I’d promised myself I would take a break from contributing for a few months, but broke that promise when I saw Etaf Rum’s Evil Eye on the list of September releases. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to talk to Etaf again, as we’d had such a great conversation in 2019 about her debut novel, A Woman Is No Man (The interview was later republished in the paperback edition of the novel).
Like in her debut, Evil Eye deals with autonomy, secrets, intergenerational trauma, and shame—but in a story that’s ultimately empowering and hopeful. It centers Yara, a married mother of two who works in a college art department, doing both graphic design for their website and teaching intro classes. After an incident involving Yara calling out her coworker’s racism at a department meeting, she begins to examine her unfulfilling marriage, the trauma she experienced as a child, and what she wants in life. The novel is a beautiful portrait of cultural expectations, mother-daughter relationships, and how our unresolved past impacts our present lives.
I had the pleasure of talking to Etaf about social media and isolation, her writing process, and the power of literature.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
When we last spoke you’d mentioned A Woman Is No Man was your first attempt at writing fiction, and you were working on your second novel. I’m curious what the writing process was like this time around, particularly since that coincided with the success of your debut, which was a New York Times bestseller and a “Read with Jenna” Today book pick. Did that make it harder to write Evil Eye?
Yes, the success of my debut novel certainly made writing Evil Eye much more difficult. Even though A Woman Is No Man was my first attempt at writing fiction, the idea arrived one day like an act of resistance, and the story poured out of me in a flash. At the time, I was desperate to follow this voice, and these women, in search of inner truths I had spent my life running from. I had an instinct that the novel needed to be written, and that it would help Palestinian women feel seen. I think the urgency of the story and the propulsive way I wrote it felt more like divine intervention, like destiny.
Evil Eye, in contrast, was harder to write; like I was trying to push the words out. Because writing A Woman Is No Man had taken tremendous inner work, risk, and courage, the entire process had felt like a dream, one in which I was running at full speed, stopping to look back only after I had finished, and I don’t think I had yet processed all that I’d done when I decided to write Evil Eye immediately after. The world was also in the midst of a pandemic then, and I was still working to heal myself and unpack years of repressed emotions prior to my “outburst” while penning A Woman Is No Man—so I felt like I was in an even darker place when I started Evil Eye. I also felt like I had much more to prove because I had just written a bestseller, except I didn’t know how I had done that. How had a sheltered girl like myself managed to get herself here? The answer was books, and reading constantly as a child to escape the loneliness I felt growing up divided between two worlds. But that little girl was still inside me—uncertain, afraid—and so naturally I suffered from imposter syndrome. I thought, Can I find my voice again? What more do I want to say about this community and these women? The process is so painful, but is this what I was made for?
I was still interested in the questions of women’s freedom, identity, and inherited trauma, but I wanted to write a different novel. My intention was to focus on one woman and delve deep into her psyche, which would result in a slower read, unlike the page-turning nature of A Woman Is No Man. COVID certainly made my world feel a lot slower, too—particularly because my kids were no longer in school and we were home together, so I lost most of my writing routine and time alone. I had to wake up in the middle of the night to work on Evil Eye. For months and months, I’d set my alarm for 3 a.m. and would write until my kids woke up, and then we were home schooling. It was a struggle, but we made it. We all did. We pushed through.
Wow, I’m so impressed with your dedication. Waking up at 3 a.m. takes major diligence. I’d love to hear more about your writing process. This novel isn’t plot heavy, but it has a strong narrative arc and feels very cohesive. Do you plan out the story before writing, or do you write an exploratory first draft to figure out the shape of the novel?
Thank you, Rachel. I had a strong sense of the narrative arc before I began writing—a story of a woman whose ambition conflicts with family responsibility, who struggles with identity and belonging as a Palestinian-American, and who needs to unpack repressed family trauma in order to find her way and her voice. Still, I wasn’t certain where the plot was going, aside from the general idea of a family curse passed down through generations. It took several drafts to figure out how to tell Yara’s story, plot wise, but her inner monologue and view of the world came very easily to me. Raised within the same culture and with a similar upbringing, I had an innate understanding of this woman’s fears, frustrations, and limiting beliefs. I could see the world the way she saw it: a harsh and cold place where she could never feel safe or let her guard down, and I wanted to explore that lens. One of the themes in the novel is how trauma is often overwhelming, unspeakable, and difficult to capture in words. And yet despite the inadequacy of language, with each draft I tried to get closer to giving readers the sense that they understood, even lived, Yara’s experience of trauma. That, above a fast-paced plot, was my main goal.
I found Yara’s relationship with Instagram very relatable, particularly the moments when she questions her posts and who she’s really posting for. Aside from being relatable, it echoes this theme that Yara hears throughout her life of what will people think?
My main intention when I started writing Evil Eye was to delve deeper into the psyche of a young woman torn between listening to her inner truth vs. the noise of society’s expectations of her. In my first novel, A Woman Is No Man, we follow a young Palestinian-American girl from a conservative family who wants to go to college, yet is faced with cultural expectations of marriage and motherhood. Evil Eye felt like a continuation of that story, except here we see our heroine, Yara, who has managed to pursue her education despite marriage and motherhood at a young age. Through Yara, I wanted to explore what happens to women who are raised in families that have been displaced through occupation or war, families who witness domestic abuse and trauma as the norm—what happens to these women when they become mothers themselves? What does their inner life look like? Do they have baggage that they’re bringing into marriage and motherhood? How do they heal the trauma that they’ve seen in childhood? How do they avoid passing on the trauma to their children? And what about their dreams? Do they end up settling? Self-abandoning? People pleasing? Is it possible for them to heal? As someone raised with a similar upbringing, I felt like I owed Yara her own story. I wanted to show up for this character and give her the privilege of being heard.
Coming back to your question about social media—my decision to highlight it came very organically. My main focus was to portray the inner life of one Palestinian-American woman as authentically as I could. But as I got deeper into Yara’s psyche (while also writing during a time of intense isolation during the pandemic), I realized how often I used social media as a coping mechanism to distract myself from, well, myself. You know, absentmindedly reaching for my phone as opposed to feeling my uncomfortable feelings at the moment or allowing myself to sit still inside my body until I uncovered what was truly bothering me. It was much easier to scroll on social media instead. I think it’s something that so many survivors of trauma deal with—not having enough boundaries between them and social media, or whatever outlet they use to numb themselves. I was also interested in the performative quality of the online world, using it to show up in a certain way, to prove yourself, to avoid facing yourself, to avoid sitting with your fears and discomforts. So I wanted to explore how we, particularly women, are using social media as a performance, as a way to paint an image of ourselves as we think we should be. It’s an uncomfortable question to face: who are we performing for, and why?
That concern about what others will think reverberates throughout the novel, including in Yara’s marriage and in her in-laws’ and her parents’ marriages. It seems like a recipe for loneliness when a couple hands over so much power to other people. But just like in your debut, your portrayal of the conflict between pleasing one’s community and being true to oneself is so sharp. And part of that sharpness comes from the very lonely and isolating dynamic of these characters feeling like outsiders among the broader culture so there’s much more to risk if they’re rejected within their own culture. Could you talk about that?
The conflict between pleasing one’s community and being true to oneself is at the core of Yara’s struggles throughout the novel—particularly because she is a woman of color, a daughter of immigrants, and someone who has lived her life straddled between cultures and struggling to fit in. Much of the conflict in Evil Eye is Yara’s inability to feel seen in her own culture, yet also not truly feeling like she belongs in America, either. And so there’s this unbearable loneliness, this sense of belonging nowhere.
Despite her efforts to assimilate, Yara has lived her life as an outsider, especially because the Palestinian-American community, and the Arab American community at large, is portrayed in such a negative light by the West. This makes it incredibly hard for people like Yara to be vulnerable and open up about their struggles, not just to the West, but to themselves. There’s a lot of defensiveness and denial for people going through Yara’s struggles. Naturally, the thought process here is one of fear: not wanting to prove the Western world right by opening up about certain struggles, despite their universality—gender rights, feeling unseen, lacking a community, and feeling unable to belong.
These struggles are not just reserved for women of color or Arab American women. And yet, because of the nature of the West’s portrayal of Arabs and Arab Americans, as well as the Islamophobia on every news channel, Yara (who grew up in New York during 9/11), has always been viewed as “other”. It’s very lonely to feel like you cannot be your authentic self in your own culture and you have to hide parts of yourself that want more and need more because you’re ashamed. Yet at the same time, you can’t talk about wanting more and needing more because the automatic response from the Western world is, Oh, is it because you’re oppressed? Is it because you don’t have rights? It’s a double-edged sword and a very hard place to be.
I hope this novel portrays this double conflict and allows us to have a conversation about how to help others without judgment, how to foster empathy, and ways to change the narrative.
What happens at Yara’s work is an example of what you’re talking about. That scene does a lot, both in terms of plot and contributing to that theme. Did you know how much leverage you’d get from that scene before you wrote it?
That scene felt really organic to me. Yara’s outburst highlights Yara’s struggles with identity and belonging. We see that she is unable to express what’s truly bothering her, which is that she feels stereotyped because of her ethnicity and the fact that she isn’t accepted in this white southern town. The reaction of her workplace further proves to her that she’s unable to open up about her feelings of being “other,” and her immediate reaction is to prove that she’s not what her coworkers or boss think of her by working harder and doing more. This ties back to the patterns in Yara’s life where she isn’t feeling seen and validated both within her community and outside of it. Her first response internally is, I must be unworthy of being seen, so how can I perform more, do more, achieve more to prove that I belong in the classroom and in this community?
As much as Yara doesn’t want to care about what people think, and as much as she wants to do things her own way, this scene shows how she is seeking validation and acceptance, a theme of her journey. She’s worth being seen as a woman in her own right and not as a caricature of an entire culture, but she’s still reacting to these triggers based on her deep seeded fears and insecurities from childhood, so it was a natural scene for me to write because of all of Yara’s internal struggles and the way her past is still lingering and affecting her present.
Like A Woman Is No Man, despite dealing with heavy topics, this novel is ultimately hopeful and empowering. I was thinking about how some people believe literature should inspire and uplift readers, which others very much disagree with. Perhaps it’s just the natural tone of these two stories, but it made me wonder about your feelings on that idea.
Yes, hope is the natural tone of these two stories. It wasn’t something I planned intentionally. The stories just lended themselves to the endings they have.
I believe that literature takes us on deep emotional journeys through which we learn about ourselves and others, and that alone is hopeful. It’s why I write. I want to believe that literature can lift our spirits, inspire us, and help us find meaning in tough times. So perhaps that’s why my stories tend to have hopeful endings. As a writer and a reader, literature has always been a lifeline, a place where I’ve found solace, belonging, and the strength to overcome my own loneliness. Literature offers a safe space where we can allow ourselves to believe in the possibility of change, redemption, and growth. This is not to say that [all] literature needs to inspire and uplift, but for me it does.
By Etaf Rum
Published September 5, 2023
Rachel León is a writer, editor, and social worker. She serves as Daily Editor for Chicago Review of Books and Fiction Editor for Arcturus. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, BOMB Magazine, The Millions, Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, the Ploughshares blog, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere.