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A Woman Is No Man: A Novel
by Etaf Rum

Published: 2019-03-05
Hardcover : 352 pages
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Recommended to book clubs by 6 of 6 members


A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice • A Washington Post 10 Books to Read in March • A Marie Claire Best Women’s Fiction of 2019 • A Newsweek Best Book of the Summer • A USA Today ...

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A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice • A Washington Post 10 Books to Read in March • A Marie Claire Best Women’s Fiction of 2019 • A Newsweek Best Book of the Summer • A USA Today Best Book of the Week • A Washington Book Review Difficult-To-Put-Down Novel • A Refinery 29 Best Books of the Month • A Buzzfeed News 4 Books We Couldn't Put Down Last Month • An Electric Lit 20 Best Debuts of the First Half of 2019 • A The Millions Most Anticipated Books of 2019

“Garnering justified comparisons to Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns... Etaf Rum’s debut novel is a must-read about women mustering up the bravery to follow their inner voice.”   —Refinery 29

In her debut novel Etaf Rum tells the story of three generations of Palestinian-American women struggling to express their individual desires within the confines of their Arab culture in the wake of shocking intimate violence in their community—a story of culture and honor, secrets and betrayals, love and violence. Set in an America at once foreign to many and staggeringly close at hand, A Woman Is No Man is an intimate glimpse into a controlling and closed cultural world, and a universal tale about family and the ways silence and shame can destroy those we have sworn to protect.

"Where I come from, we’ve learned to silence ourselves. We’ve been taught that silence will save us. Where I come from, we keep these stories to ourselves. To tell them to the outside world is unheard ofdangerous, the ultimate shame.”

Palestine, 1990. Seventeen-year-old Isra prefers reading books to entertaining the suitors her father has chosen for her. Over the course of a week, the naïve and dreamy girl finds herself quickly betrothed and married, and is soon living in Brooklyn. There Isra struggles to adapt to the expectations of her oppressive mother-in-law Fareeda and strange new husband Adam, a pressure that intensifies as she begins to have children—four daughters instead of the sons Fareeda tells Isra she must bear.

Brooklyn, 2008. Eighteen-year-old Deya, Isra’s oldest daughter, must meet with potential husbands at her grandmother Fareeda’s insistence, though her only desire is to go to college. Deya can’t help but wonder if her options would have been different had her parents survived the car crash that killed them when Deya was only eight. But her grandmother is firm on the matter: the only way to secure a worthy future for Deya is through marriage to the right man.

But fate has a will of its own, and soon Deya will find herself on an unexpected path that leads her to shocking truths about her family—knowledge that will force her to question everything she thought she knew about her parents, the past, and her own future.

Editorial Review

An Amazon Best Book of March 2019: Newlywed Isra thought life would be different when she immigrated to America from Palestine, but her dreams were quickly dashed. You’ll need to steel yourself the more you delve into Etaf Rum's penetrating debut novel A Woman Is No Man, which follows Isra’s journey, and that of her daughter Deya. The clash between dual cultures creates much of the drama, as Deya tries to do what her mother ultimately couldn’t--break free from their family’s violent, misogynistic past and forge her own path in life. While A Woman Is No Man is a rallying cry to resist patriarchal strictures designed to keep women in ‘their place,’ it is also a love letter to books and their transformative power. Reading was one of the only comforts, and acts of rebellion, that Isra enjoyed, and she had a particular affinity for literary heroine Scheherazade: “For a thousand and one nights [her] stories were resistance. Her voice was a weapon—a reminder of the extraordinary power of stories, and even more, the strength of a single woman.” It’s the harnessing of that strength that sets Deya, and this family, free. --Erin Kodicek, Amazon Book Review


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Discussion Questions

1. Why might a community or culture have a “code of silence”? What are the potential risks of such secrecy? In what ways is such silence harmful to Isra and other women and girls?

2. Beyond the literal, what does it mean for a person to have a voice? Why is it important to health and safety? What are the various forces that silence Isra’s voice?

3. Why are books so important to Isra, Sarah, and Deya? What makes the reading of books so threatening to Isra’s mother, Fareeda and the men in the novel?

4. In the frustrated words of Isra’s mother, “What does love have to do with marriage?” What is the purpose of arranged, loveless marriages? Why would her mother accuse Isra of being a sharmouta because she wanted to fall in love?

5. Isra is taught from an early age that, “Obedience [is] the only path to love.” What does this mean? Why is obedience important in a society? When does obedience become oppressive or dangerous?

6. When Isra first meets Adam, he vehemently claims: “I am free.” To what extent is this true or not? What forces limit personal freedom? What is a healthy balance of personal freedom and obligation to family or community?

7. Why does Fareeda believe that, “Preserving our culture is what’s most important,” despite the suffering it brings to the women and girls in the family? What, more specifically, does she believe must be preserved?

8. In what different ways do Isra, Deya, Sarah, Adam, Fareeda, and Khaled assimilate to American culture? Which acts of assimilation from their children and grandchildren are acceptable to Khaled and Fareeda? Which are not? What does this reveal about their values?

9. Throughout the novel, men are forgiven for committing zina, for drinking, sexual infidelity, and violence toward women. How is this explained and justified? What is the source of this double standard that contradicts even the Quran?

10. Isra’s suffers the profound shaming of her daughter and of herself for giving birth to only girls. Why are girls and women thought to be of such little value in her family and culture? What vast effects do these ideas have on girls as they grow up? What can be done to resist such psychological and physical harm?

11. Of what value is Isra’s writing of letters to her mother that she never sends?

12. Despite the oppressive limits to their role and presence, how do the women and girls throughout the novel find ways to express themselves? Are there other responses that might serve them well?

13. Telling her younger sister Nora bedtime stories about their family, Deya realized that “telling a story wasn’t as simple as recalling memories.” What might she mean? Why is it important to decide to leave some things unsaid in a story? In what ways is this also true in life or not?

14. Sarah and Deya disagree about whether literary stories should “protect us from the truth” or “be used to tell the truth.” What does each mean? In what ways does lying or pretending, as Deya admits to doing, differ from telling a story?

15. What’s most important to Sarah in her life? What explains the courage she possesses to stand up to and defy her oppressive family? What must she sacrifice to secure her independence and identity?

16. Consider the many literary allusions in the novel—A Thousand and One Nights, Farenheit 451, Pride and Prejudice, The Stranger, etc. What does each bring to the novel? What is particularly important about Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar?

17. Fareeda concludes that despite spending “her entire life being pushed and pulled, from kitchen to kitchen, child to child…it was better to be grounded, to know your place, than to live the way these Americans lived…with no values to anchor them down.” Why is it so essential to her about maintaining these values, even if they’re oppressive? What is potentially threatening about freedom or uncertainty?

18. Why does Fareeda believe Omar’s desire to love and respect his wife is “American nonsense?” How does she reconcile this with her resentment toward Khaled for not showing her love and appreciation? What is the “different kind of love” that Isra experiences when reading by the window?
19. Sarah argues that, “Being happy means being passive,” and prefers discontentment in order to drive creation. What does she mean? What does it mean to be happy? What determines whether discontent is productive and motivational or oppressive?

20. What many details and forces lead to Isra’s tragic death at Adam’s hands? Why is Adam so easily forgiven and freed of responsibility by Khaled and Fareeda?

21. Fareeda believes that, “Culture could not be escaped. Even if it meant tragedy. Even if it meant death.” What does she mean? What has happened to her that might explain why she remains so attached to a culture that has destroyed her family?

22. Deya strongly refuses to believe in naseeb, or destiny, saying, “I hate the idea that I have no control over my life” and later, when arguing with Fareeda about going to college, “My destiny is in my hands.” What is destiny? Why is the idea of destiny so powerful or useful to many people? To what extent is a person free to make choices in his or her life? What forces work against this? How does Deya develop such independence and empowerment?

23. What is individually, socially, and culturally valuable, vital even, about women telling their own stories? What various ways throughout their lives can girls and women be supported to determine their own stories?

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