Etaf Rum’s ‘A Woman is No Man’ opens readers to a reality rarely seen on page

The family saga in Etaf Rum‘s A Woman is No Man isn’t meant to encapsulate the entire Arab-American experience. Instead, she carefully sheds light on a reality many married Muslim women face. It is a very specific story, but one that happens more often than the rest of society realizes.

In breaking her silence, Rum faced isolation from her community who was afraid of the secrets she was revealing to the world. Still, the story of violence and abuse was one she had to share to give a voice to herself as well as other women who faced similar situations.

We spoke about breaking her community’s “code of silence,” catharsis in writing, and why stories about marginalized communities are important.

In the advance copies of the book, there is a letter you wrote about why you wrote the book. It doesn’t appear in the final version of the book, but I just was wondering if you could touch on what was in the letter a little?

When I started writing this book, fear was the constant voice in my head. The letter explained to the reader how it there was a lot of self-doubt and fear; then how it took overcoming that to write this novel. I was raised in a community where we don’t share these stories. These dark aspects of the Arab community are not to be shared. There is this unspoken code of silence. I knew if shared these stories that I was breaking that code of silence because I was airing our dirty laundry to Westerners, reinforcing stereotypes, and betraying my community. 

This constant fear and doubt were plaguing me as I was writing. I was torn and filtering myself. It was less authentic because I was diluting the story itself. I made it less oppressive because I was afraid. I realized my silence wouldn’t protect me. The silence was the very thing that was reinforcing those injustices against me and woman like me for so many years. I decided to tell an authentic story without fear. It was also to remind readers that one story isn’t a single story. Just because these stories exist do not mean they represent all Arabs. It’s a very specific family and a very specific experience in the novel.

I decided to tell an authentic story without fear.

In what ways does this represent the community at large as opposed to a singular story?

This story is not representative of all Arab-American families and should not be used to further marginalize or stereotype them. However, this does not take away from the truth of the story and the injustices that happen all over the world to both Arabs and non-Arabs. Domestic abuse, oppression, and patriarchy are not exclusive to Arab-Americans.

What was the catalyst to start writing this?

I realized as an educator, as a reader, as a book lover that my voice as an Arab-American was rarely represented in bookstores, in libraries, and in literature. In the rare occasion, my voice was represented, it was usually about the immigrant experience. The dark aspects were not represented. It’s because people are afraid to further reinforce stereotypes. It’s hard to tell the truth in a way that doesn’t make you come across in a way that you’re betraying an entire community. I felt it was necessary for me to do that.

What was the feedback once you started writing it?

I wrote most of my novel in a daze. I told people I was writing it but no one took me seriously. I teach English – I’m on leave now – but I was teaching then. When I was writing, my community didn’t think anything of it. When I sold it they started taking me seriously and began to ask questions about it. 

I told them I was writing about being an Arab in the United States. They asked what about specifically and if I was telling them everything. All of a sudden the fear came up. It was so obvious just in the question that there was a panic like I was exposing them. A lot of members in my community were afraid automatically of what was being exposed in my novel. The fear automatically took over.

The novel has been out for [about a week and a half] and I haven’t heard anything yet. I’m expecting it for sure.

What was your response to that?

When the questions were asking how I could expose us, I had to tell them that no one was talking about it and these issues were wrong. The only way we can advance as a society is if we can openly talk about these issues to fix them. Of course, that didn’t really help, but they were my defense for them. It’s my defense in interviews when I’m asked why I wrote something so bleak and why did I choose to portray the culture so darkly. It’s where the things that were most important to me: in the dark parts of the culture. It’s what affected me – and so many girls like me – the most.

You started writing this as a diary entry and then sold it a year later. What was the writing process like after you realized it was a novel?

When I first writing it as diary entries, it was very therapeutic to get the story out and to make sense of it. To be able to rewrite my narrative literally on page was very therapeutic. It became even more therapeutic when I started to link the pieces together to try to understand an entire community. 

I started it as diary entries writing about myself. Then I started to explore different generations and why they did the things that they did. To make sense of an entire culture and the way generations influence one another and the way trauma and oppression are handed down from one generation to the next.

After you started bridging it, how was it changing the diary entries to a novel narrative?

Once I started exploring my mother and grandmother’s generations, I knew I had to re-write what I had. It would read like more of a classical story because my diary entries read like a child ranting. I was angry, that’s how I felt.

I’m not a writer, I had no training whatsoever. To pull off a first-person voice, it requires so much talent I had when I first started writing. I felt more comfortable writing in third-person and it was much more representative of everyone else.

Emotionally, how was that for you to have to go over everything again?

It was exhausting. I would say that doing that really taught me how disciplined I was and had to be. When there is something that needs to be done, I’ll get it done. It was a testament to me – the act of writing and re-writing – how far I am willing to go to do the things I feel are important to be done.

How does it feel to have this personal of a story our there for the world to read?

It feels good. I was finally to tell the story of these women. We won in a sense. These women finally have their stories shares. They’re heard. It’s the opposite of how I felt when I started. I felt unheard, insignificant, and didn’t think people cared. Now hopefully people will read this and not repeat the injustice in their families and on their daughters. It felt very empowering.

There hasn’t been public backlash yet even though you’re anticipating it. What about those closest to you who were questioning you when you were writing the novel? Has anyone reached out?

No, not really. A lot of people in my community that I knew growing up feel it is very representative of the struggles that some women face. They believe these stories need to be told regardless of the consequences. 

What is your relationship with the community and religion now?

I’m kind of outcasted now because I got a divorce after I wrote this. I think that is a layer of the outcasting as well. Not only did I not do what I was supposed to do by staying married, but then I also wrote about the darkness and why I got a divorce for the whole world. I’m viewed as a rebel. I think that has a lot to do with it.

I’m still the same person I was before I wrote the book.

Before you said you weren’t a writer. But you are! You wrote a book. Where do you take your writing from here?

Now I am working on a second book. I now say that I am a writer. When I first started, I wasn’t one.  Now I am. I love the act of writing. I don’t think I can go a day without writing now that I know how it feels. I’m just going to continue to explore myself and the world the only way I know how: through writing.

Follow Etaf Rum on Twitter and Instagram. You can also follow her renowned Books and Beans account.

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