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A Conversation with Samira Ahmed & Monica Hesse, authors of Internment and The War Outside

LB School: How did the ideas for each of your books come to you, and why did you feel that they were stories that needed to be told?

 

Samira Ahmed: I always see a character first and then begin by writing a short story around that character to see if the story has legs, to see if this is a character I want to build a world around. After the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, there was a significant uptick in Islamobphobic rhetoric in the United States that spread to changes in policy and an increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes. There was a public guilting or scapegoating of Muslims as if all Muslims had to bear the onus of the terrible acts committed by a few. American Muslims, as ever, were seen as other, a group that continually and consistently was being asked to prove its Americanness, but always falling short because of bigoted standards.

 

That was the environment in which Layla’s story came to me. I imagined a young woman who just wanted to live her life—go to school, play on the tennis team, apply to college—but who wasn’t allowed to because of fear mongering and Islamophobia. I’m very interested in understanding and unpacking the moments in childhood where life is shattered—how kids react to that gross unfairness, how they respond, how they resist. I believe that teens can be incredibly brave—are often forced to be—because of the failure and cowardice of adults. It doesn’t mean they’re not scared—their courage comes from being scared but knowing act and speak out anyway. That is what I set out to explore in Internment.

 

Monica Hesse: While I was doing some research for a previous book, I came across a black and white photo of a young woman in a tiara, wearing a corsage. It had obviously been taken at a school dance; the caption said the girl was 16, and the prom queen of Federal High School in Crystal City, Texas. It also explained that Crystal City was an internment camp. This completely blew my mind. If your education was like mine, Japanese internment in World War II was skimmed over in history class—maybe something you’d talk about for a day or two. I didn’t know much about individual experiences, and I was completely drawn to this young woman in the photograph. What would it be like to be the prom queen of your internment camp? What kind of internment camp would even have such a thing?

 

It turned out that Crystal City also had a football team, cheerleaders, a beauty salon—and that hundreds of teenagers, Japanese-American and German-American, grew up there, trying to eke out a regular American existence against the backdrop of imprisonment. I’m always looking for stories like that: what is it like to be a normal teenager in an abnormal time, and impossible circumstances? My two main characters, Haruko and Margot, are now prisoners through no fault of their own. Their families are falling apart. Their worlds are upended. And they have to ask themselves: in a camp full of people the government says are spies, who can they trust? How do you know who the enemy is, when your country says it’s you?

LBS: Internment is set in a near future that has arresting similarities to our own current world. How do you think fiction, and in particular YA fiction, helps foster and guide much-needed conversations about tough topics?

 

SA: I say that Internment is set 15 minutes into a terrifying future, but the fact is, the events of the novel are rooted in elements of America’s deeply disturbing history. Too often, we believe that specific moments in time—like this crucible we seem to be living in now—exist in a vacuum. But the past is prologue. I think young adult literature is a perfect place to explore this idea—how the past is always with us, but also how we are not doomed to repeat the past.

I believe that young adult literature exists in the realm of possibility—a space where tough questions can be asked and where difficulties are encountered, but, ultimately, a place of hope. As young people are forming their own politics and coming into adulthood, it’s a unique opportunity to speak to tough topics. I think teens are incredibly capable of rooting out truths and while the 24-hour news cycle confronts us with facts and “facts” without end, I believe fiction allows us to explore ideas in deeper and complex way. Fiction enables us to see our interrelatedness as human beings.

 

LBS: The War Outside is set in 1944 during WWII and focuses on an aspect of American history that isn’t much spoken about. What do you think historical fiction can teach us about our current world? What attracts you to historical fiction, and what do you think it offers readers?

 

MH: There are a few essential questions the United States keeps asking, at various times and about various groups of people. What does it mean to be an American? Who belongs in this country, and how should we treat the new people who arrive? We asked that question about slavery in the Civil War, we asked it about Japanese immigrants in World War II, and we’re asking it now, about immigrants and asylum seekers from the southern border. The rhetoric that government officials were using at the time to justify internment camps is really similar to the rhetoric used now to justify putting minors in detention centers now. They’re hard, complicated issues. But to me, historical fiction is a way to think and talk about those issues in a space that feels safe.

 

LBS: What does resistance mean to each of you?

 

MH: I think we often get preoccupied with big, dramatic acts of resistance: protests, rescue missions and escapes. But there’s a quieter kind of resistance that is no less important: the small, noble act of keeping your humanity when the world is inhumane. Refusing to believe that someone is less than you just because they’re different than you. Willing yourself to be a rigorous thinker in a sea of propaganda. Those are small, quiet acts that anyone can do, and they’re deeply important. That’s the kind of resistance in The War Outside.

 

SA: Oppression and silent complicity go hand in hand. Resistance, to me, means, first, and foremost, refusing to be silent. We must speak truth to power, in the best ways we are able and with the means we can access. I know not everyone can march or protest or perform acts of civil disobedience, but we simply cannot afford to be silent. And it may feel uncomfortable, or difficult, but we all must use the power and privilege that we have to dismantle the mechanisms that seek to harm the very foundations of our democracy and our humanity. Sometimes this means confronting difficult truths about ourselves—about our willingness to sacrifice a part of our privilege so that we can lift others up. One thing I know, no human being is born voiceless, but many are forcibly silenced by those who use their power as a bludgeon. We cannot let that stand.

 

LBS: What do you want readers to take away from each of your books?

 

MH: Wars don’t just happen to countries, they happen to people. The biggest ones can happen inside yourself. I hope The War Outside invites young readers to think about what they believe, and where those beliefs came from, and how far they’d go to protect them.

 

SA: I believe that the seemingly simple act of reading, is in fact, profound. Reading is resistance.

Though Layla’s life and circumstances may be very different than theirs, I hope young readers will be able to see a part of themselves in Layla’s hopes and dreams and her fierce desire to be free, live life on her terms and combat the sinister forces of silent complicity and overt oppression. I hope that Internment encourages readers to ask critical questions about how Layla’s fictional world is a reflection of the world we live in now. I hope young readers will realize that their voices and their actions can change the world by drawing attention to injustices and by compelling politicians to change the policies that strip away the rights of their fellow human beings. I hope that young readers will realize the power they have to speak up and speak out when they see injustice in their schools, communities and their nation. Young people are brave. They shouldn’t have to be, but too often, those who should be protecting them press them into horrifying circumstances—still their courage shines. It’s a light. I hope they use it to lead the way, forward.