A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum
Publisher: Harper Collins
Published: March 2019
Genre: Literary Fiction
Setting: Palestine / Brooklyn, NY
Rating: 3/5 Stars
In Brooklyn, eighteen-year-old Deya is starting to meet with suitors. Though she doesn’t want to get married, her grandparents give her no choice. History is repeating itself: Deya’s mother, Isra, also had no choice when she left Palestine as a teenager to marry Adam. Though Deya was raised to believe her parents died in a car accident, a secret note from a mysterious, yet familiar-looking woman makes Deya question everything she was told about her past. As the narrative alternates between the lives of Deya and Isra, she begins to understand the dark, complex secrets behind her community. (Source: Goodreads)
This book is that abusive relationship you cannot seem get away from. You want to and you know you need to, but something deep inside tells you things will change. You want to believe that voice so badly and so you stay, crossing your fingers and hoping against hope that things will get better. And they do, albeit briefly. The good times are short-lived and before you know it, you’re stuck in a cycle of abuse that you can’t pry yourself from. This encapsulates my relationship with this book. I threatened (myself) that I would DNF it a couple of times but I kept reading. There were good times and there were equally bad times.
A Woman is No Man follows the lives of three generations of Palestinian-American women living in Brooklyn, NY, imprisoned by their culture. Isra, who is married off at 17 and moves to America to start a family. She is desperate to fit in and win the love of her new husband and mother in law. Fareeda, the mother in law and self-proclaimed preserver of culture and gate keeper of Patriarchy; and Deya, Isra’s teenage daughter who is conflicted between obeying her grandmother’s wishes for her to get married and breaking away from this cultural prison to pursue her dreams.
Rum tackles salient, and in some ways personal issues in the book. She gives women who have been overlooked and voiceless - a voice and she confronts topics that are considered taboo or subversive in her reclusive community – marital abuse, gender expectations, domestic violence, misogyny, forced/arranged marriages. This came at a personal cost and I truly admire her for her courage and bravery. Her own life mirrors the experiences of her characters and I am glad that she also found her own voice in highlighting these troublesome aspects.
“No matter how many books you 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.”
But, I’ll be frank - although this book has a great premise and promise, it is in no way a literary masterpiece. Its weaknesses outweighed its strengths and this made it a difficult read. The characters lacked nuance and depth, they all seemed like abstract caricatures the author used as mouthpieces to drill in her social commentary (and there is A LOT of drilling). As a reader, I was not invested in any of them or their outcomes.
There are also very little development or significant shift in the narrative and it becomes very predictable early on. This could have been as a result of the author repeating the same scenes and conversations 10000 times in the book – Isra is in the kitchen making tea just the way Fareeda likes it. Fareeda is belabouring her point that a Woman is no Man and her sole worth is in bearing sons and being a submissive wife, and Deya is having countless internal monologues saying the exact same thing every time. This becomes quite laborious, monotonous and tiring.
“Marriage is what’s most important for women”
In an Interview with the author, she admits that even though she wanted to highlight these dark aspects of her community, she was careful not to reinforce the stereotypes that exist about Arab culture, specifically that every man is violent and every woman is a victim. She did not want to justify anti-Arab sentiment and prejudice and this is evident in how she is seen to walk on eggshells, sidestepping real critique of issues and forgoing nuance and depth for a cosmetic repetitive narrative. This is the book’s greatest undoing.
It comes off to me as the author having very little faith in her readers. She did not trust that we would be able to discern that this was not an attack on culture and religion, but a much needed conversation starter on the positioning of women in constrictive cultures.
This book set out to do a great thing, but it may have missed the mark and it ended up reading like a halfheartedly done YA book.