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Bookworm Beat | Etaf Rum

In our column Bookworm Beat, read about some of our favorite books written by women and non-binary authors...

"Books were always a bridge between me and the outside world."

Seventeen year-old Palestinian Isra fell in love with books but was forced to marry and refocus her life on bearing sons upon marriage to her husband (disappointing him and her mother-in-law with their four daughters). Twenty years later, orphaned Deya, one of Isra's daughters, is living in Brooklyn and dreaming of college, but her grandmother is insistent that marriage is the best path. In her debut novel, Etaf Rum tells the story of generations of Palestinian women and their struggles to have their voices heard as Deyra discovers secrets of her family's past and find her way toward her own future.

The author discussed how the story was adapted from her own journals, why she started her book-centric Instagram account, and the importance of sharing Arab-American narratives in literature.


How did you become interested in writing?

I've always found reading and writing to be therapeutic escapes from the pressures and stresses of everyday life. My novel, A Woman Is No Man, actually started out as my own journal. It was only later that I decided to turn the emotional turmoil in those journal entries into story that is accessible to readers.

In addition to writing, you also teach. What is the relationship like between these two things for you?

I wrote the majority of the novel while I was teaching English and literature, and it was interesting to see how the works I read and taught influenced my creative process. Because the curriculum I was required to teach focused on mostly white narratives, I began to see just how underrepresented Arab-American narratives are in literature, and this inspired me to write AWINM as a way to tell our stories.

You also run the Instagram account Books and Beans. Why did you become interested in joining the bookstagram community?

Books were always a bridge between me and the outside world and I wanted to create a page where others could access good books and learn more about them, hopefully feeling a sense of community and connection in the process.

Tell us a little bit about A Woman Is No Man. What was the writing process like?

For one year, I wrote every morning for two hours before I started my work day until I finished the novel. It was a very disciplined process, but I learned so much about what I could do when I put my mind to it.

The novel tackles cultural expectations and how these ideas change between generations. What about this did you think was important to convey?

As the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, and coming from a large family, it was important for me to explore the idea of intergenerational trauma and how families pass down patterns of behavior from one generation to the next, good and bad, as well as how to break that cycle.

The protagonists in this book are Palestinian. How was their identity influential in creating them, and what do you think about the general representation of Palestinian characters in today's literature?

It was important for me to create a story about Palestinian characters and what that identity means because Palestinian stories are underrepresented in today's literature. Even in the places we are represented, it's hard for us to really talk about the full story behind our experiences for fear of confirming stereotypes, and this is something I've struggled with personally. But in the end I knew that in order to tell a true and authentic story, I had to explore some of the dark aspects of our culture, regardless of the consequences.

Do you have any ideas for another book that you can share?

I'm currently in a the middle of a draft for a new novel. I'm not quite sure where its heading yet, but I'm sure it will be influenced by experiences as an Arab-American.


Follow Etaf Rum on Twitter. A Woman Is No Man is available now from HarperCollins.


Rachel A.G. Gilman is the Creator/Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Creature.

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