Interview: Etaf Rum, Author Of 'A Woman Is No Man' Etaf Rum's new novel draws from her own experiences of arranged marriage and early motherhood in the close-knit Palestinian American community where she grew up — and which she eventually left.

For Better Or Worse, New Novel Shows 'A Woman Is No Man'

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Etaf Rum's new novel, "A Woman Is No Man," may violate a code of silence - the tight-knit and often closed Palestinian-American community of Brooklyn in which she grew up and which she left. Her protagonist, Isra, is born in Palestine but comes to Brooklyn when her family arranges a marriage to Adam, who runs a deli across the river in Manhattan. The narrative eventually shifts to Deya, the oldest of their four daughters, who was left to tell her mother's story, a story that comes to embody the stories of generations of women in that community.

Etaf Rum joins us now from the studios of WUNC in Durham, N.C. Thanks so much for being with us.

ETAF RUM: It's a pleasure. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: I feel the need to say at the outset, this is a novel that certainly sounds like it's been taken from the pages of your own book of life, in a sense. If I may, you were married when you were 19.

RUM: Yes. It was an arranged marriage by my family. There weren't many choices for me as a kid growing up. And so marriage and motherhood - that was the path that was prescribed for me.

SIMON: And two children you have now, yes?

RUM: Yes.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the story in this book because we become aware of the fact that Adam is not a good husband to Isra. He beats Isra, doesn't he?

RUM: Yes, he's an abusive husband.

SIMON: Do you have any concern that in telling this story, people in the community where you grew up are going to think you violated some kind of code of honor?

RUM: Oh, absolutely. That was one of the very main struggles that I had while writing "A Woman Is No Man." One of those struggles was confirming stereotypes about Arab people and the Arab community, stereotypes that include oppression, domestic abuse, terrorism. And so that kind of hindered my ability to express myself freely without fear in the beginning when I was writing the novel.

And it took me a long time to overcome those fears and realize that in order for me to speak on behalf of women that are abused and oppressed and to tell their stories, especially those women who are afraid to tell their own stories because they're shamed and because they feel like someone will come and retaliate, that I had to overcome that fear and tell this very authentic story.

SIMON: How did you decide to break free of that?

RUM: Well, it took me a long time of doing what I was supposed to do. I was supposed to get married. I was supposed to have kids. And when I moved to North Carolina when I was 19, and I had my daughter right away, and I had my son two years later, at the same time, I was struggling with this idea that the only thing that I can do was be a mother and be a wife. So I went to college. I maintained my education despite the pressures around me to stay at home and take care of my kids.

And slowly, as I educated myself, I didn't - I wasn't just educating myself intellectually, but emotionally as well until I began to realize my place in the community and the cycle of trauma and oppression that I will be giving my daughter if I don't speak up to what I want to accomplish with my life, if I don't stand up for myself.

SIMON: In this story, Isra, your main character - one of your main characters is especially ridiculed because she keeps giving birth to daughters.

RUM: Yes.

SIMON: I found myself wondering, how can that be in the 1990s?

RUM: Having sons is very important in conservative Arab families because it's a way for the families to maintain their family name and make sure that they're still present, especially when you're an immigrant. And I think that's something that many Arab families struggle with - searching for a better life. But at the same time, they're struggling because they don't want to let go of their culture.

And so they come to this country, and they want to make sure that their family name survives because that's all they have left. And that means bearing sons. But it's something that I struggled with and I've witnessed firsthand as the eldest of nine children.

SIMON: Has there been a cost to all of your achievements?

RUM: Yeah, absolutely. I'm divorced. I don't have a sense of family. And I feel like because I stopped doing what I was supposed to do, I've let the people closest to me down in order to achieve what I think I should be doing.

SIMON: You know, when you get to the end of the book, you're left to feel from the center generational story that women have been the victims of special and particular and prolonged oppression, but that has given women exceptional strength, too.

RUM: Absolutely. And that's where the title of my book stems from. My grandmother would tell this to me often. I would say, well, how come I can't do so-and-so? Why can't I do what a man can do? And she'd say, because - you can't do this because you're not a man.

And the further I began thinking and writing about this, and the more I realized that women are also not equal to men in that they are responsible for so many things - maintaining family relationships, making sure that they are enlightening their children and instilling them with values - and so they are actually more resilient and stronger than men, then I wanted to take that title and make sure that it's seen in both ways - in the oppressive, limiting way that we use, but also in the ways to make sure that women understand their resiliency and their strength.

SIMON: Etaf Rum's new novel, "A Woman Is No Man." Thank you so much for being with us.

RUM: Thank you so much for having me.

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