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?
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?