Contemporary Literature

A Woman Is No Man

This debut novel received quite a bit of press when it was published last year. I saw many, many reviews from readers who both loved it and found it heart-breaking. And I knew that I wanted to read it, that one day I would read it. But the thing is, knowing how intense of a reading experience it was going to be, I also wanted to wait until the right time. I am, heavily, a mood reader, and how I feel before starting a book does really influence my reactions to it. A few weeks ago, I felt like it was, finally, almost time, so I added myself to the library waitlist for the audiobook (a year post-publication and there is still a waitlist – definitely a sign for me that the hype was pretty real). And here we are.

A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum

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This novel is told from three different perspectives, from three different generations of women from the same Arab-American (Palestinian) family that had immigrated to Brooklyn, NY. There is Deya, a 15-year-old girl of the youngest generation, whose voice speaks from the “present” day (2008). There is Isra, who was born and raised in Palestine but was brought to Brooklyn to as a wife to Adam; she is Deya’s mother and her voice speaks from the 1990s. And then we have Fareeda (Adam’s mother, Isra’s mother-in-law, and Deya’s grandmother), who speaks from both Isra and Deya’s timelines, as well as in memories of her time living in a refugee camp in Palestine before her immigration with her husband and sons to America.

This intergenerational family story (I would say saga, but it didn’t seem quite sweeping enough for that term) elucidates in detail the family structures and expectations and daily life of conservative Muslims, with particular focus on the women’s perspective and experience (obviously). There is quite a bit to unpack, as far as the cultural and traditional insights that Rum details. And I don’t want to try to spell it out here in too much detail, because I don’t want to water down the intensity and nuance of what her novel provides. But I will say a few impressions that I had. First, major trigger warning for physical and emotional abuse – of all three narrators in different ways – that is pervasive throughout the novel. I have read a few interviews that the author has given in regards to her choice to portray conservative Muslim-Arab families in this way and I appreciate her commentary on the challenge between bringing light/awareness to an under-voiced population while simultaneously not wanting to perpetuate stereotypes that could be used to justify anti-Arab/Muslim sentiment in America (which is, as we know, already a serious issue). However, others ignorance should not be a reason to avoid telling your own story or voicing your own concerns and I applaud Rum’s strength in both overcoming that and potential backlash from her own community for “airing private business.”  Although this novel is just one story, one perspective, and should not be taken as a voice for a whole, it’s also telling a story that has been suppressed and accepted for generations and must be reckoned with.

To that end, I thought she did a phenomenal job in representing how intergenerational cycles of cultural expectations and norms exist…and how hard breaking out of the “that’s just the way it’s done” mindset can be. This is particularly clear in the case of Fareeda, who by the end even comes to question the unfair/unsafe positions that she herself was in, and then put her daughter and daughter-in-law in, and yet, still struggles to break from those traditions when it comes to raising her grand-daughters. It’s written in a way that really shows all the shades of grey and levels of complication that, while they don’t excuse the behavior and condoning of domestic violence, help the reader to understand how the situation persists. Relatedly, seeing the complex and unreasonable expectations, culturally and familial-ly, that Adam was under helps make him a more human character. It helps the reader to see that there is, objectively, no such thing as a monster or singular bad guy in the story, just individuals coping with trauma and stress in whatever way they best can – and in this family, traditional acceptance opened the door for domestic abuse as one coping mechanism for the men.

I also appreciated the way things changed over the three generations of voices…and the various dissenting or objecting voices in each individual generation. Although Fareeda and Isra lived fully within the confines of accepting marrying young, having children, caring for the home, lack of education and, yes, domestic abuse as the norm, there were also many characters who did not accept that at face value. Fareeda’s own daughter made a very bold choice to escape the limited options life presented her. And her other daughter-in-law and second son chose to create a very different type of family/relationship than Isra and Adam had. In Deya’s story, we see how she learns about all these different types of choices that were made by her female predecessors, how those decisions played out for them, and struggles with all she has learned and feels to try and find the right path forward for her. As a note of hope in what is otherwise an incredibly heart-breaking novel, the generational change from Fareeda to Deya, while not necessarily as much as might be ideal, is nevertheless a clear indication of the needle moving the right direction, as far as independence and freedom for the women of the family.

I haven’t really talked about anything other than the cultural insight so far. And really that is the highlight of this novel. But I do want to mention a few other things as well. First, the writing is very good – smooth and flowing, with realistic dialogue and wonderful pacing. As far as the plot itself, the unfolding stories of Isra’s life and Deya’s growing understanding of the reality of that life is, as I said, very well paced out, unfolding-ing together in a way that was very compelling to read. Plus, there were a few little “mysteries” and secrets sprinkled throughout that kept my “just one more page” interest quite high. Plus, as a reader, I found myself dreading what I thought was coming for Isra and cheering with feeling for Deya’s decisions about her own future and that investment in the characters made the story much more impactful and is a sign of Rum’s skill as a writer. Similarly, my emotional reactions to Fareeda, and her actions, throughout the novel were super strong (and jumped all over the place), which, again, I credit to Rum’s fantastic character development.

All in all, this portrayal of impossible cultural standards for women (and some for men), the suffocating realities of insular communities and the dangers of internalization of traditions and norms, had my heart aching from beginning to end. At one point, Rum says of Fareeda: “the shame of her gender was engraved on her bones,” and that shattering and poignant quote really, for me, summed up much of the message of this novel. Although it is an extreme representation, this novel encompasses many of the contradictions we all feel over the desire to belong to a whole/family/culture (and the fear of branching away from that) with the knowledge that “the way it is” is not healthy or good. It shines a probing light on the cycle of oppression of women endemic to many cultures (to different levels), yet does so with gentleness for the women who are complicit in the continuation of that cycle, because “what choice is there?” and “what power do women have to change that?” An affecting and emotional rendering of the fact that change is incremental and slow, but hopefully with time, it will come.

I see why this book still has a library waitlist, and I encourage readers to pick it up (when they’re emotionally ready for it). But also, as the author said (here’s the interview I’m referring to, if you want to read more), remember that this is a single voice, a single part of the story, and that Arab-American families are so much more than this one novel, this one representation. These cases may be the ones that most need a voice (and that is so important, both for Arab women themselves and for those of us from other backgrounds who are just here to learn), but are far from the only cases whose voices are under-heard. I myself plan to remember this by finding and reading books by other Arab/Arab-American authors and urge other readers to do the same. (If you have recommendations, feel free to drop them in a comment!)

9 thoughts on “A Woman Is No Man

  1. I haven’t read your review yet since I like going into books blind. But this book is on my book club read selection for April, so I’m going to come back here to discuss when I’m done🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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