A Conversation with Etaf Rum

A Conversation with Etaf Rum

Etaf Rum's debut A Woman is No Man is a moving novel about the strength and resilience of women, the rescuing power of education, and connections forged through a shared love of stories and books. 

The novel offers us a glimpse into the difficult lives of three generations of Palestinian-American women and shows how an oppressive culture can shatter dreams, silence voices, and damage lives.

This is a poignant story that deftly explores the immigrant experience, oppressive gender roles, domestic violence, as well as cultural expectations & taboos. In the end, though, this novel powerfully reminds women that if they're brave enough to find their voice, it can transform their lives. 

The novel is semi-autobiographical, which means the author, Etaf Rum — who herself is a child of Palestinian immigrants — is intimately familiar with the experiences and subjects she probes in the book.

So when Etaf joined us for a Q&A inside our book-club, we had all sorts of questions we wanted to ask her about the book, its characters and plot.

Etaf's answers were heartfelt and hope-inspiring, and we think you'd love reading them as much as we did. 

"My message for women is: Don't let shame silence you. Stand up for your truth. Live authentically. Speak up. Teach your children a better way."

Etaf Rum

Q: Question by a community member

C: Comment by a community member

Q: I loved your book, even though it broke my heart at multiple points. Do you believe the story you wrote, which depicts thousands of the same in real life, will have an impact within the Islamic culture?

Etaf: The book is written about Arab culture, which is very different from Islam, a religion, but yes, I really do hope it changes our perspective of culture and tradition for the better!

Q: Your novel contains a strong theme of finding belonging and connection through stories & books. Can you tell us a bit about your own love of stories and at what age it started and how it grew?

Etaf: Books have been a source of comfort and escapism for me since I was a young girl. Growing up in a sheltered household, they provided me with a bridge to other communities and made me feel less alone. I wanted to show the transformative power of books in the novel.

Q: For me, one of the most interesting parts of the story is how the main characters i.e. Isra, Sarah, and Deya all deal with their circumstances differently. I loved the ending and how Deya deals with the situation. It makes me think you ended it that way because you are a person who values family a lot. Is that assumption correct?

Etaf: Yes, your assumption is correct. I didn't want the takeaway from the book to be for Deya to abandon her family, rather than find the courage to stand up for herself within her community, not by running away from it.

Q: I loved that this book shows the struggles of every character instead of painting some as “evil” and others as “good.” Curious to know, did anyone in the story feel like a villain to you while you were writing it? How did it feel writing from Fareeda’s perspective, or about Adam’s struggle - two characters the reader might perceive as oppressors or villains of the story?

Etaf: Great question. I initially started writing the book with Fareeda and Adam as definite villains in my mind, but within just one scene in each of their perspectives it was easy for me to see the ways in which they were victims as well, and I wanted to show that. It was important for me to create empathy for all of these characters and enable readers to see their circumstances from a new perspective and understand how trauma works for both victim and perpetrator.

Q: Being born in an Arab country myself, there is a lot of sexism I have to deal with on a daily basis. I have no doubt that you went through that too, like every other woman, so my question is how do you deal with the sexist comments you get?

Etaf: Sexism and double standards are some of the main reasons I was inspired to write the novel and it has been hard for me to deal with those issues in my own personal life as a woman of color in this country. But I want to point out for all my readers that sexism and patriarchy are universal and not exclusively found within Arab and non-western cultures. For example, I am a successful businesswoman where I live here in the South and my business partners are both male. Because of this, I face gender discrimination and sexism daily from "educated" and "Americanized" individuals.

Q: I am almost done reading A Woman Is No Man and I am in awe of the way you have portrayed the double standards prevalent in the society. I wanted to ask, what inspired you to write this book?

Etaf: Thank you for reading! I had many inspirations to write from books that I had read and loved growing up (like Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns) to women in my life whose stories and voices I wanted to be represented in literature.

Q: Do you have a particular message you wanted people, especially women, to take away from your book?

Etaf: My message for women is: Don't let shame silence you. Stand up for your truth. Live authentically. Speak up. Teach your children a better way.

Q: I loved reading about the unlikely friendship that develops between Sarah and Isra in the novel - totally unexpected and refreshing. Wanted to know which part was the most enjoyable for you to write?

Etaf: Thank you! The most enjoyable part of the novel to write for me was — and you probably won't expect this — Fareeda's perspective. She was such a rich character for me and so easy to depict. I also loved the scenes about reading and books.

Q: The part where Deya is on the train, returning from Sarah’s bookshop after finding out the truth about her parents made me cry like a child. Can you tell me what was the most emotional scene of the book for you to write, was it this scene or another?

Etaf: The most emotional scene for me was Isra's descending into depression. I cried every time I sat down with her scenes.

Q: What does the Jinn signify in the novel? Is it a depiction of a general belief in superstition that is prevalent in the Arab community, an allusion to something deeper like depression — or a way for Fareeda to deflect blame whenever something goes wrong?

Etaf: Great question. It's all the things you mentioned — how some societies stigmatize mental illness and blame it on superstition, how the jinn can be used as a scapegoat for some individuals instead of forcing us to look at our free will and the choices we make. The jinn was both symbolic of depression but also of culture and tradition as opposed to spiritual and mental healing.

Q: Have readers from other communities reached out to you to tell you that some of the oppressive elements of Arab culture that you described in the novel are similar to what they face in their countries and cultures?

Etaf: Yes! Women from so many backgrounds have reached out with their own stories and it makes me so humbled to be part of telling these stories on their behalf. 

Q: What’s your favorite movie or TV show?

Etaf: I can't think of a favorite movie, but favorite TV show was Breaking Bad or Law and Order SVU. Has anyone seen Unorthodox on Netflix? It made me cry and reminded me of AWINM. Really good.

Q: There are a lot of mentions of traditional dishes in your book, would you tell us which one is your favorite? Do you enjoy cooking as well?

Etaf: Food is so important in cultures and communities. I love to cook. My favorite middle eastern dish is Mujaddarra. My favorite dessert is Kunafa!

Q: Did you have a writing schedule while you were working on A Woman Is No Man? If not, do you have one now?

Etaf: Yes, I had to make myself write every single morning in order to finish the novel! A writing schedule is so important.

Q: From one of your interviews, I found out that you were writing this book while you were teaching full-time and raising your kids! What's the secret behind your strength to juggle many roles?

Etaf: I don't have a secret. But my advice is to make anything you want to accomplish a habit. I forced myself to write every morning before I took the kids to school for an entire year until the novel was written.

Q: You’ve said that this book started as a journal and slowly morphed into a novel - can you tell us a bit about how it all started and how long it took for you to realize that this is going to be a novel?

Etaf: Yes, I was journaling for about a week or two when I noticed that all my struggles were rooted in the unresolved trauma from the past, stories about women in my life who've been hurt and the ways that hurt had been passed on to me as a child. I wanted to understand these stories and these women and their pain and I thought that if I wrote things down into a novel, with a clear beginning, middle, and end, I'd be able to understand and ultimately heal, and maybe even heal others in the process too.

Q: I wanted to know the reaction of the Arab community in the United States and back home to the novel since it came out last year - has it been generally positive or negative?

Etaf: Generally positive, but of course there are negative comments regarding the novel possibly confirming negative stereotypes about Arab culture.

Q: Are you working on the next book? If so, will it also be a story centered on women or about the Arab experience? Or will you be experimenting with something entirely different this time?

Etaf: The book I am writing now centers on a more modernized Arab-American woman, but I am also experimenting with other genres for my third novel.

Q: Can we talk a bit about Books and Beans - it’s the bookstore Sarah owns in the novel, but it’s also your Instagram and — as I recently discovered — the name of a coffee shop you own. How did this idea develop and which came first — the Instagram, the coffee shop, or the reference to this name in the book?

Etaf: The instagram came first. It was part of my literature class where I recommended reads to my students. Then I named the bookstore in the novel Books and Beans. Then I decided to create the space in real life. It's been a great source of community here for me in NC. Come visit me if you're ever in the area ❤️

Q: Do you frequent the coffee shop, does it draw readers who found it through the book?

Etaf: Yes! I am at the coffee shop now and meet so many people every day who've read the book and loved it.

Q: This was your debut novel, and it has been so successful! How did you feel when you became a NYT bestselling author and how has the success of the novel changed your life or things for you?

Etaf: I was over the moon. I couldn't be happier. It has changed my expectations for myself, I think, and put a little more pressure on writing Book 2. But I am so grateful.

Q: Any hint on what the next book you’re writing is about?

Etaf: "A woman hears a prophecy about her future that triggers repressed memories about her past."

That's your sneak peek for novel 2. It's in the editing process now and I still have to work on it, but I am thinking about Book 3.

C: Ooh, that’s intriguing

Etaf: Thank you ❤️

You can buy A Woman Is No Man here

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