Books about the contemporary immigrant experience has recently been on the rise. We have seen great books like A Place For Us, and The Girl Who Smiled Beads that narrate the American immigrant experience.
Though the central theme maybe be the immigrant experience, every story has it’s own narrative. Some recount the horror of worn torn countries while others about how they struggled with cultural identities once they immigrated.
My most recent read with this theme has been Etaf Rum‘s debut novel, ‘A Woman is No Man’ which portrays the difficult lives of Arab -American women.
The story begins in Palestine, in the early 1990’s, with Isra, who is soon to marry Adam, as their families have arranged. Adam works in a deli in Brooklyn, NY and Isra is full of hopes and dreams of starting her new life in the US. But once she moves, she struggles to adapt to her husband, in-laws and her new life.
The second narrative voice in the story is Deya, who is in Brooklyn, NY in 2008 and is the first born daughter of Isra. She is eighteen and her grandmother, Fareeda has lined up some eligible suitors for her, though she does not want to get married. She seems to have little say in the matter, much like her mother did.
Fareeda, who is Isra’s mother in law, is the third voice in the story. She left behind the misery of refugee camps in Palestine and came to America with her husband in search of the American dream. She is deeply invested in preserving her Palestinian culture and traditions at home in the US.
This story chronicles between the experiences of Isra, Deya and Fareeda and highlights much of the Arab culture. It is deeply rooted in family dynamics and tackles the sensitive problem of violence and domestic abuse in a closed cultural world.
The author, highlighted the fact that oppression is often passed down from one generation to the next.
As I read the book, I found it interesting to see that Isra’s role was not much different than what it would have been in Palestine. She is primarily taking care of the house and her children. Isra internalizes domestic abuse as normal, because she’s seen her father do the same with her mother. The author portrays how Isra is desensitized to abuse.
The story is also about Deya, a first born American of Palestinian origin who tries to understand what her parents have been through and what happened to them. That is what pushes the story forward, the need to know what happened to Isra and Adam. Deya’s quest for answers is mingled in with Isra’s story.
The story then asks, if these characters can escape these deep rooted customs? What is the cost of escaping from it all? Does it isolate you from the community and what choice do you really have?
This is a deeply moving book and I was immediately drawn into the story. Rum has captured the unheard voice of women, their secrets and their loneliness beautifully. It is an emotionally invested read, and one that has you wanting to reach out and help the characters!
“It’s the loneliest people who love books the most.”
― Etaf Rum
“Soon you’ll learn that there’s no room for love in a woman’s life. There’s only one thing you’ll need, and that’s patience.”
― Etaf Rum
About the Author
Etaf Rum was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, by Palestinian immigrants. She teaches college English literature in North Carolina, where she lives with her two children. She also runs the Instagram account @booksandbeans. A Woman Is No Man is her first novel.