Author Event: Etaf Rum
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Page 158 Books welcomes back author Etaf Rum to talk about her book A WOMAN IS NO MAN.
Growing up, Palestinian-American writer Etaf Rum was taught there were limits to what
women could do with their lives—marriage and children, especially sons, were paramount to a
woman’s existence, while education, work, and engagement with the outside world were not.
When Etaf dared to ask why, she always received the same answer: because a woman is not a
man. This lacerating phrase inspired the title of Rum’s unflinching debut novel, A WOMAN IS
NO MAN, which dares to reveal dark truths about the lives endured by conservative Arab women in America. As she takes readers into the secret world of this insular community, Rum explores how arranged marriages, stringent prohibitions, and narrow expectations can lead to emotional turmoil, abuse, and even death for some of these women.
Drawing partially on her own life, Rum weaves together the stories of three generations
of Palestinian women living in Brooklyn. At seventeen, Isra is uprooted from her Palestinian
home, married to a virtual stranger, and sent to live with him and his family in New York. A
dreamer who loves to get lost in the pages of A Thousand and One Nights, in her new home she must give up her romantic notions and accept her fate as a woman, helping her husband’s
mother, Fareeda, cook and clean ceaselessly. Fareeda strives to preserve the customs she brought with her to America, as a refugee decades earlier, surviving the loss of homeland the only way she can. It is Isra who bears the brunt of her mother-in-law’s zealous and confining
traditionalism, and when she fails to bear a son, the pressure and depression envelope the young wife’s life.
Eighteen years later, Isra’s daughter Deya finds herself at the same juncture her mother
once faced—it is time for her marriage to be arranged. But the American-born and educated
teenager pushes against tradition, hoping to be allowed to go to college. Deya’s fate is in the
hands of Fareeda, who has raised her since her parents’ death. Long believing that her parents
were killed in a car accident, Deya learns a shocking truth from a surprising source. As she
processes the real story of what happened to her mother and father, she suddenly questions
everything her grandmother has ever told her about parents. And the lies that were meant to
protect her only spur her on to new, defiant ideas about her own life and future.
By writing this semi-autobiographical novel and violating her community’s code of
silence, Rum has put her own life in danger. “My parents immigrated from Palestine to Brooklyn
where they gave birth to nine children and raised us, despite our American setting, in a bubble
wrap of Arab tradition and culture,” she says. Her own story is one of triumph, but at a cost. By
age twenty-three, she had managed to defy her community’s restrictions on education for women and obtain three degrees, but she was also already in an arranged marriage with her cousin and had borne two children. Like the characters in her novel, she pushed against the proscriptions placed on women, fighting hard for the life she wanted to live—from creating a Bookstagram account that now has over 160k followers (@booksandbeans), to leaving her husband, and, now, publishing this novel.
Brutally honest in its depiction of this conservative segment of Arab life, A WOMAN IS
NO MAN opens a window on a stifling community that exists in the shadows of our modern
world. Etaf Rum lends a fresh and spirited voice to a moving and compelling story that has never before been told to the world at large.
Etaf Rum was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, by Palestinian immigrants. She teaches college English literature in North Carolina, where she lives with her two children. She also runs the Instagram account @booksandbeans.