In a book about family, trauma, freedom, and womanhood that spans several decades, Etaf Rum’s debut novel “A Woman Is No Man” aims to tell a story about women who are “born without a voice.” With four narrators in two parallel timelines, Rum seeks to capture a world in which Palestinian and American values war in Brooklyn and women are trapped by convention and each other. She nearly succeeds in this task, but the novel’s repetitive scenarios and persistent determinism leave the reader shy of satisfied.
“A Woman is No Man” jumps back and forth between two primary stories. The first follows Isra, starting in 1990 when she is a 17-year-old girl in Palestine who moves to the United States with her husband Adam after an arranged marriage. She struggles to adapt to a lonely new life and confronts the pressures of being a young wife and mother, seeking the love of her husband and her mother in law, Fareeda. The second begins in 2008, narrated by Deya, Isra’s oldest daughter, as her grandparents force her to meet marriage suitors when all she wants is to read and go to college.
Rum’s story reveals a perspective on the American immigrant experience that mainstream media rarely displays. Isra and Deya live in Brooklyn, but as Fareeda says, “It doesn’t matter where we live. Preserving our culture is what’s most important.” Both girls are forbidden from leaving the home alone or participating in American culture. Deya and her sisters go to an all-girls Muslim school in which most of their peers lead similar lives, in which the most important parts of a woman’s life are (arranged) marriage and providing sons to carry on her husband’s family name. Their community is driven by tradition and shaming. The novel disregards the concept of the American Dream: Isra dreams that life for a woman can be different in America but quickly comes to realize that even if this country can provide a nicer house and a consistent supply of food on the table, she is just as powerless and trapped in New York as her mother was in Palestine. The unique setting provides an interesting context for an in-depth exploration of the divide between cultures that is often explored in immigrant stories: While some characters like Fareeda and Adam work desperately to preserve their identity after the loss of their home by maintaining an Arab lifestyle, others like Deya struggle with being unable to belong easily in either world.
As the title may suggest, “A Woman is No Man” carries a dialogue on womanhood and its constraints at its core. Internal and external discussion of what is possible for a woman in this world, particularly a Muslim American woman, are everywhere, and they paint a grim picture. Isra and Deya are constantly reminded that “marriage is what’s most important for women” and domestic abuse is a fact of life as women are at the mercy of their husbands. Isra is shamed for having daughters that are considered burdens on her family, and female characters are perpetually shamed by others for being both too quiet or too loud, too lazy or too driven. The novel also shines a light on the frustrating reality of women pushing their daughters and granddaughters into the shame cycle out of a sense of helplessness. This may be a reality for many women, which Isra expresses with her desire to find stories of women like her in the books that become her solace, but hope for change is sparse.
These conversations and conflicts become old, however, as they take place over and over in both timelines. The vast majority of the novel shows characters reinforcing or accepting the state of their lives as a given. While the story structure generates a sense of momentum, only a few meaningful events or shifts in character development take place in the plot and each one is stretched out just a tad longer than feels necessary. Even the ending, which takes place in the earlier timeline, seems to be a step towards change for the role of women in this culture, but it is also colored by the knowledge that tragedy will follow shortly. Eventually, the constant reiteration of the role of women and the cycle of shame is exacerbating as a desperate hope to see one of the characters break out of the mold.
Rum handles the complex story structure and shifting point of view in the novel effectively with solid but inconspicuous prose. Its detailed setting and depiction of the effects of trauma, loss, and the refugee experience give it great potential to be an impactful debut novel. However, the plot is unsurprising with predictable twists and eventually becomes tiresome as change and character development come too little, too late. Thus, “A Woman is No Man” concludes with just a hint of disappointment at the story that it could have been.
—Staff writer Jenna X. Bao can be reached at email@example.com.