WHEN ETAF RUM was growing up in Brooklyn, New York, she dreamed of becoming a lawyer. But as the oldest of nine children born to Palestinian immigrant parents, she quickly learned that this was not what her family or community wanted. Instead, she was expected to marry young, have children, and live as generations of women before her had lived — confined to a domestic tableau that afforded little to no interaction with the diverse outside world.
For a while, Rum complied, entering into an arranged marriage at age 19 and having two children within three years. Still, ambition held sway, so she pursued a college education, majoring in philosophy and English. After finishing her degrees, Rum continued her studies, eventually completing a master’s in American and British literature.
Then she began to write. Her first novel, A Woman Is No Man, was released by HarperCollins on March 5. Called one of the most anticipated releases of 2019 by Yahoo.com, Marie Claire, and The Millions, the book is a sweeping intergenerational tale that addresses an array of issues: family loyalty, gender expectations, domestic violence, assimilation, honor and dishonor, and cultural continuity.
I spoke to Rum in early January about her life, the writing process, and her fear that Arab Americans will dub her a traitor for exposing what she calls “the deeply complicated and sometimes dark aspects of our community.”
ELEANOR J. BADER: What do you want readers to take away from A Woman Is No Man?
ETAF RUM: I wanted to write an authentic story about the lives and struggles of many Arab-American women, especially since our voices are underrepresented in literature. Yet even though this meant portraying some of the dark aspects of my community, like domestic abuse, I didn’t want to confirm the many stereotypes that exist about Arab culture, specifically that every man is violent and every woman is a victim. There is always a danger in having a single story represent an entire culture or community.
That said, in some Arab-American families, domestic violence is the norm. But it’s important to recognize that it’s rooted in culture. Our mosques favor equality between men and women, and they’re completely opposed to domestic abuse. Still, in the home, and in the wider community, it is tolerated.
The novel traverses 1990 to 2008 for a reason. This was my world growing up, but I did not want to write a memoir. Like the four granddaughters in the book, I was not allowed to attend public school because my parents were afraid that my Arab values would be corrupted and I’d want to behave like an American girl. They wanted me to maintain my reputation, so I was not even allowed to mingle with Americans.
Ten years ago, I was following this path, doing what I was supposed to do as an Arab-American female. But feminism has begun to seep into the community and I wanted to represent that in the novel. More and more women are refusing to get married as teenagers. Some are insisting on going to college first, and many of the young women who do get married are going to school despite being wives. Divorce is also becoming more common because women are starting to stand up for their rights in whatever ways they can. We’re no longer content with the patriarchal control that too often comes with marriage and family.
In essence, I wanted to make the argument that Arab-American society will never advance until women are free, that we hurt ourselves if we do not treat women equally and with respect.
You wrote in the book’s introduction that you are aware of breaking an unwritten “code of silence” about domestic abuse and fear and being labeled a traitor by Arab Americans. Given that, how did you keep yourself motivated to tell this story?
First, I want to stress that while American culture has many, many stories that define it, there are not a lot of stories about Arab-American families and I worry that A Woman Is No Man might be used to justify anti-Arab sentiment or prejudice. Nonetheless, I had to speak up and represent this injustice on behalf of women everywhere.
In some ways, it was a burden to write it. I spent two hours a day, every day, writing before I left to teach my community college classes. It was emotionally difficult.
I started the novel in late 2015 and as I began writing about marriage, family, domestic violence, community insularity, feminism, and women as enforcers of cultural norms — including abuse — I could no longer stay silent about the reality of my own life. I’d been in denial about the abuse I’d experienced in my family growing up, and I’d been in denial about the abuse I was experiencing in my marriage. As I wrote, I realized that I couldn’t ignore either any longer. In addition, I was able to see how abuse had trickled down from my grandparents, to my parents, to me. I’d thought I’d escaped, that even though I’d had an arranged marriage, I’d managed to get an education. As I wrote, I saw that while this was true, I was also still fighting for my career and for my writing to be seen as important. Perhaps ironically, at the same time that I sold my book, I left my husband and we are now divorced.
Thankfully, I’ve found my voice and have discovered, through writing, that I’d spent my life doing what others had wanted me to do. I realized that I’d forgotten what I’d wanted for myself. I’m no longer willing to lose myself this way and hope the novel will inspire other women to reach this conclusion about themselves and their lives.
Adam, one of the most violent men in the novel, is horribly abusive to his wife, Isra, especially after she gives birth to one girl after another. As much as I hated him, I also felt compassion for him since his life was pretty awful.
In creating my characters, I wanted to make each person as multi-dimensional as I could and address their struggles. I did not want to make Adam — or any of the other men in the book — a monster. I wanted him to be fully human and show that men, too, suffer within Arab-American culture. For Palestinians, there is the further trauma of dislocation that impacts men who then take their frustrations out on the women in their lives. Furthermore, I wanted the book to recognize that men have their own traumas to deal with and also have to contend with family expectations.
I read that the book was originally titled The Place an Arrow Shoots From. Why was it changed?
The name, The Place an Arrow Shoots From, comes from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which has heavily influenced my writing. In it, she captures the desire to deviate from patriarchal norms: “What a man is is an arrow into the future and what a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off from.”
The book was sold with this title, but my publisher didn’t think people would understand the reference. They wanted a title that better represented the book. A Woman Is No Man is a line from the novel; it’s also a phrase I often heard growing up, whenever I expressed the desire to deviate from the prescribed path of marriage and motherhood. I love it!
Did the book go through many revisions?
My first draft was basically me just writing to let everything out, and the story was not as well crafted as it is now. My brilliant agent, Julia Kardon, helped me revise it, and after I sold the book, I spent many months editing it with my wonderful editor, Erin Wicks, who challenged me to further develop the characters and get it in better shape.
How has your family reacted to the book?
My sisters and I are very close. My parents, however, are not happy with the way my life has turned out.
My sisters — my family includes six girls and three boys — recognize the ways our community devalues girls and women and puts boys and men on a pedestal. They understand the need to boost the value and self-worth of all Arab women.
I think the younger generation is beginning to realize the need to stand up for women and speak out about domestic violence and abuse. I see a growing awareness among women and men who are in their teens and early 20s that domestic violence has to stop, that women’s lives matter and must be valued. I’m encouraged by this.
Are you still juggling teaching and writing?
No. Once I sold the book and started working on the revisions, it became impossible to do both. I stopped teaching about a year ago.
I’m now almost finished with a draft of my second novel and, since the release of A Woman Is No Man earlier this month, I have been doing interviews and speaking engagements. I’m terrified about how the book will be received, but I’m also really excited.
Eleanor J. Bader is a Brooklyn, New York–based teacher at Kingsborough Community College and freelance journalist. Bader’s work frequently appears in Truthout.com, Lilith Magazine and blog, Theasy.com, Kirkus Reviews, and Rewire.News.