Internment

by Samira Ahmed
First sentence: “I strain to listen for boots on the pavement.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are instances of mild swearing, plus a handful of f-bombs. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but just because of language. The themes are good for anyone, really.

It’s in the near future, and the U. S. government has decided that Muslims are a threat to the country. It started with a registry, with everyone declaring their religion. And then Muslims began to be discriminated against (well, they probably were already), and now they’re being rounded up and taken to internment camps. To keep the rest of America safe from them.

Layla and her parents are among those rounded up and sent to camp Mobius in the California desert. It’s a harrowing experience: being arrested at home and then shipped on a train to an isolated “camp” (read: prison; there aren’t cells, but they’re kept in with an electric fence) where they were expected to comply to rules and are constantly watched over by drones and guards.

Layla, however, is not okay with all this. (Fair.) In spite of her parents’ pleas to just get along, Layla decides that she needs to Do Something. So, she smuggles out articles she’s written about conditions in the camp — the Director using intimidation and force and the disappearances of other internees — to be put on blogs. She organizes protests. She makes friends with sympathetic guards on the inside who help her along with her boyfriend on the outside. They stand up for what they believe in, and resist.

I think that was the thing that was most striking to me: that resistance to authority comes from the teenagers. It probably always has. Adults get complacent, and are conditioned to not make waves. But teenagers? They’re often idealistic and want a better world. And have the courage to make it happen. And Ahmed captured that perfectly.

Yes, this book is heavy-handed: Ahmed hammers the idea that This. Is. Wrong. home in so many ways, but I think this book is meant for White People. Seriously. I am sure that so many of the themes of racism and exclusion and mistrust of the Other are already known to Muslim (and Black and Asian and Native) people. The people who need to see this are White. And probably middle class. And comfortable in their lives. (Like me.) We need to remember that inaction is the same as action. And that just because we don’t see or experience the problems doesn’t mean they’re not there.

In the end, the question I thought this book was asking was: What kind of White Person will you be? (Granted, I’m coming at it with this perspective. I’m sure others will get something different out of it.) And that’s a good question to be asking right now.

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Love, Hate, & Other Filters

by Samira Ahmed
First sentence: “Destiny sucks.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s some talk of sex, but none actual. There is also swearing, including some f-bombs. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Senior Maya Aziz has one goal in life: to go to NYU (she’s been accepted!) and get a degree in filmmaking. However, her parents — even though they’re on the liberal end of the Indian Muslim scale — would rather she go close to home — University of Chicago or Northwestern — and get a degree in something practical. It also doesn’t help that they’re trying to set her up with a nice Indian Muslim boy… even if they don’t want her to get married just yet.

Maya just wants to live her life the way she wants to, and she was starting to make headway (even with the super popular white football player who’s interested in her!) when there’s a hate crime in a nearby city, and suddenly her small town isn’t safe — for her — anymore. And things just escalate when her parents’ dental practice building is vandalized Now her parents are refusing to let her go anywhere, let alone to New York to go to school.

Oh this was SUCH a good debut! Ahmed tackles conflict in a religious family, not with just culture but with belief, and she tackles the differences between parents and children — Maya’s parents aren’t bad or controlling; they just feel they know what’s best — and tackles the differences between immigrants and their first-generation American children. But she also addresses racism and prejudice all while wrapped up in a very sweet love story.

She’s definitely a writer to watch.

It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel

aintsoawfulby Firoozeh Dumas
First sentence: “Today’s Sunday and we’re moving, again.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s no swearing (well, maybe a mild one) but the subject matter — middle school and the Iran Revolution in 1978 — might be a little mature for the younger set. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section (or the YA — grades 6-8 — section, I haven’t decided) of the bookstore.

I was in third grade in 1981 when the American hostages in Iran were released and I have a vague memory of it. Nothing substantive, just some hazy images of me seeing the news on TV. I don’t know much else about that, and even though I’ve read a bit about the Iranian revolution, that’s one aspect that I didn’t know much about.

Zomorod Yousefzadeh is in America because her father has a job with an oil company in California. They’ve been here before, when Zomorod was younger, but now she’s going into 6th grade, and she wants to turn over a new leaf. Be more American. So, she changes her name to Cindy and sets out to make new friends. It’s not easy being Iranian in California in the late 1970s (most people either think she’s Mexican, or ask her if she owns a camel. The answer is no to both), but eventually, Cindy figures things out. And then the Iranian revolution happens, and suddenly the home she and her parents thought they could go back to is no longer there. Add to that, Americans were taken hostage, and suddenly Cindy and her parents find themselves subjected to anti-Iranian sentiment. Her father loses his job. Garbage is left on their doorstep. Kids at school tell her to “go home”. It’s not easy.

Loosely based on Dumas’ life, this novel not only captures a slice of history (fairly accurately, but without being kitschy) but also manages to be timely as well. I found myself thinking about how Americans reacted to Muslims after 9/11 (or now, really). Or how immigrants are treated in general. It’s a good thing to see American life from the perspective of an immigrant, and to find out that we’re equal parts good and bad. (Which really isn’t a surprise.) Dumas also manages to capture the awkwardness of middle school with grace and humor. There were some actual laugh-out-loud parts. She definitely understands middle school, with all its ups and downs. And it was delightful to read a book where the parents weren’t bad or sick or dead.

It’s definitely an excellent read.