To be a newcomer in a strange land is hard, complicated, and confusing. Add to this the trauma of displacement and war, and the immigrant’s life becomes more harrowing. I knew this all my life, growing up with a dad who had immigrated to Canada from wartime Germany (and before that, Stalin’s Ukraine).
In Palestinian American Etaf Rum’s debut novel, a third layer is added: How men broken by war sometimes take out their troubles on the women in their lives. In 1990, Isra, a teenage Palestinian girl living in the West Bank, is given to Adam, an immigrant to Brooklyn, New York, in an arranged marriage.
Rum, the daughter of immigrants and herself once given in such a marriage, artfully braids the stories of three women: the vulnerable Isra; her domineering mother-in-law, Fareeda; and Deya, Isra’s daughter who, in 2008, chafes at the constraints of her harsh cultural confines.
All three women are told that marriage and motherhood are a “woman’s only worth.” The birth of a daughter is cause for acute disappointment and even anger, not celebration. Isra grows more despondent with the birth of each of her four daughters, unable to snap the “chains of shame” that shackle women in her culture.
The men in the novel, chiefly Adam, are portrayed as products of their patriarchal upbringing, yet each makes terrible choices all his own. Domestic violence is a dark thread stitched into this novel, and I cringed at some of the brutal scenes.
Yet there is also a strand of hope woven throughout. Though Isra dies when Deya is a little girl, she remembers her mother reading to her. Deya also finds courage and freedom in the pages of books, most of them smuggled into her grandparents’ strict home. That books and reading would be a portal to possibility is no surprise; Rum’s Instagram account, @booksandbeans, is a favorite of thousands of book lovers.
In my own reading, I aim for at least one book that reflects diversity per month, as I find this way of consuming words and story opens my eyes and hearts to other worlds, cultures, and perspectives. This book increased my empathy for those affected by the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories—their humiliation and misery was made real to me. As a Christian, I found it valuable to learn about conservative Muslims. Through my reading, Isra, Deya, and the rest became not just “other” and “them,” but image bearers of their creator.
I saw my dad as a refugee and immigrant in this telling of other refugees and immigrants. I saw myself anew as the daughter of immigrants.
Essentially, A Woman Is No Man ponders a woman’s worth. What will it mean for these characters to realize their intrinsic value? The answers to this question kept me turning the pages far into the night. (Harper)