September 2023

How novels changed Etaf Rum’s life

Interview by
Bestselling Palestinian American author Etaf Rum was utterly transformed by the characters in her debut, A Woman Is No Man. With her second novel, she begins to process the aftermath.
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Etaf Rum barely remembers the exchange, but as a child, she apparently used to jokingly threaten to write a novel about her mother. At least that’s what her sisters tell her, and as the oldest of nine children of Palestinian immigrants living in Brooklyn, Rum no doubt had plenty of family stories to tell. “I was an avid reader,” she says, “and I think that storytelling came to me as second nature.”

Despite these early inclinations, the wild success of Rum’s novel, A Woman Is No Man (2019), is still astounding. For readers, Rum seemed to appear out of nowhere, like a meteor lighting up the sky. “To think that I penned a New York Times bestselling novel with no experience—even talking to you now, it still blows my mind,” Rum says, speaking by phone from Rocky Mount, North Carolina. A Woman Is No Man chronicles several generations of Palestinian American women, all of whom are forced to marry a man of their family’s choosing, live by his and his family’s rules, and undergo verbal and physical abuse—until one young woman finds a way to break the cycle.

“Women, regardless of their race and ethnicity, have identified with these characters—whether in themselves or their mothers or their sisters or their aunts—and have reached out to tell me how much the book has transformed them.”

“I thought I was writing a story for underrepresented Arab women,” Rum says, “[but] the story has touched women across cultures. The universality of the message has stunned me. Women, regardless of their race and ethnicity, have identified with these characters—whether in themselves or their mothers or their sisters or their aunts—and have reached out to tell me how much the book has transformed them.”

These readers have been eagerly awaiting Rum’s second novel, Evil Eye, which begins with mention of a family curse. Protagonist Yara’s grandmother peers into leftover Turkish coffee grounds to read the fortune of her daughter, Meriem, who is about to marry and immigrate to the United States. The novel then flashes forward several decades, to when Yara is experiencing serious job trouble while teaching at a North Carolina college, and Meriem suggests that this predicament is a continuation of the old curse. It’s an opening scene reminiscent of Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists, and it sets the stage for the way fear, curses and superstition permeate Yara’s story.

“Fear that something bad will happen, that you have to worry about someone or something robbing you of that goodness—it’s such a human trait,” Rum says, noting that this is the root of habits like knocking on wood or hanging an evil eye at an entrance. On a recent trip to Greece, she was amazed by the number of evil eyes she saw. “When I say they were everywhere,” she says, “I mean everywhere. Like every store. I thought it was an Arab thing, but I think the Greeks have definitely won this one.”

“Because my caregivers are still traumatized, they raised me in that trauma.”

In many ways, Evil Eye is a continuation of A Woman Is No Man, although the writing processes were vastly different. The plot of Rum’s debut came “in a flash” as a result of processing “repressed emotions” with therapy and journaling. “Instantaneously, overnight it seemed, I wanted to write a novel,” she says. “I had this urge to write about the Arab American experience, or at least one aspect of it. I drew very heavily on my own upbringing and my own experiences as a Palestinian woman. I had to capture these feelings and maybe make someone feel seen.”

Not only did Rum write quickly, but the novel was also published quickly, making the whole experience feel like a “miracle” and leaving her with a startling revelation: “Up until that point, I was living a life that I thought was of my own choosing, but really wasn’t,” she says. “I think I went through a sort of awakening. I found my voice, and I found out who I was.” As a result, she ended up divorcing her husband, much to her family’s shock and dismay. “I cannot want courage and freedom and bravery for these characters and yet, in my own life, be living in this sort of denial,” she says.

There were repercussions, of course, including a long period of estrangement from her family. As a result, writing her second novel was a struggle—“the opposite of a flash”—but she once again called upon her own experiences. Yara resembles Rum in many ways: Both grew up in Brooklyn, married young and moved to North Carolina. Both have two children and taught college courses, and both felt trapped in their marriages, especially by the expectations placed on them as Palestinian American wives. Like Rum, in Evil Eye, Yara becomes increasingly dissatisfied with her marriage and begins to journal about her life at the urging of her therapist, which helps her chart a new course.

Ironically, Rum did not want her second novel to be autobiographical, but she soon realized, “I’m a sheltered artist who grew up in a sheltered world, so I can’t escape the fact that some of the novel is autobiographical.” Like Yara, Rum grew up with highly protective parents and was given none of the freedoms that the men in her family enjoyed.

“Their future is so uncertain,” she says of her Palestinian family. “And even though they live in America, that trauma is still there for my mom and dad; it’s present with them every day. They conduct their life out of fear and wanting to protect their family. Because my caregivers are still traumatized, they raised me in that trauma. That feeling of displacement—it’s even more than that, because it’s almost as if you’re actually displaced from your own body. You’re constantly running, you’re constantly searching, you’re constantly trying to improve. And I think that’s inherited and acquired. Even now, as a mother of my own kids, I sometimes catch myself and say, ‘Relax. No one’s coming to hurt you or to take away your home.’ But how do you relax when you’re raised on fear?”

In Evil Eye, the author notes similarities between Arab culture and life in the American South, “a place [Yara knows] about only from her favorite southern writers: Flannery O’Connor, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison. From their books she’d gathered that southern culture was not so unlike her own: full of loud and large close-knit families where women married young and had many children, focused on conservative values with an emphasis on religion or tradition, with an adherence to recipes that were passed down through generations. Even the obsession with tea at every possible social gathering—though southerners preferred it iced while Arabs served it boiling—felt like a point of connection. The similarities filled her with both comfort and dread.” Indeed, a simmering culture clash becomes a flashpoint in the novel when a colleague makes an offensive remark, causing Yara to explode in a way that has serious career consequences.

While depicting her culture in fiction, Rum remains wary of perpetuating stereotypes, especially because there are so few American writers of Arab or Palestinian descent. “Unfortunately, my stories are very dark, and that just happens to coincide with the world I come from. I’m sure there are many Palestinian communities and families that do not live in such a stereotypical world. I wish I could write about those worlds, but I’m not there yet.”

After initially feeling like an outsider when she moved to North Carolina, Rum has now established a robust sense of community. She has remarried, and she and her husband own both a pizza shop and a coffee shop called Books and Beans. “Now I feel like this place is home,” she says. As for her next project, she’s ready for a change of pace and is considering a screenplay or a children’s book. “There are a lot of ideas popping up in my head,” she says, “but I think that the literary adult trauma novels are for now complete.”

Read our review of Evil Eye.

Author photo by Angela Blankenship.

Get the Book

Evil Eye

Evil Eye

By Etaf Rum
ISBN 9780062987907

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