In A Woman Is No Man, Etaf Rum tackles the sensitive and devastating problem of domestic abuse and women’s oppression in Palestinian culture. This is a topic that Rum admits she was scared to approach because it would upset her community, a challenge she feels female Arab writers often face. In this remarkable novel, Rum draws from her own experiences and writes an unflinching multi-generational story that confronts the reality of the female experience within a patriarchal culture that is also suffering from the unaddressed and neglected trauma of Al Nakba. Rum’s novel is also the story of one young woman’s journey of defying the limited path chosen for her by working towards claiming agency for herself. - Sumaiyya Naseem
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A Woman Is No Man is your debut—congratulations! How long did you work on the writing process? Did you face any challenges or surprises in the publishing process?
Thank you! Every day for one year, I wrote the novel for two hours before the start of my work day. By the summer of that year, I found an agent who helped me edit it before we sold it to HarperCollins. It was a very disciplined process and intense time, but I learned so much about myself as a writer in the process—which was needed since this book was the first thing I’ve ever written.
The title is inspired by a phrase you were told by your elders whenever you wished to make your own choices, rather than follow the societal guidelines for women—a woman is no man. Do you believe there is some way for women to reclaim such a misogynistic phrase and subvert the ideology?
Absolutely, and this belief is what I hope to convey to readers, especially those who grew up in similar circumstances and who were taught that women’s lives are more limited than the lives of men and that women are prescribed a certain way of living that men are exempt from. It’s a toxic belief system that I hope women can recognize and break free from.
You explained in an author’s note in the early reader’s edition that you were violating your community’s code of silence by writing this story. Was your writing process affected by the awareness of this possible disapproval? And do you feel female writers shoulder that sense of responsibility differently compared to male authors?
At first I kept censoring myself out of fear of violating my community’s code of silence, making us “look bad,” and further confirming stereotypes, but that resulted in a story that was stilted and inauthentic. My main priority was speaking on behalf of women who felt voiceless and unheard, which meant I had to tell their stories, even if those stories were uncomfortable to tell. I think people of color in general, and especially women of color, have the responsibility of representation when deciding to tell their stories. On the one hand, they want to tell a true and authentic story; but on the other hand, there is the fear of representing an entire culture with that story, which is an unfair burden.
Coming to America, or even being born there, doesn’t hand female characters the kind of liberation or freedom that is so central to the American narrative. What kind of perspective did you hope your novel might add to immigrant literature?
I wanted to show how the idea of the American dream is often sought out by immigrant families, but more specifically the breadwinners of these immigrant families, which are mostly men. Women’s dreams are not really considered and I wanted to show that perspective in the novel—how do these women feel about the American dream? How does emigrating to America affect them? Does it give them more freedom, as they hope? Does it make their lives better or worse? The answers to these questions are often disheartening.
Your novel examines three generations of women, mainly from the distinctive perspectives of Isra and Deya. Did you always plan to write a multigenerational family saga? Or did the different voices emerge later?
I knew I wanted to write a story about mothers and daughters, and the intergenerational conflicts of that, esp from an immigrant perspective. Later, another voice emerged, that of the grandmother figure, Fareeda. I wanted to understand her perspective and study her role in the cycle of trauma and how it trickles down from one generation to the next.
Isra recognizes Scheherazade as a woman whose voice was her weapon and that her story should remind readers of “the strength of a single woman.” Was writing this novel empowering to you as storytelling was to Scheherazade?
Yes, absolutely. Deya, who wants to be a storyteller, tries to understand her past through books and stories in an attempt to rewrite the limited narrative of her own life—in a way, that is how I felt when writing this book.
In one of the early chapters, Deya remarks that most of the rules her grandmother “held highest weren’t based on religion at all, only Arab propriety.” It’s an important distinction that you draw in the novel; it is usually patriarchal culture, not religion, that leads to abusive power structures within a marriage or family. Was making this distinction important to you?
Yes, the distinction between culture and religion was very important to me, especially in a time of Islamophobia. I wanted to be clear about the fact that the dark aspects of the novel are rooted in the patriarchal culture and have nothing to do with the doctrines of Islam.
One of the characters owns a bookshop named Books and Beans, a name clearly inspired by your successful Instagram project. Are there any other sentimental elements in the novel that readers may not be aware of?
In a way, the novel itself is sentimental to me. I’m the eldest daughter of Palestinian immigrants, born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, and like my characters, books and storytelling are important to me—so, in some sense, this novel is also a love letter to books, to Palestinian women, and to Brooklyn.
What books can you recommend to readers who want to read about the Palestinian diaspora?
Are you working on anything that you might want to share with us?
I’m working on a new novel, but it’s in the very early stages and I’m not really sure where it’s heading yet. Stay tuned!
Etaf Rum was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, by Palestinian immigrants. She teaches college English literature in North Carolina, where she lives with her two children. She also runs the Instagram account @booksandbeans. A Woman Is No Man is her first novel.