By Meili Criezis
Drawing on current events, legal decisions dating back to the establishment of Japanese-American internment camps in 1944, the anti-Semitic warning signs that increasingly intensified leading up to the Holocaust, and building off of troubling current real-world events, Samira Ahmed effectively sets the tone for the fictional atmosphere of ‘Internment’ where Muslim Americans are sent to an internment camp.
Layla Amin, the protagonist, should be living the life of a typical American teen: She should be attending high school, dating her boyfriend, and hanging out with her friends. But for her, life is anything but normal because she lives in an America where people who share her faith are seen as an enemy within; characterized by the President of the United States as “a threat to America”. Oppression increases in increments: registries are created, Muslims are fired from public sector jobs, book-burning bonfire gatherings gain in popularity, curfews are imposed, and finally, the government rounds up Leila and her family, along with other Muslims and sends them to an internment camp in California.
It’s hard to imagine what one would do in such circumstances. Some of us might keep our heads down in self-preservation with hopes that the living nightmare would soon end, others might openly voice dissent, and some might collaborate to guarantee at least a sliver of safety for both themselves and their families. In ‘Internment’, there are characters who do all of the above and it realistically conveys the complexities that come with difficult decisions in a time of crisis. Within the camp, people are divided and grouped together in their living quarters according to their ethnic background and Layla keenly observes that the camp officials are using divide-and-conquer tactics in hopes of reducing the likelihood of any internal resistance.
Despite their efforts, Layla courageously decides to resist although she becomes increasingly aware of potential consequences that could not only harm her but also her friends and family. With the help and solidarity of her friends, her Jewish boyfriend who provides assistance from outside of the camp, and a camp guard who is disillusioned with the drastic turn of events, she leads a revolution.
This book is fortunately a work of fiction, but Ahmed gives the reader a glimpse into a frightening future America where fear and hatred prevail. She reminds us throughout that similar circumstances were an American reality for Japanese Americans as well as German and Italian Americans who were also sent to internment camps. Another important message highlighted in the book is that oppression is often layered and varies depending on race, faith, physical displays of faith, and gender: Ahmed writes, “There’s, like, a hierarchy for bigots…their hatred of Muslims isn’t equal. They dispense it in degrees … and if you’re black and wear hijab, you’re getting the brunt of it.
Quite often, stories about Muslim Americans do not include queer Muslims but Ahmed includes a short casual mentioning of a homosexual couple. The term “casual” is not used in a critical sense and if anything, incorporating queer Muslim representation as part of the larger story without singling it out in an overdone/forced manner contributes to humanizing LGBTQ+ characters without tokenizing them by avoiding the mistake of hinging their character personalities solely on their queer identity.
While some reviewers have criticized Layla’s character development, it’s important to keep in mind that the story is told from the perspective of an adolescent which Ahmed tries to capture through a deliberate writing style. At times, the approach may be a bit heavy-handed and the antagonist of the story, the camp director, is a bit of an evil villain cardboard stereotype. However, this does not detract from the overall importance and power of the book’s message.
‘Internment’ reminds readers that this has happened before, and, in various contexts, continues to happen today. Ahmed writes in her author’s note, “As I write this, nearly 13, 000 children…. have been detained by the government, often caged, before being transferred to shelters.”[ It’s also worth mentioning that an estimated number of approximately one million Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic minority in China, are being sent to internment camps in the northwestern province of Xinjiang where many people have disappeared behind the walls of what the Chinese government calls “re-education camps.”
This powerful work of fiction is a form of resistance within itself and although circumstances may seem bleak, it shows that “rebellions are built on hope.”
‘American Heart’ by Laura Moriarty follows a similar premise in that it is set in a future America where Muslim Americans are being sent to internment camps. Unlike ‘Internment’ which is told form the perspective of a young Muslim American, the narrator of ‘American Heart’ is a fifteen-year old white teenager named Sarah-Mary.
Sarah-Mary and her younger brother Caleb live with their aunt who sends them to a strict Christian school. Their mother is only an occasional presence in their lives which is hard on both of the children. Although their aunt provides a roof over their head and food on the table, she is rather restrictive which makes Sarah-Mary feel overwhelmed by her controlling nature. After a set of circumstances leads to an upset Caleb running off into the woods, he crosses paths with an Iranian-American Muslim woman hiding off of the side of a backroad. When Sarah-Mary finds Caleb, he makes her promise to help the woman without giving details about who she is and Sarah-Mary agrees. After learning that the woman is Muslim, Sarah-Mary initially doesn’t want to help out of a mix of fear of getting in trouble and believing government propaganda about Muslims. The rest of the book follows Sarah-Mary’s journey as she helps her Muslim acquaintance reach the US-Canadian border. Notice that I haven’t mentioned the Muslim woman’s name: that’s because the reader only knows her by “Chloe”, a pseudonym given to her by Sarah-Mary. It is only until a little over half way in the book that the reader learns that Chloe’s real name is “Sadaf Behzadi.”
Moriarty purposely constructs Sarah-Mary’s character as a representation of people who have never met a Muslim before and may, therefor, hold problematically bigoted views. As the plot develops, Sarah-Mary slowly grows and comes to understand that she should not believe everything that she hears about Muslims.
Although ‘American Heart’ initially received positive feedback and a starred review from Kirkus, the review was later changed because of criticisms that Moriarty created an “offensive white savior narrative.” The author’s intention to contribute to countering anti-Muslim bigotry through the young adult fiction genre should absolutely be taken into account, however, much of the story centered around Sarah-Mary at the expense of using Sadaf as a cardboard stock character who exists only to educate Sarah-Mary throughout the book. In the words of one reviewer, “It’s Sarah-Mary’s journey first and foremost, with Sadaf and the actual Muslim-American community’s challenges and concerns, coming in a firm second.”
While there were powerful moments, the narrative style often wandered into seemingly mundane off-topic subject matters which took up space that could have been better utilized by allowing for a more meaningful development of Sadaf’s character and Sarah-Mary’s relationship with her. The age difference between Sadaf and Sarah-Mary was another glaring factor: Sadaf was significantly older Sarah-Mary and in addition, had obtained a PhD. In such circumstances, it is believable that someone like Sadaf would need to rely on assistance from kind non-Muslim strangers, but Sadaf lacks such a large degree of agency and is so reliant upon Sarah-Mary that she is practically infantilized.
aOn a more positive note, the various people Sadaf and Sarah-Mary meet along the way on their hitch-hiking journey adds an interesting dimension to the plot and they come across characters from a variety of backgrounds who express a range of views on the interment of Muslim Americans in Nevada: An African American couple is happy to assist the pair of hitchhikers because they see it as their Christian religious duty to assist anyone in need. One woman clearly holds anti-Muslim sentiments but is unaware that she is helping a Muslim. A gay couple figure out that Sadaf is Muslim and although they fear repercussions, they do what they can to help.
Like ‘Internment’, the subject matter of ‘American Heart’ is timely, controversial, and important. But despite good intentions on the part of the author, it is unable to avoid the pitfalls of stereotyping a Muslim character and minimizing her agency by turning her into a character that lacks any true human complexities and depth. However, one important take away stands out: allies can make a positive impact by using their varying degrees of privilege, whether it be racial, economic, etc., to fight against injustices.
About Meili Criezis
Meili Criezis graduated from Southwestern University in 2017 with a dual History and French major focused on Algeria/France and conducted archival research on the Algerian Revolution for Independence in Paris. She is currently an analyst at the Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security researching terrorism, terrorist propaganda, domestic/international violent extremism across ideologies, and community resiliency initiatives.