When Etaf Rum was teaching a literature class at Nash Community College in North Carolina, she noticed more than ever before the lack of diverse stories on bookshelves. She made a concerted effort to include diverse authors on her curriculum — Jhumpa Lahiri, Amy Tan, Junot Díaz — but she saw a major void when it came to Arab and Arab-American authors, especially women.
“That made me think about our stories and why they aren’t represented,” Rum, 29, says. “And I wanted to fix that.”
So she set to work on her first novel, “A Woman Is No Man,” a multigenerational family epic inspired by Rum’s experience growing up in a Palestinian-American family in Brooklyn.
amNewYork spoke with Rum, now based in North Carolina, about her inspiration for the novel, the complex themes her story addresses and the impact she hopes her book will have.
How much of the story is influenced by your lived experience?
The plot and characters were influenced very heavily by my upbringing. I was born and raised in Brooklyn to Palestinian immigrants and my grandparents were all products of the Nakba in Palestine in 1948. They lived in refugee camps before relocating to America. Many of the themes that I deal with in this book are issues that I had to face growing up: displacement, straddl[ing], lack of identity as well as sexism, patriarchy, a domestic household.
Did you prepare to look at these issues in fiction?
I wish I would have been able to do more research on the historical aspects of the 1948 exodus, because I haven’t lived through that, and most of the information in the book is retellings from my grandparents. Obviously I made sure that the numbers were accurate. The themes in the story are all based on my experiences, so I didn’t have to go outside and look for anything else.
How did growing up in Brooklyn influence your writing about Brooklyn, now looking back?
I love that I set the book in Brooklyn, not just because I was born and raised there, but because Brooklyn is such a beautiful, culturally diverse place. And I wanted to emphasize that even though the characters lived in the melting pot of the world, they still felt alone and isolated and alienated in many ways. That’s something very ironic — it’s not like they were in Mississippi or somewhere, they were in Brooklyn and still felt like they didn’t belong. They still had a little world of their own that people didn’t know about in Bay Ridge, where there are so many different immigrants of every kind. It was very important to stress to the reader and bring a new awareness that at the heart of America there’s this family that is not seen on bookshelves, and they’re living a life that we’re not really aware of.
What do you think the impact of bringing this type of visibility will be?
I’m hoping that Palestinian-Americans, especially women, will feel like their stories are being shared and told, and someone is speaking up on their behalf. I’m hoping that the book has a positive impact. On the other side, I can foresee that there may be a little bit of a controversy, [like] whenever an author is the first to speak on behalf of an entire community or culture. Personally, I felt that burden as I was writing. One of my biggest fears was to not stereotype or misrepresent the community, because I’m one of the first people to talk about issues like domestic violence, hypocrisy, tradition versus religion. And you have these characters and you want to paint them out to be as three-dimensional and human as you can, but some of those are very hard truths confirming stereotypes. I’m very interested to see how my community reacts to these truths I’m talking about. I tried very hard not to stereotype our culture and our community with a single story.
Can you talk about the title?
I love the title! It was changed a few times, but it is a line from the novel. I felt like it would be a very powerful title, because growing up whenever I expressed any desire to go outside the prescribed path of marriage or motherhood, I was often told that I couldn’t. And when I asked why the response was almost always: “Because a woman is no man.” Growing up, that phrase had such a powerful hold on my life and controlled me even when I wasn’t aware that it was controlling or limiting me in my existence as a woman. I felt like I couldn’t do things or wasn’t allowed to do things because I wasn’t a man. And only later, while I was writing the story and became a mother and was raising my own kids, I started to realize that a woman’s place in Arab society puts her on a much higher pedestal than men in terms of the responsibility she has. Not only is she educated and strives to take care of her own self and her own desires, but unlike men she also has the whole family responsibility on her shoulders. She’s also responsible for maintaining relationships between family members, raising her children, instilling values in them. I came to see that as a strength for our women, too. Not only is she seen as not a man in terms of traditional culture, but she’s also more powerful and has more impact on the family values.
What do you want readers to take away from your novel?
I hope men realize that without the freedom of our women, our community and culture will never advance in society. We will only advance as far as we advance our women and allow our women their freedom and their rights. And without doing that, we will always teach our children that it’s OK to be oppressed, it’s OK to be abused, and it’s OK to live a life that is far from equal and far from just.
IF YOU GO
Etaf Rum is in conversation with Hala Alyan on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at Greenlight Bookstore | 686 Fulton St., Fort Greene, greenlightbookstore.com | FREE