Local author pens best-selling novel
BY JENNY WHITE
Tuesday, June 18, 2019
When Etaf Rum came to Rocky Mount 10 years ago, she knew right away she had found a favorite place in Braswell Memorial Library.
“I’ve been bringing my children here since they were babies,” she said.
She never imagined a decade later she’d find her first novel on the shelves at the library. The New York Times best-selling novel, “A Woman Is No Man,” by Rum was released in March.
The book follows the lives of three generations of Arab-American women as they seek to stretch the boundaries of their cultural norms. Rum tells the story of Fareeda, Isra and Deya — three generations of a family living in New York.
Deya, a high school student, seeks to learn more about her late parents and tries to balance her longing for independence as a woman in a family where women are taught to be invisible and subservient to men.
While the book offers a glimpse into a world not usually visible to outsiders, the themes are universal: Hope, identity, redemption, loss and women struggling to balance what is expected of them versus what they dream about.
Rum grew up in New York City in a family similar to the cast of characters in “A Woman Is No Man.”
“The cultural traditions I describe in the book were much like my upbringing growing up. I was very sheltered, attended an all-girls Muslim school and my life revolved around my home and learning how to be a good daughter — and eventually, a good wife and mother,” Rum said. “As a girl, I had no agency over my life in the way that boys did. Observing many women around me, I was taught that a woman’s role was to be quiet and do what she was told.”
After marrying young in a traditional arranged marriage, Rum moved to North Carolina and had two children, Reyann, 9, and Isah, 7. The couple is now divorced.
Rum said she and her husband are part of a generation of Arab-Americans that have loosened the rules of their traditional culture — and because of that, she has been able to pursue advanced college degrees, eventually earning a master’s degree and teaching literature for five years at Nash Community College.
“It was when I was teaching literature that the idea of a novel about Arab-Americans first occurred to me. As I was looking for diverse literature for my classes, I realized this story from the female perspective did not exist. And it needed to be told,” Rum said.
It didn’t exist, Rum said, because it would betray a centuries-old cultural norm that Arab-American women did not talk about — and certainly did not publicly criticize — their role in the Arab family.
Rum wrestled with the idea to tell the story and eventually started writing “A Woman Is No Man” in 2015. Originally the story was told mostly through diary entries of the character Isra.
“I knew from the beginning the fate of Isra, and her story was the focus of my book when I first started writing,” Rum said. “The story was about Deya learning about her mother through a diary she found.”
Rum said once she got an agent, they decided to rewrite it in third person and ditch the diary entry format.
“Oh, that was so hard,” Rum recalled. “In the end, it was definitely the best decision, but it was so hard to basically rewrite the whole book.”
Published by Harper Collins, the book is a poignant story of how families pass on secrets and the resulting burdens from one generation to another.
“I wanted the book to show how women are the ones who really have the power to break the cycle and change things for their children,” Rum said. “It is extremely hard to do and goes against what women are told in conservative parts of the culture — but ultimately, women are the ones with the power to make things better for their families.”
Even more than filling a void on bookshelves across the world, Rum said she wanted to ensure she would break the cycle of suppressing the worth of girls for the sake of her own daughter.
“I have drastically broken the cycle for her (Reyann). I am considered an outlier for publicly speaking about these things and writing the story, but I want to raise her making sure she knows her worth,” Rum said.
Having her children know and understand their Arab-American culture is a priority for Rum as she co-parents with their father. The children are close to their father’s traditional family.
Rum said writing about the secrets of the Arab-American culture was hard because she knew it would immediately be added to the list of many stereotypical and derisive insults about the culture and the religion of Islam. In the book, Rum clearly illustrates issues her characters face are cultural norms, not religious tenets.
“My need to tell the story of these women overrode my need to protect my culture. But like any culture, there are good things and bad things about it. There are many beautiful things about the Arab culture and it is still a part of who I am,” Rum said.
Rum’s children are a part of their father’s extended family, and Rum wants it that way.
“It’s a hard thing to balance, and I don’t know if I’m doing it right,” Rum said. “But I’m doing my best to help them learn about and be proud of their Arab heritage while teaching them the values I think are important.”
Much like the characters in “A Woman Is No Man,” books are an important part of life for Rum and her children.
Rum has brought her children to Braswell Memorial Library weekly since before they could read. First by reading to them and now encouraging them to find books of their own to read, Rum said it is important to show them the world outside their community.
“My kids grew up in Braswell’s story room, going to the summer reading programs and checking out piles of books,” she said. “I wanted them to grow up surrounded by books and the connections they offer.”
Rum is working on her second book, which she hopes will be released in 2021.