Internment promises to be one of 2019's most politically urgent reads: Read an excerpt
Fresh off her New York Times best-selling debut, Love, Hate and Other Filters, Samira Ahmed is headed into more politically intense territory with her next book: Internment.
A story of hope and resistance aimed at young audiences, Internment gets at the heart of the terrifying state of our politics. Set in a horrifying “15 minutes in the future” United States, the book follows 17-year-old Layla Amin as she is forced into an internment camp for Muslim Americans along with her parents. With the help of newly made friends also trapped in the 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. Internment questions the imaginary boundaries that separate us, and challenges readers to fight the complicit silence that exists in our society today.
Ahmed, a University of Chicago graduate who was born in Bombay (now Mumbai), India, has exclusively shared a powerful excerpt of Internment with EW, as well as the book’s official cover. Read on below, and pre-order the book before it hits the shelves next year, on March 19.
Excerpt from Internment, by Samira Ahmed
I strain to listen for boots on the pavement. Stomping. Marching.
But there’s nothing. Only the familiar sounds of crickets and the occasional sound of a car in the distance and a rustle so faint, I can’t tell if it’s the wind or the anxious huff of my breath. But everywhere, it’s the same as it’s always been. The perfectly manicured lawn of Center Square, the gazebo’s twinkling fairy lights, the yellow beams from the porch lamps at every door.
In the distance, I see a funnel of smoke rising into the air.
Most of the town is at the book burning, so I should be safe.
Or, at least, safer.
It’s been six months since the Exclusion Laws were passed.
I don’t measure time by the old calendar anymore; I don’t look at the date. There is only then and now. There is only what we once were and what we have become.
Two and half years since the election. Two years since the Nazis marched on DC.
Eighteen months since the Muslim Ban
One year since our answers on the Census landed us on the Registry.
Nine months since the first book burning.
Six months since the Exclusion Laws.
Five months since the Attorney General argued that Korematsu v United States established precedent for relocation of citizens during times of war.
Three months since they started firing Muslims from public sector jobs.
Two months since a virulent Islamophobe was sworn in as Secretary of War—a cabinet position that hasn’t existed since World War Two.
One month since the President of the United States gave a televised speech to Congress to declare that, “Muslims are a threat to America.”
I thought our little liberal college town would fight it longer, hold out. Some did fight it. But you’d be surprised how quickly armed military and pepper spray shuts down the well-meaning protests of liberals in small, leafy towns. They’re still happening, the protests, turned riots, even if the mainstream media won’t cover them. The Resistance is alive, they say, but not in my town, and not on the nightly news.
Curfew starts in thirty minutes, and this is a stupid risk. My parents will absolutely freak out if they find that I’m not reading in my room. But I need to see David.
I force myself to walk calmly, head forward, like I have nothing to hide, even though every muscle in my body shrieks at me to run, to turn back. I’m not technically doing anything wrong, not yet, but if the police stop me, well, let’s just say they have an uncanny ability to make technicalities disappear.
If I rush from shadow to shadow, it will attract attention, especially from the new motion sensitive security cameras positioned at every light. Curfew hasn’t started yet and I’m allowed outside right now, but it’s already dark and even here, where almost everyone knows me and my parents—maybe because everyone knows us—my heart races every time I step out of the house. I cross at the light, waiting for the Walk signal, even if there are no cars.
I spy a flyer for the burning taped around the lamppost at the corner: JOIN YOUR NEIGHBORS. The words are superimposed on a cascade of banned books, dangerous books. I feel a hard pit in my stomach, but I keep walking, eyes still on the poster, and bump headlong into a woman rushing in the opposite direction. She stumbles and drops her bag. Books and flyers fall to the ground.
I bend down to help her pick up her things. “Sorry, I wasn’t looking where I was going.” I try to be polite, deferential. Stay calm, I say to myself. It’s not past curfew yet. Don’t act guilty. You’re not guilty of anything. But these days, actual guilt is an after-thought.
The woman keeps her head turned away from me, refusing to meet my gaze, shoveling the books and papers back into her bag. I reach for two books and glance at the titles before she grabs them from my fingers. Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz. Nameless Saints by Ali Amin—my father.
For a split second, she looks me in the eye. I suck in my breath. “Mrs. Brown, I—I’m sorry—” my voice fades away.
Mrs. Brown owns The Sweet Spot on Jefferson Street. She made my favorite birthday cake ever, a green-frosted Tinkerbell confection for my fifth birthday.
She narrows her eyes at me, opens her mouth to speak and then clamps it shut. She looks down and pushes past me. She can’t even say my name. Her flyer for the burning somersaults away in the breeze. I shrink into myself. I’m afraid all the time now. Afraid of being reported by strangers or people I know, of being stopped by police and being asked questions for which there are no answers.
I pick up the pace to cross the town square, staring straight ahead, wiping the fear off my face, fighting the tears that edge into the corners of my eyes. I can’t suffer looking at the University’s gleaming glass Administration Building—all clean lines and razor-sharp edges that cut to the bone. David’s mother teaches chemistry at the University. My dad teaches poetry and writing. Did teach, I should say. Until he was fired—mysteriously deemed unqualified for the tenured professorship he’s had for over a decade. That’s another “before;” two months since my dad lost his job.
My mind lingers on Mrs. Brown. She knows me. She’s seen me. And in minutes I’ll be in violation of curfew. I’m obviously not going to the burning; I should be home. The hard pit in my stomach grows. I remember this lesson from my Psychology class about an experiment where volunteers were asked to torture people that were hidden in another room by pressing a button that supposedly passed on an electric shock. It didn’t really, but they didn’t know that because all they heard were screams. Some resisted at first. But they all pressed the button eventually, even when the screams got louder.
David is waiting for me at the pool house in his neighbor’s yard. They’re on vacation in Hawaii. Vacation. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be able to go on vacation right now and not have to worry about being stopped by the TSA for a secondary search that could lead to being handcuffed to a wall for hours. Or worse.
David is taking a risk, too. Though we both know it’s not the same for him. We were both suspended for two days from school for kissing me in the hall, in the open where everyone could see. We weren’t breaking any laws. Not technically. But I guess the Principal didn’t want to look like he was encouraging relationships between us and them. We both got suspended. Apparently PDA is against school rules, but I’ve never heard of anyone pulling suspension for it. Even worse, even though David got booted, too, only my parents and I were called in to get a lecture about how I should know my place at school, keep my head down and be grateful for the privilege of attending classes there. I was gobsmacked. My dad nodded, took it in stride. My mom did, too, even though she wore a scowl the entire time we were in the office. Then, when I started to open my mouth to say something, my mom shook her head at me. Like I’m supposed to be thankful to go to the public school where I’ve always gone in the town where I’ve always lived and where my parents pay taxes.
Why were they so quiet? Especially Mom? She’s almost never quiet.
I left school that afternoon, and my parents were too scared to let me go back.
The door is ajar. I catch my breath for a second before stepping in.
“Layla,” he whispers.
A single candle glows from the center of the coffee table. David’s drawn the curtains in the small studio space—a white sofa, piled high with navy blue pillows, some with appliqued anchors on them, a couple overstuffed arm chairs, lots of faded pink and ivory sea shells in mason jars, and a farmed poster on the wall declaring, “Life’s A Beach,” against white sand and cerulean sky and sea.
We’re alone. I imagine that this is what it must’ve been like, decades ago, before the cold lights of computer screens and tablets and phones permanently eliminated the peace of darkness from our lives. Without saying a word, I walk into David’s arms and kiss him. I pretend the world beyond the curtains doesn’t exist. Being in his arms is the only thing that feels real right now. It’s the only place where I can pretend, for a moment, that we we’re still living in the before, in the way things used to be. I pretend that David and I are making plans for summer, that we’ll play tennis some mornings, that we’ll go to movies. I pretend that I’ll be graduating in a few months and going to college like my friends. I pretend that David and I will exchange school hoodies. I pretend that high school relationships last into college. Most of all, I pretend that this magic hour is the beginning of something and not the end.
We sink to the sofa. While we kiss, he runs the tips of his fingertips along my collarbone. A whisper-light touch that makes me shiver. I nuzzle my face into his neck. David always smells like this nose-tickling combination of the floral laundry detergent his mom buys and the minty soap he uses. I know his mom still does his laundry. She babies him. I tease him about it—about how in college all his white clothes will come out pink because he won’t remember to separate his wash. I sigh. I brush my cheek against his feeling the odd patch or two of uneven boy-stubble. We hold each other. And hold each other.
It would be a perfect moment to freeze in time and make into a little diorama that I could inhabit for an eternity. But I can’t.
I rest my chin on David’s chest. “I wish I could stay here forever. Is there a magic portal that will transport us to some other dimension? A time lord, maybe?”
“Should’ve stolen the Tardis when I had the chance.”
My dad badgered us into watching Doctor Who, starting with the old-school episodes, and we got hooked. Since then we’ve had on-and-off binge watching sprees. Despite the sometimes ridiculous production values, the monsters can be terrifying. It’s one of our things.
I give David a small smile. He could always make me laugh, but humor stabs now. God, I miss dumb banter. I miss laughter that doesn’t make me feel guilty. I miss laughter that is simple joy and doesn’t leave a pit in my stomach.
Everything about David feels familiar, like this crooked happy-smile he’s wearing right now. Like the comfortable moments we can pass in silence. Like our ability to just be with each other. We’ve known each other since grade school, but it was last year, at the Homecoming bonfire that we had our first kiss. David sat next to me and took my hand, intertwining his fingers with mine. It felt like waking up to a perfect sunrise. All around us, everyone else was drinking and rowdily mock singing the school fight song and making out, but all we did was sit there, holding hands. And as the crowd started to thin out, amidst the dying embers, I turned to look at David. And when I wiped away a little white ash from his forehead, he brought my hand to his lips and kissed my fingertips. I reached up and kissed him, my heart pulsing in every cell in my body.
I look into David’s eyes and squeeze his hand. We both know I have to go, that this evening can’t last. Without a word, we stand up from the couch. I zip up my hoody. David wraps his arms around my waist and peppers my face with gentle kisses. My heart thrums in my ears. I could live in this moment forever, let time fade away until we wake on the other side of this madness.
“I wish we had more time,” David says.
I know he means he wants us to have more time together tonight. I can’t help but take it as more. Time has a weight to it now. A mood. And it’s usually an ominous one. “‘The world is too much with us, late and soon,’” I say and kiss David on the cheek.
He knits his eyebrows together, a little confused.
“It’s from a million-year old poem by Wordsworth my dad made me read about how consumerism is killing us and we don’t have time for anything really important, but I also sort of take it as meaning the world is out of whack—”
Our phones beep at the same time. I check my screen and a Wireless Emergency Alert flashes:
One People, One Nation. Tune in at 9 p.m. for the President’s National Security Address to be broadcast on all channels.