“You’ve never heard this story before. No matter how many books you’ve read, how many tales you know, believe me: no one has ever told you a story like this one. Where I come from, we keep these stories to ourselves. To tell them to the outside world is unheard of, dangerous, the ultimate shame.”
There are so many things I could rave about in regards to Etaf Rum’s debut novel, A Woman is No Man. It is one of those stories that make you sit back after finishing and just breathe in and out a few times as you quietly digest what you just read.
This story is packed with heavy thematic elements such as: a woman’s worth, integrating one’s cultural identity with one’s immigrated identity, breaking that vicious cycle of history repeating itself in potentially harmful ways, the power of books and story telling, and the infallibility of memory. I won’t dive into all of these thematic elements, but I just want to let you know they are all there, in case one of them encourages you to pick up this book.
Told from three different points of view across the span of three generations, we hear three clearly distinct voices of Fareeda (the grandmother), Isra (the mother), and Deya (the daughter). Each of these women gives their own voice to what it means to being an Arab-American, all differing opinions of course that harness the majority of the novel’s tension.
While they all might feel differently about being Arab-American women or see the role as meaning something different, the three of them echo similar sentiments about what it means to be a women in their community.
Fareeda: “A man is the only way up in this world, even though he’ll climb a woman’s back to get there. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
Isra: “For a moment, Isra could hear Mama’s voice in her head, mocking as she hunched over the stove. Palestine or America. A woman will always be alone. Had Mama been right all along? No, Isra told herself. That couldn’t be true. She just needed to earn Adam’s love.”
Deya: “It was only as she got older that Deya began to understand her place in the community. She had learned that there was a certain way she had to live, certain rules she had to follow, and that, as a woman, she would never have a legitimate claim on her life.”
Questions of female worth are brought up constantly in this novel and also relate to how each woman holds onto or dismisses facets of their cultural identity as a result.
We hear Fareeda and Isra’s mother consistently make their daughters feel worthless when compared to their brothers. They make remarks about how Sarah and Isra are burdens to them, and only will marrying them off will make them find relief and comfort. These two are examples of women who grew up in Palestine and follow the old ways and hold tightly to these ideals that comprise their cultural identity. We see Fareeda’s constant struggle for power in holding onto this identity while living in America, not only for herself, but for her family as well. She believes her worth as the matriarch of the family to be greater than her daughter-in-law, Isra and granddaughter, Deya.
Deya, who is born and raised in America, is the polar opposite of her grandmother. She’s outspoken and questions certain traditions, like the one that insists she marry after graduating from high school. She does everything in her power to resist her grandmother’s attempts to match her with potential suitor’s, and eventually discovers more secrets about her family’s history that prompt her to break away from this piece of her cultural identity. She often feels as though she is torn between being her two identities with no real means of escaping the inevitable. Deya values her self worth the most out of all the women, but due to circumstances of her childhood, it becomes clear why she so adamantly feels this way.
Isra’s character falls somewhere in between Fareeda and Deya. She’s constantly hoping to please her mother-in-law and to uphold their traditions. She believes by being a good daughter-in-law and wife, she can in turn be a good mother. She hopes for love above all, and finds herself sorely disappointed upon realizing its in short supply. Like Deya, Isra also feels torn between two worlds, but she fears becoming too exposed as an American, and thus compromising other aspects of her life, not necessarily limited to cultural identity, but to the relationships she has with other characters. Her view of her own self-worth changes over the course of the novel, but also comes with a price.
Sarah is a minor character who serves to further develop all three characters in various ways. She serves as a reminder of hardship to Fareeda, a source of friendship and courage to Isra, and a beacon of hope to Deya. I can’t say too much about her without invoking some spoilers, but that is my overall analysis of her as a character.
Rum deftly creates three distinctive and deep personalities with these three protagonists (and also a bit with minor character, Sarah), all with secrets of their own that take the entire length of the novel for you to fully understand. Her writing is painfully exquisite with the emotions it stirs inside of you. Her descriptions of Palestine and of New York City are lovely, but what she really excels at is the dialogue.
The novel is primarily told within the confines of the family’s house, which is not much to describe beyond the first few introductory pages. But you feel a strong sense of emotion and how fragile and insecure the ties that bind the various family members together are; how easily they could become severed if one were to disrupt the dynamics of the family and/or their cultural identity that’s rooted in their traditions and beliefs. That alone creates an atmosphere of immense tension, intrigue, and suspense that dares you to read on.
You probably are not surprised to learn that from this review, I gave this one five stars. There are so many other things once could discuss about this book, but this idea of female worth in regards to one’s cultural identity was most prominent to me.