50 pages • 1 hour readEtaf Rum
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Etaf Rum’s debut novel, A Woman Is No Man, was originally published in 2019. According to Rum, the novel, while fiction, relies heavily on autobiographical details. In fact, Rum’s life so closely parallels her characters’ lives that the narrative effectively blurs the line between fiction and memoir.
Switching between past and present, the novel tells the intergenerational story of Isra, a Palestinian immigrant living in Brooklyn, and her daughter Deya, growing up in the same house 18 years later. According to Arabic tradition, Isra is married off by her parents to Adam, a Palestinian American living in New York. She now belongs to his family, and she is shipped off to America to start her new life with Adam and his parents, Khaled and Fareeda. Isra, who has grown up with a love of reading—for which her father beat her—is naïve about life. She believes in marrying for love, but she soon discovers that her culture has a far more utilitarian view of marriage. Her destiny is household chores, bearing children (ideally boys), and enduring the occasional beating. It’s a rude awakening for Isra, but, as Fareeda reminds her constantly, this is the way of life for women.
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Isra finds her new life tedious and depressing. Fareeda is overbearing, and Adam is rarely there, working at his family’s multiple businesses for up to 18 hours a day. When Isra becomes pregnant, she hopes the new baby will bring her and Adam closer together, but he dismisses the notion immediately. He must work to help support the family, and her job is to raise the children. When Isra bears only girls, Fareeda grieves for the lack of a grandson, heaping shame on her daughter-in-law in the process. With each new daughter, Adam grows increasingly abusive, frequently coming home drunk and beating Isra. Isra tries to shield her daughters from Adam’s behavior, but the stress weighs on her, and she withdraws from everyone around her, including her children.
Isra’s only ally in the house is Sarah, Fareeda and Khaled’s teenage daughter. She is rebellious and fights the cultural expectations placed on her. She urges Isra to do the same, but Isra is paralyzed by fear and doubt, and she cannot summon the courage to defy her husband or her culture. As Sarah approaches her high school graduation, she sees that Fareeda is determined to marry her off (despite Sarah’s attempts to sabotage her mother’s efforts). She decides to run away.
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Eighteen years later, Isra’s daughter, Deya, nearing adulthood, receives an anonymous note from a stranger. The note is from Sarah, now a college-educated bookstore manager in Manhattan. As Deya and Sarah begin to meet secretly, Sarah reveals details about Isra’s life and death. All her life, Deya was told her parents died in a car accident, but Sarah finally discloses the truth: Isra was murdered by Adam, who then took his own life. This revelation impels Deya to confront her grandparents about their lies; they admit the truth, pleading for Deya’s forgiveness. The truth of Isra’s death also pushes Deya to finally take the action that Sarah has been urging her toward. She takes control of her life, forgoes marriage, and applies to college.
The end of the novel recounts Isra’s final act of defiance. Summoning all her courage (as well as Adam’s cash savings), she gathers her daughters and makes a desperate attempt to flee. She boards the subway without any clear destination, hoping to put as much distance as she can between herself and her abusive husband and the culture that enables him.