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Reality is harsh in Etaf Rum’s debut novel ‘A Woman is No Man’

From the mountains of Birzeit in Palestine to the concrete confines of New York’s Brooklyn comes Etaf Rum’s novel, “A Woman is No Man.”

The brilliant debut and New York Times bestseller is an incredible Palestinian-American story of unhappy relationships, crippling patriarchy, and endless generational trauma.

Between Rum’s main characters, Isra and Deya, the struggles of living in a patriarchal society, guised as tradition and culture, is central, following the distress of being exiled and making a life in a new country.

Focusing on three generations of the same family, Rum begins her novel in 1990 with Isra, a 17-year-old who lives in Palestine. The teenager is preparing to get married because as often reminded, a daughter is only a “temporary guest” in her father’s home.

When Isra is whisked away to New York with her new husband, she dreams that life will be different and that her freedom will go beyond the kitchen and tending to the men in the family. But life in the Big Apple is not so different, especially after she gives her husband four girls and no son.

The constant pressure from her mother-in-law, Fareeda, to bear a male heir and tend to the home forces Isra to realize that a woman’s place is the same in New York as it was in Palestine.

The book then moves to 2008 and Deya, Isra’s eldest daughter, who lives with her three younger sisters and her grandparents. She hardly has any memories of her parents, and the ones she does have are joyless.

Her parents were killed in a car accident when she was 8 years old, so Deya’s future is shaped by Fareeda’s rules, as was her mother’s. But Deya refuses to succumb to her mom’s fate and fights against her grandparents. However, in doing so, she unearths shocking family secrets.

Rum’s novel is a page-turner, brimming with generations of lovelessness and trauma that is repeated to preserve a culture that is slowly fading due to exile and migration.

All characters are victims within their own right, all three generations make decisions out of fear, not love.

In an exploration of relationships, Rum dives deep into patriarchal society where women have no voice. However, there is a resilience to her voiceless characters, like the women who move to new countries with no one but their husbands and their families, to give their children some semblance of life.

But the generational misunderstandings can hurt the very same people it empowers. Reality is harsh in Rum’s novel, and dreams are distant, but fate can be changed with courage.