April 2019

Samira Ahmed

Who gets to feel at home in America?
Interview by

YA author Samira Ahmed talks about her chilling work of speculative fiction.

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YA author Samira Ahmed talks about her chilling work of speculative fiction.

Speaking by phone from her home in Chicago, bestselling author Samira Ahmed says she channeled her fears and concerns about today’s political climate into her highly anticipated new novel, Internment, which she imagines as being set “15 seconds in the future.” 

Internment centers on 17-year-old Layla Amin, who, according to government decree, is sent with her parents to an internment camp for Muslim-Americans. A savvy, smart young woman, Layla is a powerful narrator, noting early in her internment that, “If history had no ghosts, I wouldn’t be terrified of what might come next.” As conditions in the camp and in the U.S. quickly deteriorate, Layla’s parents remain silently complicit, hoping things will improve. But unbeknownst to them, Layla boldly seeks to defy her captors and convey news of the injustice to the outside world in a covert mission that makes for a thrilling read. “I really like to write about this idea of a ‘Revolutionary Girl,’ ” notes Ahmed. “That’s an important theme in all of my books.”

Ahmed, who moved with her parents from India as a baby, spent countless hours as a child reading in a comfy armchair next to a Victorian fireplace in the Batavia, Illinois, public library. As the only Indian and Muslim child in her school, Ahmed saw the library as a refuge, and no doubt those reading sessions helped shape her as a writer. But another incident, one that stands in stark contrast to her cozy library retreats, also shaped her career and writing life. 

One day during the Iranian hostage crisis, 7-year-old Ahmed and her parents were stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic in downtown Chicago. While she was gazing out their open car window, two young men pulled up beside them in another car, and one pointed his finger at her and yelled, “Go home, you g–damn f—ing Iranian.”

Ahmed was scared (she’d never heard language like that) and confused, but she soon came to the conclusion that “racists are really bad at geography.” Her bestselling debut novel, Love, Hate & Other Filters, was inspired by this verbal assault and follows a 17-year-old Indian-Muslim girl growing up in Batavia who confronts Islamophobia after an act of domestic terror. 

Ahmed says that after “any act of terrorism, whether it occurs on U.S. soil or abroad and whether it was a Muslim or not, I hear this constant refrain in my life: ‘Go home, you terrorists.’” In Internment, Ahmed continues to explore this racism as Layla faces daily threats and violence inside Camp Mobius, where life is highly regimented and families are forced to live in cramped trailers in the desert heat of California. (Ahmed modeled her fictional trailers on those used by FEMA  after Hurricane Katrina.)

In another nod to real-life American history, Ahmed places her story’s fictional detention center near the site of the Manzanar internment camp in California, one of 10 camps where more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans were incarcerated during World War II. During her research process, Ahmed read several internment camp memoirs and talked to a number of Japanese-Americans, including one camp survivor who gave feedback on an early draft of Internment.

“Even though this book isn’t about Japanese-Americans per se, I still wanted to honor what happened to them in this country,” Ahmed says. “We live in an age of internment right now . . . and it’s not just in the United States. These things are happening globally. . . . Silence is complicity. It’s so important for those of us who have any kind of privilege, power or platform to always speak up. That’s the very first step to take when we see oppression in our country, when we see acts of bigotry, hatred, homophobia, xenophobia—any institutionalized prejudices.”

Despite her anger and frustration, Ahmed makes it clear that she writes from a place of hope, especially when she’s writing for young people. “I know how brave and courageous kids are. I don’t think the future is bleak, and I think that we so often undervalue what young people are capable of. I wanted to show them in this book that they are capable of incredible things.”

Having taught high school in the Chicago area and in New York City before she began working for educational nonprofits for a number of years, Ahmed knows a thing or two about teens. “Writing for young adults is writing into the realm of possibility,” she says. “I always say that middle age novels are about doors closing, and young adult novels are about doors opening.”

Ahmed goes on to explain how fortunate she feels to have been able to work with students and teachers in public schools, calling it a “privilege.” But she speaks highly of all her past careers, whether in the classroom or out: “I love that I’ve had these different experiences. I think we bring to our writing everything that’s part of us.”

And while those two racist men from decades ago probably haven’t thought twice about how they once terrified a young Muslim girl who was riding in her parents’ car, Ahmed continues to speak out against such hatred. “I am an American. And all those kids and all those folks who are being attacked, who are having hate tweeted at them from our highest offices, they’re American, and this is our home. I think it’s so important for us to be clear about that.”

Get the Book



By Samira Ahmed
Little, Brown
ISBN 9780316522694

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