Updated Aug. 7, 2019: Jenna Bush Hager of NBC’s “Today” show picked “A Woman is No Man” as her May pick for the TODAY book club. The #ReadWithJenna pick helped propel sales of Rum’s book. “The story really captivated me,” Hager told “Today.” “I couldn’t put it down. I was obsessed with figuring out the mystery of this family.”
Palestinian-American writer and Rocky Mount author Etaf Rum tells the story of three generations of women living in a cloistered Palestinian-American community in the heart of Brooklyn in her debut novel, “A Woman is No Man.”
Rum, a former English professor at Nash Community College, is also an avid reader and shares her favorite books on her popular Instagram page @booksandbeans. Her refererrals include “Olive Kitteridge,” a collection of connected stories by Elizabeth Strout; “The Kite Runner,” the first novel of Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini; and “Middlesex,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of Jeffrey Eugenides.
The reading, plus her own background, made the NC State alumnus realize there was a void in literature that needs to be filled.
“There are so many diverse books and novels that made me realize that the Arab-American voice is not present on our book shelves,” Rum says. “Our voices are not represented…the generation before me were immigrants. Now, we are expressing our stories in ways we couldn’t before.”
The novel will be published March 5, the same day she will be at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh to talk about the work. She will be at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill on March 6.
Rum calls her brand of writing “domestic literature.”
“I’m telling a story of Arab people and what’s going on inside the Arab-American home, which is a very sensitive subject,” Rum said. “There’s a stigma and shame behind revealing those cultural secrets…Arab-American women have limited roles and a lack of choice and control over their own lives. I didn’t have a say into the narrative of my own life. Writing is a way to rewrite that narrative.”
The 29-year-old Rum moved to North Carolina after her family arranged a marriage to her cousin. Rum, now divorced, lives in North Carolina with her two children. Rum took a few minutes to answer some questions about her novel inspired by her own life story.
Q: What does the title “A Woman is No Man” mean from your perspective as a Palestinian woman?
A: Growing up as a Palestinian girl, whenever I expressed any desire to go outside the prescribed path of marriage and motherhood, or whenever I wanted something that only men in our culture were permitted, like freedom, I was often told that I couldn’t. When I asked why I couldn’t do the same things men could, the reason was always the same: because a woman is no man.
Q: Can a Palestinian woman fall in love?
A: That answer is subjective depending on who you ask and can be used to draw stereotypes, which is not my intention as a writer. However, based on my experiences as a Palestinian woman raised in a conservative Arab household, falling in love was not an option. Interacting with the opposite sex/dating was forbidden for women in my family before marriage.
Q: You have mentioned that the novel is drawn from your own experience; why not write a non-fiction book?
A: Because I wanted to distance myself from the narrative and didn’t want to write about my family directly. Breaking the silence in my community was hard enough, even in fiction. To write about it from my own personal experiences would’ve not only upset my family but also required sharing personal and sensitive information that I did not want to make public.
Q: Why is forced marriage or marriage arranged by families still the norm among Arabs?
A: Like in many cultures, Arab women are required to maintain their modesty and virginity and so dating is not permitted. Because of this, arranged marriages are the preferred method of bringing men and women together.
Q: Can you talk about being born and raised in America in a tight-knit Palestinian community in Brooklyn? How does that show up in the way you live your life?
A: I was raised very conservatively. Even though I was born and raised in New York, I was un-American in most ways. I did not attend public schools (only an Islamic all-girls private school), never left the house without my parents, and was extremely sheltered to preserve my Arab identity and to ensure I didn’t get corrupted by American values.
Q: What do most outsiders not understand about the life of Palestinian women?
A: I am not a representative of all Palestinian women, and I am not here to stereotype their experiences into a single story. The three generations of Palestinian women discussed in “A Woman Is No Man” are very particular in that they are a product of conservative upbringing directly affected by the trauma and oppression resulting from the 1948 Palestinian exodus, and how this trauma trickles down across generations and leads to abuse in many forms, which is enforced by both men and women.
Etaf Rum will talk about “A Woman Is No Man,” (Harper) at 7 p.m. March 5, at Quail Ridge Books, 4209-100 Lassiter Mill Road, located in North Hills Shopping Center in Raleigh, and 7 p.m. March 6, at Flyleaf Books, 752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill.