Internment by Samira Ahmed is a daring novel–one that addresses hate, Nationalism, and blind loyalty. It’s engaging, relevant, and timely. If you’re considering teaching Internment, I encourage you to do so! In this post, I hope to help explain what makes Internment a great choice for a whole class novel study.
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What is Internment All About?
I read Ahmed’s Love, Hate, & Other Filters last year when it came out and loved it! So, when Internment and its premise was announced, I preordered it and (im)patiently waited for its arrival. It did not disappoint.
The story takes place “fifteen seconds” in the future. Immigration policies and anti-Islam fear-mongering have escalated. Muslims are under a curfew; their books are being burned; Layla fears that it could get worse.
But all she wants to do is live her life. She misses being able to spend time with her boyfriend David without punishment or stigma. Hell, she even misses attending school. Meanwhile, the president continues to drone on about the dangers of the Islam threat.
It seems like it can’t get any worse until one night men come for Layla and her parents. After only a few minutes to pack, Layla, her mother, and her father are whisked off in the middle of the night to Camp Mobius–an internment camp for Muslims.
How long will they have to stay? What is going on outside of the camp? Will Layla ever see David again?
Teaching Internment: Relevancy
Layla’s story is a powerful one because it’s so relevant for students.
Firstly, she is just like them. She’s a teenager not above sneaking around to see her boyfriend. She tries to do well in school and make her parents happy, all while feeling that they don’t totally “get” her. Layla is a Muslim American–emphasis on American–teen who just wants to live a normal life.
Many of our students know what it’s like to be labeled an enemy by the government. We have enough students with diverse backgrounds, whose families have felt targeted by immigration laws, or who have feared ICE coming for their loved ones. Layla’s situation falls too close to our students’ own fears for comfort.
Secondly, Internment is ultimately an empowering social justice story. At the end of the novel, the actions of a few brave teenagers who dare to speak up save lives. Teaching Internment shows students that their voices and actions do have power.
They, too, can change the world.
Your students will immediately make real-world connections. The dystopian element makes those connections easier to discuss in a classroom setting.
Teaching Internment: More Diversity, More Empathy
I have a lot of students who are the children of immigrants. While they may not be Muslim, I feel it is important to have literature on my shelves that acknowledge the increasing fear in America of “the other.” Teaching Internment does this.
While Layla’s family is from India, other characters hail from Afghanistan. Layla chooses not to wear the hijab, but others do.
The characters accept and acknowledge their differences in a way that makes it easy for the reader to do so also while learning about the many different ways there are to “be Muslim.”
The power in this novel is its ability to be both a mirror and window. Layla is relatable to nearly everyone, though her cultural background may be different from our students’.
Ahmed is able to present a Muslim family to readers who may not be familiar with Islam in a way that teaches and fosters empathy. For those of us who grew up with little exposure to Islam, Ahmed’s storytelling does a wonderful job of introducing cultural differences while making them approachable.
For example, Layla’s family turns to prayer for comfort. They celebrate religious holidays. They eat cultural food. But they also watch TV, go to school and work, and love their country. They are American and Muslim and Ahmed shows this beautifully.
Internment is a perfect example of the type of story we need more of in our classroom.
Teaching Internment: An Excellent Piece of Literature
Teaching Internment won’t just add diversity to your curriculum or foster empathy. It’s a great study of literature, too. Ahmed weaves classic poetry and literary allusions throughout her work, creates strong characters, and creates a plot full of tension.
Internment by Samira Ahmed is jam-packed–as a story, as a teaching tool, and even as a literary study. It has everything an English teacher could hope for: an exciting plot, a lesson on empathy and understanding, and lots of poetic allusions.
Throughout the novel, the reader carries tension. How will Layla and David be reunited? What is going on outside the camp? Who can Layla trust on the inside? Readers will have a hard time not turning the page.
Layla’s father is a poet–a fact which makes him a target in the eyes of the U. S. government–so Layla is raised with a healthy appreciation of poetry. There are lots of references to poems, books, and stories. For this alone, I would put it on my classroom shelf.
In my Internment resources, I made sure to include some activities that look at these poems. They provide a wonderful opportunity for some poetry study in the midst of a novel unit.
Teaching Internment: Some Challenges
I think the vast majority of your students will love this novel. A colleague of mine recently taught this, and she said her students loved it. However, you may want to anticipate some challenges to this novel.
The ideal reader would be those students who I think have been most impacted by immigration restrictions or religious intolerance. Many of us have students in our classroom who have illegal parents, illegal themselves, or practice religions that are unfamiliar to our students.
For them, this novel will hit especially close to home and may allow them to feel seen.
That’s not to say that this novel should only be read in classrooms full of immigrants. I think there is much to be gained by exposing white and American-born students to this novel. Layla is a Muslim, but she is also an American teenager. She just wants to go to school and hang out with her boyfriend.
However, I’ll admit that Trump supporters, children of Republican parents, or narrow-minded students (there’s always a few), may have a hard time connecting to this novel. While Ahmed never calls Trump out by name, her descriptions at times can only describe one man.
Consequently, some students may feel that this novel attacks their viewpoints or their family’s political beliefs. While I think this novel would make an excellent whole class read (let me suggest starting with my Internment activity!), you may want to proceed with caution.
When teaching this novel, you’ll have to be politically delicate. I, for one, am a huge fan of taking risks in the classroom and having those courageous conversations. But I encourage you to feel out your school or class’s culture before forcing students to engage with this novel.
I do think, however, that it has mass appeal and would be an excellent literature circle or book club choice.
As with any new and exciting novel, you’ll want to get approval from your administration before adding Internment to your curriculum. Even if you can’t officially teach it, however, I urge you to get a few copies for your classroom library. It’s so worth it!
Looking for other titles to add to your classroom library? Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi is another must-read diverse title. For those students who love Internment for its relationship tension, Dreamland by Sarah Dessen may be another good recommendation.