leaving room for engagement or argument. The word is propaganda. And while I probably agree with Ahmed on many of the points she’s trying to make in this book, the fact that I like the messages doesn’t make me comfortable with an author trying to force-feed them to teens.

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