Interviews

At First, Etaf Rum’s Debut Novel “Felt Like a Very Shameful Thing to Do”

When I was in the middle of reading A Woman Is No Man, I had a conversation with a young immigrant woman about marriage that ended with her saying that she was going to be a doctor [so she wouldn’t have to rely on a man]. And in that moment this bright young woman suddenly became Deya, the eighteen-year-old character who wants to go to college, but whose grandmother wants her to get married instead. In retrospect this transference was more a reflection of how engrossed I was in Etaf Rum’s incredible debut novel than any actual parallel between her and Deya. Because I was indeed engrossed; I was completely swept away by this story of one Palestinian-American family, a tale full of shame, violence, secrets, and betrayals.

I had the absolute pleasure of chatting with Etaf Rum over the phone days before the book’s publication to talk about the dangers of writing this novel, abuse against women, and her fear of reinforcing stereotypes of a culture too often stereotyped.

Rachel León

The novel opens with a line, “…we keep these stories to ourselves. To tell them to the outside world is unheard of, dangerous, the ultimate shame.” I know the novel is semi-autobiographical. Did telling this story feel dangerous to you?

Etaf Rum

More than feeling dangerous, I think speaking up felt very wrong and against my nature as a woman of this community. That was the first fold of it—it felt like a very shameful thing to do—to speak up against my people, my family, this way of life that’s been happening for generations. I asked myself, who am I to speak up against something that so many women endure and don’t speak about? Another layer of it was danger. It’s hard for me to imagine that someone would kill me, but yes, there is a possibility of retaliation and anger for exposing the community for what it is and making Arabs look bad. The consequences of speaking out and the consequences of telling the story is something I fear even now, speaking to you. My book hasn’t launched yet, so every night I wonder what’s going to happen, I wonder who’s going to say what, I wonder what my family will think, I wonder what Arabs at large will do. So yes, there’s a danger, but it’s not just a physical type of danger, it’s more mental and emotional, too—the danger of being outcasted and isolated from the only community I’ve ever belonged in.

Rachel León

So what compelled you to tell the story regardless of this cost?

Etaf Rum

I was teaching literature in college and reading all these diverse voices—Jhumpa Lahiri, Khaled Hosseini, Amy Tan, all these immigrant and non-immigrant people of color and all these beautiful rich stories and it was bothering me that my story wasn’t in there and my mother’s story wasn’t in there, as an Arab and as an Arab-American. And on the rare occasion that you’d have Arab storiesone of my favorite writers is Khaled Hosseini—it’s a story in Afghanistan. It’s not about Arab-Americans and it’s not about Arab-American women struggling with these very hard and difficult issues today. And it was a story written by a man, of course, so I wanted to make sure our stories and our voices were represented in literature. That was one of the reasons I knew regardless of the price I’d have to pay individually—and I’ve paid a very large price—that there are so many Arab women overseas, and also Arab-American women here today going through these issues and needing someone to tell their stories and needing their voices to be heard.

Rachel León

Can you talk about the process of writing this novel? Like did you plan out the story before you began or did you discover it as you wrote?

Etaf Rum

I started writing the story based on a memory that I had, but I was writing it more as a diary entry to myself and it was the same time I was teaching these stories and I just looked at the anger that I had, this emotional rage that I was feeling regarding my parents and regarding growing up isolated, displaced, not knowing what love was, not knowing what family was, struggling with my identity—feelings I still have today. And I guess once I had that journal entry down and realized that our voices were underrepresented and our voices weren’t told, I put two and two together and decided to write a novel, to continue that journal and prolong it into a story. The plot was there in a sense because the story is semi-autobiographical so it wasn’t hard for me to find a plot, but I did have to sit down and study my favorite stories and see the structure, the rise and fall and conflict to make sure my story had that because I’ve never written anything before. This was my first attempt at writing. Even though I had a story I wanted to write, it didn’t mean I knew how to write a novel, so I had to study other novels to write mine well.

Rachel León

It’s so impressive this is the first thing you wrote, that just blows my mind. Speaking of stories, Isra reads novels that illustrate a very different picture of love and relationships than what she sees and experiences herself, where abuse and subservience of women is the norm. Can you speak to this dynamic of the illusion of love?

Etaf Rum

When I wrote the novel, I wanted to use Isra’s connection with books as a bridge to the outside world. Books, and the love stories she reads about, are a way for her to understand and experience feelings and emotions she doesn’t have access to in real life. Because I myself had an arranged marriage at a young age and never experienced love, it was inevitable for me to explore these themes through Isra with the notion that she’s using books as a way to go outside her own limits as a woman but also to further understand her own limits and reality. Even though she’s using these stories as an escape, it’s further reinforcing in her mind that she will never get to these places, she will never be like the women in these books.

Rachel León

Why do you think so many women stay quiet about the abuse they’re experiencing?

Etaf Rum

There’s many reasons—one of the reasons is that they’re convinced that this is the norm because they’ve seen their mothers go through it, they’ve seen their sisters, their aunts, their neighbors. They’re desensitized to the abuse and to what is unacceptable. Another part is that as a society when we raise our daughters to think that they’re unworthy and inferior, the daughter grows up to think that perhaps she’s to blame for a man not loving her, for having daughters, for getting hit. It’s this mentality of shame, subservience, and silence that we ingrain in our women even when injustice is occurring. And another reason to stay quiet is out of fear. Fear that you’re either going to be outcast from your community, that you’re going to get beat even harder, that no one is going to stand up for you. And then even if you do stand up for yourself and say, Enough is enough, I’m leaving, half the time your parents aren’t going to back you up and 99% of the time you probably don’t have the resources to leave because you’ve been at home raising your children and you’re robbed of your ability and your power to defend yourself, not just financially, but intellectually and emotionally as well.

And to be clear—not all Arab women are abused or go through this. One of my biggest fears in writing this story is that although one part of me wanted to speak up about these issues because they’re present today, another part of me didn’t want to stereotype a culture that’s already stereotyped, outcasted, condemned, and scrutinized. I didn’t want to add fuel to the fire. It’s hard to balance that—how do you know when it’s right to stand up for people who are voiceless and oppressed in some way? And how do you know if you’re reinforcing stereotypes? And where do you draw the line? I don’t have an answer for that just yet. It was hard for me to speak up by writing the story because I didn’t want to further stereotype my community by focusing on a single story of war and extremism and terrorism and abuse— I didn’t want to tell that story, it’s already there. But at the same time if I didn’t speak up honestly and authentically, then that would just give the culture that’s oppressing me more power over me because I’m afraid to speak up.

Rachel León

You touched on women not being educated and one powerful theme in the novel was this hunger for higher education from some of the female characters and the community’s discouragement of that pursuit. Are you able to explain the reason for their opposition?

Etaf Rum

If we educate our women, we give them power over their lives and over themselves. And if we allow them this power, they’re not going to put up with the injustices committed against them. I got married when I was nineteen years old in an arranged marriage. I moved to North Carolina and I had kids right away and I insisted that I go to school and finish my education. My in-laws always looked at me like ‘why do you want to finish your education? Your husband makes all the money, you just stay at home and raise the kids.’ I was like ‘no, I want to do something with my life.’ I didn’t want to be like my mom who raised nine kids and got beat and just stayed at home with no education, nothing to fall back on, nothing to help her escape the confinements of her like. When I got accepted to graduate school to study literature, my father-in-law told my husband, If you let her get educated, she’s going to walk all over you. If you let her get educated, she’s not going to stay with you. This was the first time I ever heard this reasoning verbalized—that’s the fear behind educating women in some conservative families within this community, which is so ironic because no society advances without the education of its women. When women are educated, they’re not only better able to instill proper values in the generations to come, but they also understand their place in society more clearly. And I think that’s the biggest fear—how can we keep this backward oppressive culture going if women are educated enough to know it’s wrong and powerful enough to stop it? So we have to stop them from getting educated.

Rachel León

Is it fair to say that your education is what led you to break your silence?

Etaf Rum

Oh yes, absolutely. My education put me in a position where I was self-sufficient and self-aware—had my own career and I had my own identity, in that I did something that I loved, I was teaching. Getting an education is the only thing a woman can do for herself and by herself. It didn’t just educate me intellectually, but it educated me emotionally to help me realize the cycle going on in this culture, the cycle of oppression and the cycle of silence and the cycle of mental and emotional trauma that not only am I experiencing but I’m also passing down to my children if I don’t put an end to it.

Rachel León

On a lighter note, you have a popular Instagram account @booksandbeans. What’s it like to have such public visibility after growing up under repression?

Etaf Rum

It’s unexpected and I’m really grateful for it, but it does feel strange at times. I’d be lying to say that it didn’t. I feel like I have a lot of power to do good in a way I never had before. I was never seen growing up and now I have this ability to connect to people, to share things I think are beneficial—good books, authors that I feel should be read and heard, and I have this connection with people that I never had before. It is strange and beautiful to go from seeking out connection and belonging in books—having books be your mother, your father, your friend, your sense or family—to having this Instagram page about books, which also connects me to people and fills me with a sense of belonging. It’s beautiful.

Rachel León

Do you think you’ll write another novel?

Etaf Rum

I’m writing another one right now. It’s not a sequel but it’s about the same themes, different characters, with a millennial twist to it.

FICTION
A Woman Is No Man
By Etaf Rum
Harper
Published March 5, 2019

2 comments on “At First, Etaf Rum’s Debut Novel “Felt Like a Very Shameful Thing to Do”

  1. Miriam Moss

    I do not understand the ending

    Like

  2. Carrie Lee Collier

    Me either! I loved the entire book. But the ending confuses me. Is it a fantasy that Isra packs up and takes the kids to the subway? Or are we too assume her beating death is the consequence of her leaving?

    Like

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