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In Conversation with Etaf Rum

On the resilience of women, the transformative power of education, and her novel “A Woman Is No Man”

Etaf Rum by Brad Mitchell for The Book Slut
Etaf Rum by Brad Mitchell for The Book Slut

This is not the story that says: women are victims and men are oppressive. It’s to say no, we actually have the power and the strength and the resiliency to craft a better generation when we raise our children by instilling within them empowerment and worth and better values.

Etaf Rum’s debut novel A Woman is No Man, takes us where few have gone before: into the lives of conservative Arab women living in America. Told through the perspective of three generations of Palestinian-American women, this is a story of immigration, desire, betrayal, the impact of violence and womanhood within this strict Arab culture. This intimate glimpse into a controlling and oppressive world took courage to write, never mind live through. Etaf Rum shows her bravery on the page by creating complex characters with forbidden desires and dreams, much like her own before she broke free from the Arab household she was raised in.

I was very fortunate enough to speak with Etaf on the phone, where we discussed how education saved her, the resilience of women, writing this novel despite very real fears that something could happen to her, and why this risk was so important to take.


Kailey Brennan: I'm so excited to talk about your book. I think I read it in two days. I could not put it down.

Etaf Rum: Thank you so much. That makes me so happy to hear.

KB: You have a lot of courage for sharing the story, so I'm really grateful that the book is doing really well.

ER: I hope so. I'm hoping it does do well. It’s so nerve-wracking to be a first time author and not know what's supposed to happen. Like what does “well” mean? I’m nervous, but I’m also excited when I get to hear people, like you, that say they read it in two days and they love that. That makes me so happy.

KB: I'm sure that people have asked you this question a lot, but I'm curious...what was the catalyst for you to share this story. I know it goes against the community you grew up in so what propelled you to tell the story?

ER: There was a couple of reasons. I started writing the story by accident. I was married, I had two kids. I kind of did everything I was supposed to do. I had an arranged marriage when I was 19 and moved away to where my ex-husband lived. I was feeling alone and it was just a dark, dark time, without having to get into personal things. And so I was always writing inside my journal about my thoughts and how depressed and unhappy I was.

At the same time, I was teaching literature at a community college and I was trying to sneak as much diverse literature into my class. It was an American and British literature class, so most of the canon is white authors. And I noticed that are our voices as Arabs, more specifically as Arab Americans and even more specifically as Arab American women, our stories are not present in literature. We're so underrepresented.

And at the same time I was writing in this journal and I thought to myself, you know, all of these emotions here, they are so raw and they're so powerful and why don't I write an Arab American story.

I grew up in an immigrant household and I've experienced many things that I know that some of my friends have experienced. It's not an isolated incident.

There's a lot of universal things in my story that I felt like people could relate to. I felt like that story was very necessary because our stories are usually focused on dark aspects that we as Arab Americans are afraid to share in America. Because of Islamophobia and because of this notion that Arabs are terrorists or Muslims are terrorists. I wanted to talk about these things and draw that line between culture and religion and really show people that we, in my culture, can't continue to take advantage of the fact that people aren't speaking up out of fear and continued to use that fear to further oppress women.

KB: Did you have any fear when writing it just because it was such a risk?

ER: Yeah, I mean, I had two fears. My first fear was, what am I really doing to my family? Not my family personally because it’s a fictional novel, but just the people who are close to me by writing a story that's so personal. Are they going to retaliate or am I going to get disowned, outcasted? Is someone's going to hurt me? That was my first fear.

And then my second fear was, am I doing my community an injustice by further fueling this discrimination and the stereotypes and the misogyny that's placed against them?

Am I doing them a further injustice even though I'm telling a truthful story? But will I, in turn, end up taking the westerner's perspective and fueling this hate? And so I just felt like I was torn because, on the one hand, I wanted to write something true and authentic. And on the other hand, I kept constantly trying to filter my thoughts and filter what I was writing because I was afraid of how it was going to be interpreted and used against us as a community.

KB: Right. I mean, I can say as a reader, what I liked about this book is it didn't come across as bashing the community. I could tell you didn't write it just to tear the community apart, that your culture was still important to you. I think you did that really well.

ER: Thank you.

KB: Can you speak more about how education gave you a voice? I read that you have multiple degrees and you got them all when you were married with children. How did you accomplish all of that?

ER: So when I got married at a young age and I moved to North Carolina, where my ex lives, I didn't want to repeat what I saw growing up. Even though I was getting into an arranged marriage, my first instinct was to protect myself. Growing up, I was the eldest of nine kids, my mom came from Palestine and she barely spoke the language. She wasn't educated and she had to kind of assimilate herself into the culture with complete powerlessness. No matter what happened to her, she could not leave. She had no resources. She had no education. I saw how dark her life was, the injustices that happened to her and how she couldn't break free. Even though I was encouraged to follow the same path in terms of getting an arranged marriage, I knew that I at least wasn't going to not be educated, that I was going to do whatever I could to protect myself in case I needed to leave. And so I did.

And I think my drive to get educated was more out of fear then wanting to succeed. I was a perfectionist, Type A. It was just insane the number of degrees that I got in the little time that I've had. Just the drive that I had I think was based on fear. It's crazy what fear does. And so I was 23 and I had two bachelor's degrees, a master's degree, I was teaching, I had two kids. So from 19 to 23, I literally just took classes, classes, classes and had kids. I did my domestic duties and I also took care of what I wanted to do.

I think for those four years, I was blind because I just had this rage and this goal that I had to complete to not repeat my mother's life. And then after I completed the goal, I was left with some time to think about the reality of my life and where it was heading.

KB: Why do you think that the community you grew up in is so opposed to educating women?

ER: Because education is power. Not just power in the material sense, as in, I have an education so I can have a job or a career. It’s also power in an emotional and mental sense. Once you are educated, you're more likely to evaluate the circumstances of your life with a new perspective, a perspective that's not the same perspective as your mom or your dad. And the ability to think critically about your emotional state is an ability to think critically about the cycles that you're perpetuating within your family. You are now able to see more clearly because you expanded your mind. And once women are educated, they then have the power to say, “I don't want to do this anymore.” If they're not educated, even if they don't want to do this anymore, let's say they come to that realization, they don't have the power to do anything about it.

And I think that’s really one of the reasons why, in some families, education is pushed to the side. Get married first, find the husband first, and then worry about education. There's this fear that getting an education is going to alter your mind and makes you realize that what's most important is not a man. It's not marriage. It's not domestication. It's not living in a patriarchal society. Women don't realize that until they're educated.

KB: Right, exactly. I agree. I'm the first generation to go to college and graduate in my family. I'm not saying I grew up in the same situation as you, but I really value education for that reason. I have a totally different perspective than the people that may have come before me that didn't choose to go down this path or weren't able to.

ER: Yeah. And the fact that education gives you choices and you now have a choice over how you want to live your life. You're not just stuck with, “I can't leave because I don't have money. I can't leave because I don’t have a career.” It gives you this power.

Etaf Rum by Brad Mitchell for The Book Slut
Etaf Rum by Brad Mitchell for The Book Slut

KB: Definitely. So what do you want people, especially women, to take away from your novel?

ER: I want women to take away that they have more power over the next generation than they think. They have more power over the lives of their children than they think. And it's just very ironic considering that the whole novel is about how women are powerless. But my intention is to really show that their oppression is almost always in their own hands, in a sense. With the grandmother figure, we see how she is perpetuating these cycles and passing them down from one generation to the next. She is the one who is raising her children with this mentality that women are inferior, that daughters are shameful, that they're a burden.

I want women to realize that by staying in an unhappy marriage or by raising your daughter to feel like she is inferior to her brother, that's only going to feed the next generation of oppression and that's only going to hurt your daughter in the end.

I really want that to sink in when people read the book.

This is not the story that says: women are victims and men are oppressive. It’s to say no, we actually have the power and the strength and the resiliency to craft a better generation when we raise our children by instilling within them empowerment and worth and better values.

Because men are always working in this culture, it's the women who are home with their kids. It's the women who teach them. Not just by what they don't say, but also by what they do say and the words that they use to lift their children.

Etaf Rum by Brad Mitchell for The Book Slut
Etaf Rum by Brad Mitchell for The Book Slut

KB: That’s beautiful. I love that. There is a quote that I wanted to ask you a question about. It just kind of stopped me while I was reading:

“She had lived her entire life, straddled between two cultures. She was neither Arab nor American. She belonged nowhere. She didn't know who she was.”

I was wondering if you could speak about this need for belonging and the experience of being straddled between two cultures.

ER: I feel like this is such a universal feeling, especially with people who are either products of immigrant families or have relocated from another country or have been raised in America but they're not entirely American.

This idea that it's so hard to understand who you are when the ways of the world and the ways that you're raised are so conflicting. The character Deya in the book is a first-generation American. She was born on American soil and yet nothing about her life is American. She's raised in an Arab household with Arabic values and she doesn't feel like she's Arab because she doesn't believe in the things that her family believes. She can see that it's unfair even though she's powerless to stop it. But at the same time, even though she doesn't feel like she's Arab because she is an American, she doesn't feel like she's American either. Because she really can't count herself as a New Yorker. She can't leave the house. She doesn't have the same opportunities that Americans have. So this feeling of not belonging anywhere and not having a home, it just creates a lot of doubt and lack of self-assuredness that lingers throughout people their whole life. It's just a very hard way to live when you're not really sure who you are and the foundation of your beliefs.

KB: Is Deya the character that you personally identify with? I mean I know it's fiction, but is she more the “you” character?

ER: I mean theoretically speaking, yes, she is more the “me” character or how I felt at her age. Wanting to not repeat my mother's life and not to get into an arranged marriage. But the character Sarah is also like me too with her rebellion, in a sense. The character that I had the most fun writing and really connected with was Isra.

I based her on my mom, but I also kind of lived her life. So it was very easy for me to see how dark she got and the thoughts that she had and the shame and the self-blame. It was just very easy for me to write.

KB: She was definitely the one that I was very emotionally connected to. If her chapter ended, I was like okay, when am I going to hear from her again?! I was connected to all the characters, but Isra was the one I was really rooting for.

ER: It's just so interesting for me to hear that as a writer. I had the most fun writing her and I would cry writing her. I would write her in tears. And to feel that my readers can feel my passion for my character. I hated writing Deya. I was like, she's so annoying. (Laughs) Because I was thinking back to like how annoying I was at 18 and I'm like God, why do I have to write this? (Laughs) So it’s just interesting to see that readers really pick up on the same feelings that writers have when they are writing.

KB: Yeah! Well, that's definitely an attest to your writing skills because I can definitely feel it.

ER: Thank you

KB: You’re welcome.

Etaf Rum by Brad Mitchell for The Book Slut
Etaf Rum by Brad Mitchell for The Book Slut

KB: So how long did it take you to write this novel?

ER: It started off as diary entries and it was told from the first person, and that took me about a year. It wasn't quite a full year because I was working, I had a full-time job as a college teacher. I would wake up every morning and I would have two hours before my first class after I dropped my kids off at school. I'd use those two hours every day for a year. And then in the summer of that year, I found an agent and she helped me edit it some more and then we sold it. And now it's on the bookshelf.

It was a pretty fast process, compared to usual. But I think it's because I was super disciplined and just full of rage and so it wasn't hard for me to write.

KB: That's really great. I know most people that I talk to, it takes around four or five years to finish a novel, while they're fitting it in between their full-time jobs. So that's impressive. But like you said, you were just driven by that emotion.

ER: Yeah.

KB: I’m a writer too and I need to get more of that fire in me. To finish things. (Laughs)

ER: Write about something you love.

KB: I run a writing community online, Write or Die Tribe, and I feel like that's my way of almost procrastinating. I'm like, "Oh look, I'm writing" but I'm not really writing my story. So you're right. I need to write more about something that I love or…

ER: Write about something that makes you upset. Or something that moves you or something that you think is unfair or that you feel affects the way you look at the world. That’s how my book started. The first scene in my novel, which was my first diary entry, was the memory of Deya at the bus stop when her mother calls her a sharmuta. That was a childhood memory of mine. That kind of anger started the book.

KB: Is that word the worst insult that you could say? It’s used so much in the book and it was always used in such an angry way.

ER: Yeah, for a woman. It means whore, but it also has other connotations. She’s never a technical whore when it’s used. It just means whore. You say it to a girl that is not following what she supposed to do. So they'll still say sharmuta and it's just like the worst thing you could tell a woman.

KB: On your book tour, have you had any favorite interactions or experiences with someone who has read your book?

ER: When I went to New York for my book launch, I was in Brooklyn. When I finished my reading, there were about a hundred people there, I gave the audience a chance to ask questions. This lady, an Arab American lady, wearing a headscarf, raises her hand and says, I really loved your novel. I’m from New Jersey. I came all the way down here. I related to it so much. She is crying and says I have daughters and I'm not happy. I'm in a bad place. Reading your book, I just kept crying and crying and it just touched me so much to feel like someone out there in the world can understand this experience. And I can see myself in the pages of a book. I just want to mention how your teachers in school influenced you. Did your fourth-grade teacher influence you?

And I say, my fourth-grade teacher? I don't remember her. I have most of fourth grade blocked out. She says, “Because I'm your fourth grade teacher.” And I just started crying. She tells me that I was so good in her class and that I always wanted to read, I always wanted to be a writer and she says “You don’t remember me?” She thought that I had written this book because we always liked to read together. I had blocked out that memory completely. I only then remembered by her reminding me. It was so emotional. My agent was crying, my publisher was crying. It was so interesting to me that all these years had passed and my fourth-grade teacher found my book, read it, and related to it, as a mother with daughters, as someone who is getting abused in her marriage. It just made me feel that what I’m doing is worth it, even if it just touches the heart of one person.

KB: Wow that's amazing. That’s a great experience.

So, one more questions for you. I know it's hard to think about books that you love on the spot, but if you can think of any books that have been really important to you over the years or have inspired change in your life, or just any that you've recently read that you love, what would those be?

ER: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and Salt Houses by Hala Alyan.

Photo by Brad Mitchell for The Book Slut
Photo by Brad Mitchell for The Book Slut

You can buy A Woman is No Man here.



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