Gender Roles, Arranged Marriages and the Challenges Immigrant Families Face; A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum Captures the Love and Pain in these Arab Women’s Limitations

A Woman Is No Man

My Review:

This is a captivating story of three women of different generations in the same family.  In A Woman Is No ManEtaf Rum shows us the challenges of Palestinian immigrants who are “torn between two cultures and struggling to start anew”.  She reveals the truth about life and all that must be endured as an Arab woman in America.

Back and forth in time, we meet Isra, a young girl in Palestine who has an arranged marriage to Adam.  The young couple moves to Brooklyn to start a family; Isra is lonely and afraid but hopeful she can win over the hearts of her new husband and mother in law.  Fareeda, Adam’s mother, is a strong woman with stringent rules and specific ways of doing things.  Along with shouldering the sins of her past, Fareeda’s respect for tradition and customs influences her actions and interactions with her sons, their wives and her grandchildren.  Deya is a teenager living in Brooklyn with her three sisters and Palestinian grandparents.  Her parents, Isra and Adam, died when she was 7, and she is being raised with the customs from Palestine by her grandmother, Fareeda.

Deya does not want an arranged marriage at 17, she want to go to college and choose her own partner when she is ready to settle down, but her American dreams will be squashed if Fareeda has anything to say about it.

“To want what you can’t have in this life is the greatest pain of all .”

Fareeda believes in arranged marriages, that sons are more valuable than daughters, and women should do all the housework and raise the children.  She is haunted by her past and chooses to stick by her traditions. “Fareeda knew her granddaughter could never understand how shame could grow and morph and swallow someone until she had no choice but to pass it along so that she wasn’t forced to bear it alone. “

In Palestine, abuse was common. There was no government protection and women believed they were worthless and deserved to be beaten.  They were dependent on men, had no education and were filled with so much shame.  The hurt, disappointment, anger and violence got passed down until the new generation stood up for their rights as American women.

Author Etaf Rum created characters strong in their convictions, yet weakened under the pressure of deep struggles…and I felt deeply for all of them.  I wanted Isra to find love in her marriage, approval from her mother in law, joy in motherhood and her daughters, and purpose in her life.  Fareeda deserved to feel at peace with her choices of the past and her granddaughter, Deya, had the right to an education and to make her own choices regarding a life partner.

A Woman Is No Man was not just about women, but men, too. Most of the characters stood by their cultural roles (either to be oppressive or to be oppressed), and were challenged to break free from what the old Palestinian society expected. The men and women in the story were equally weak; Isra’s husband, Adam, in accepting his position of strength as head of the family, found no way out. Suffering under the pressures of being the first born son, he could have spoken up, but he wanted to please his parents.  Similarly, Isra wanted her in-laws’ approval and the love of her husband, despite not wanting the arranged marriage. Struggle within the confines of the traditions to raise a family in this country presented challenges that many families new to America are subjected to.  Ultimately, individuality and confidence the younger generations develop, being exposed to life as Americans, gives them the courage to bend the family rules and go for what they want.

Etaf Rum gives us a peek into Arab traditions, superstitions, and customs, conveying the challenges of teaching the old ways to the new generations.  She also provides us with a good look into why Palestinian women may want to take on a more American approach to life to increase their self worth and independence.

I could not put this book down, loved it and highly recommend it…great for a book club discussion!

 

Watch Jenna Bush’s interview with Etaf Rum on The Today Show. and if you enjoy immigrant stories, I also recommend reading A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza.

Goodreads Summary

About the Author

Etaf Rum

The daughter of Palestinian immigrants, Etaf Rum was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. She has a Masters of Arts in American and British Literature as well as undergraduate degrees in Philosophy and English Composition and teaches undergraduate courses in North Carolina, where she lives with her two children. Etaf also runs the Instagram account @booksandbeans and is also a Book of the Month Club Ambassador, showcasing
her favorite selections each month. A Woman Is No Man is her first novel.

Q & A with author Mary Beth Keane about her gripping new novel, Ask Again, Yes.

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

My Review:

I loved this moving story of young love, family trauma and the aftermath…mental illness, addiction, forgiveness and the power of love kept me engrossed until the very last page.

Two young policeman work together in Brooklyn in the 1970s.  To distance themselves from the job after the workday and to start families they both move to the suburbs with their wives and end up living next door.  Francis and Lena have three daughters, one named Kate, and Brian and Anne have a son, Peter.  Kate and Peter have a strong connection and become very close, yet the families don’t socialize, mostly because Anne’s behavior is a little odd.

A tragic event occurs…no spoilers here…and relationships become strained and crumble under the stress.  Can we find the way back to the people who are important to us?  A gripping new novel with deep characters and an accurate portrayal of the working class, Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane is a must read!

Mary Beth Keene, Jennifer Gans Blankfein, Lauren Blank Margolin

Mary Beth Keane, Me, and fellow book blogger friend Lauren Blank Margolin (Good Book Fairy)

Q & A with author Mary Beth Keane

Can you tell me a little about your process of writing and organizing this novel.  Did you know the path each character would take individually or did it come together as you wrote?

I started the novel seeing only two of the characters. Francis, and Peter. I knew Peter was a child and Francis was new to the NYPD, but I didn’t know what they had to do with one another for a long time. I began by writing them separately, and then placing them alongside each other, if that makes sense. Eventually it became clear how these families would have an impact on one another. I never write my books in order, from beginning to end. For example, there’s a scene where Peter slides down a telephone pole. In the final draft, it’s a memory being recollected. But that was one of the first scenes I wrote when I began this book.

Two neighbors have a childhood friendship that ultimately turns to love, and even though they are kept apart for some time, they find each other again.   What inspired you to create this relationship the reader is hoping for?

I knew that they would be childhood friends, and I knew they would find each other again as adults. I also knew they had quite different approaches to life thanks to the environments in which they were raised. I don’t outline, but I did know that much. I did NOT know what form their reconnection would take: whether they’d just meet up once and move on or what. The point of the book, if there is a point, is about the randomness of life, and how our lives touch and change other lives even when we don’t mean them to.

Anne Stanhope’s erratic behavior was due to mental illness, and her husband Brian, his brother George and her son Peter battled alcohol addiction.  Their struggles were painful and actions seemed realistic…how did you prepare to write such complicated characters?

I pull partly from life and partly from my imagination. By middle age most people know someone who has struggled with addiction, whether they know it or not. All I need is a spark from real life and then I can run with it and imagine all the possible outcomes. The thrill of fiction writing is following one possible outcome to its conclusion.

Peter is estranged from his mother – how did you research this idea of being out of touch with a parent?

My husband, who I met when we were in high school, was estranged from his parents for many years. His mother died during that estrangement. Explaining that break to our children, who never met their grandmother, was part of the reason I was driven to write this particular book. Is a parent always a parent? Does being someone’s mother or father or child always have particular meaning, or does that meaning get lost when the relationship is severed?

Guns and unnecessary shootings are in the news all the time; do you think Brian, a police officer, was careless or did he consciously make the decision to be lax?

No, he was just being careless. These were the years before Columbine, so even when that gun showed up where it shouldn’t have, people didn’t yet think immediately of a mass shooter like they would today. I talked to a lot of police officers while writing this book and that was something that came up more than once, stories of off-duty police officers losing track of their off-duty weapons, especially in the 1970s and 1980s.

Did you know how the book was going to end when you started writing it?

Ha! No. Not even remotely.

Did you change anything significant during  the revision process?

Oh yes! So much that I couldn’t possibly answer fully here. I started the book from Kate’s point of view, written in the first person. I scrapped that after about one hundred pages. I changed the structure many, many times. I spent a very long time starting with Peter and Kate as adults, and then looping back to their childhoods, but that felt impossible to pull off without bogging down the narrative with flashback. It took a long time to figure out how to best tell this particular story.

Can you share any information about Ask Again, Yes for TV and Film?

Just that I’m thrilled, and that it’s happening. Right now it seems most likely to be a limited mini-series, and I’m delighted by that. I love that a limited mini-series will provide enough room and time to really tell this story in detail.

What have you read lately that you recommend?

I just finished All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan and I’m completely gutted. It was devastating and brilliant.

Goodreads Summary

Mary Beth Keane

About the Author:

Mary Beth Keane’s first novel, The Walking People (2009) was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and her second novel, Fever (2013) was named a best book of 2013 by NPR Books, Library Journal, and The San Francisco Chronicle. In 2011 she was named to the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35.” She was a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow in Fiction and her new novel, Ask Again, Yes, was published in June of 2019.

Thorough research and the use of music set the stage for The Wartime Sisters by Lynda Cohen Loigman

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My Review:

I loved Lynda Cohen Loigman’s debut, The Two Family House, and she has written another emotional family story, this time taking place in Springfield, Massachusetts.  Filled with detail and charm, she clearly knows how to use research to create an authentic atmosphere in her latest novel, The Wartime Sisters.  Her fully formed characters seemed like real people to me, and thanks to her skilled storytelling, and unique use of music to create scenes, I felt like I was living at the Springfield Armory during the war.

This is a story of sisters. Ruth is the older, smart one; she likes to read and do math.  Not a looker, but is capable and given responsibility in the family.  Millie is three years younger, gets away with everything, and receives all the attention because she is the pretty one.  Now adults, parents gone, Millie has a young son and her husband has gone off to war.  She cannot support herself and her boy so they go to live at the armory with her older sister Ruth and her family.   Ruth has two children and works at the armory, and her husband is an officer and has gone off to war.  Bad blood and secrets between the sisters linger while they learn to co-exist at the armory, but with the tragedy of war and loss, and the importance of family, the gift of time often heals wounds.

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Music was an important part of this book, and Lynda Cohen Loigman shares:

HOW MUSIC HELPED TO SHAPE THE WARTIME SISTERS

Early on in my research, I read a line in a book about the Springfield Armory that mentioned an opera singer who worked as a cook at the Armory cafeteria. When I read this line, I knew I wanted to create a character like that – a woman who would work behind the stove preparing food for the factory workers, but who would have another, more creative and outgoing side to her. From that one line (and a lot of subsequent research), I shaped the character of Arietta. She is the daughter of an Italian immigrant, a former vaudeville singer who performed in theatres owned by Sylvester Poli in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Unlike Arietta, Sylvester Poli was a real person – an immigrant himself, and the owner of several vaudeville theatres throughout the northeast. He started in New Haven, and built his theater empire from there.

In the story, Arietta has a big personality and an even bigger heart. She is a wonderful friend and support for Millie, and very protective of her.

I had the best time listening to 1940’s music, trying to come up with the songs I wanted to include in my story for Arietta to sing. My favorite was a song called “A Pair of Silver Wings,” originally performed by Kay Kaiser, and later sung by Dinah Shore.

One of the pivotal scenes in The Wartime Sisters takes place during a concert that was held on the Armory grounds, put on by the Victory Parade of Spotlight Bands radio show. This scene was modeled on a real concert that occurred at the Armory in September of 1943. Benny Goodman performed for a crowd of thousands on Armory Hill, and the radio show was broadcast throughout the country.

Of course, in my version, I had to move the date slightly, and also make sure that Arietta had the opportunity to perform. The last song she sings at my fictional concert is one that helped to shape my character, Lenny. It’s called “Why Don’t You Do Right,” and Peggy Lee recorded it with Benny Goodman in 1942. It has a particularly haunting and almost ominous melody, perfect for my scene. There were so many additional songs I wanted to include, but I was only able to add a few more to the story. I hope you enjoy them, and I hope you get a chance to listen to them too!

Research is a huge part of writing a novel and here Lynda shares:

THE RABBIT HOLE OF RESEARCH – BALANCING THE “HISTORICAL” WITH THE “FICTION” 

Immersing myself in research can be tremendously rewarding. But after a while, there is a fine line (at least for me) between research and procrastination. I could research forever, and never stop to develop my characters or think about my plot. In many ways, knowing when to stop is the most difficult skill to develop.

In researching The Wartime Sisters, my goal was to create an accurate picture of daily life at the Springfield Armory, from the perspective of both the residents and the workers. I spoke many times with the curator of the Armory museum to try to get all of the details right. But there were two questions that gnawed at me, for which I couldn’t find answers. At the end of the day, one of the answers mattered, and one really didn’t. And I had to force myself to let go of the question that I knew wasn’t going to further my story.

The question that mattered had to do with the Armory’s “On To Victory” dance that occurred in February of 1943. There was an article about the dance in the Armory Newsletter, full of photographs and all kinds of information about the evening. I learned how many tickets were sold, the refreshments that were served, and the name of all the musicians and entertainers who performed. There were detailed photos of various people in attendance so I could see what they were wearing. I read about the war bond raffle and the jitterbug contest. There was, however, one crucial piece of information missing: the article didn’t mention where the dance was held. The curator of the museum had no idea, and neither of us could believe that the venue wasn’t mentioned in any of the articles we found. Finally, after seeking additional help from the Springfield Museums, we found the answer through a ticket advertisement in an old edition of The Springfield Republican. The dance had been held at the Springfield Auditorium.

Knowing the location was crucial to getting the description correct in my story. I wanted to be able to picture the hall, to see where one character stood and where another stopped to rest her feet. I wanted to know what it was like to enter the venue, to walk up the auditorium steps, and to set foot inside. This was a piece of information very worth the time and energy that went into its discovery.

At another point, however, I became fixated on a historical detail that wasn’t nearly as relevant. For whatever reason, I became obsessed with learning how it was that armory residents received their mail. They didn’t have mailboxes, so where was it delivered? Was there a separate mail room? Mail slots in the doors? I never found the answer, and the curator couldn’t help me. Ultimately, I had to let go of that small detail. I knew in my heart that writing about the specific path of a letter from the post office to the postman to my character’s hands wasn’t going to move my plot along. And, to be honest, it probably wasn’t going to be interesting for readers either.

So, there you have it – two tiny mysteries, but only one solved. The mail question continued to bother me for a while, but I forced myself to stop thinking about it. Instead, I focused on my writing and the contents of that letter I had been worrying about. Ultimately, what the letter said about my character was much more important than how it got delivered.

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Writing historical fiction is not an easy task, the research alone is endless and the commitment to accuracy seems like it could be a draining process.  I admire Lynda and so many others who put in the time to write such wonderful, creative and fulfilling stories, creating opportunity to learn about a specific time in history.

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

Lynda Cohen Loigman grew up in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. She received a B.A. in English and American Literature from Harvard College and a law degree from Columbia Law School. Lynda practiced trusts and estates law in New York City for eight years before moving out of the city to raise her two children with her husband. She wrote The Two-Family House while she was a student of the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. The Two-Family House was chosen by Goodreads as a best book of the month for March, 2016, and was a nominee for the Goodreads 2016 Choice Awards in Historical Fiction. Lynda’s second novel, The Wartime Sisters, was published on January 22, 2019.

New People by Danzy Senna

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My Review:

I really enjoyed New People and was intrigued by who the description, “new people”, referred to.  Maria and Khalil are a seemingly happy, engaged couple living in Brooklyn, both light skinned, mixed race.  Khalil, a technology consultant, comes from a solid, intact family unit and is close with his parents and sister who is darker skinned than he is.  Maria has no relatives; she was adopted by a black woman who was hoping to raise a “mini me” and has since passed away.  She is spending her time writing her dissertation on Jamestown and busy learning about the mass suicides, how this could happen, and how those people kept going as long as they did. Maria’s previous boyfriend was white and although something about him made her despise him as a person, they had unrivaled physical chemistry.  She now is planning her wedding to Khalil, but is distracted by her attraction to a black poet who she keeps running into.

Maria has done something in her past that is dishonest and cruel to Khalil.  He is unaware and loves her very much.  Now that she is obsessed with another man she makes questionable decisions which lead her into some dicey circumstances but the details are not revealed to Khalil so the reality of who she is and what she does in her life remain hidden.  She has been and continues to be deceitful, yet for me, she is still likable and worthy of compassion.

I believe Maria’s studying of Jamestown, the people who were looking for their true selves and a place to belong in this world, and the music that enriched, was a representation of her personal quest for belonging.  With a college friend she doesn’t even remember, she has a brush with Scientology, as she allowed this former classmate to perform some tests on her, and then she feels a pull, back to the ideal life of Khalil and his family.  She looks white but feels black so her identity is unclear as she seems to be searching for people she can relate to, often feeling disconnected.  Maria’s bad judgement and and questionable decisions lead to some unusual situations that were humorous and uncomfortable.  New People, referring to mixed race people, this story of identity, relationships and communication was enjoyable, short and easy to read and I highly recommend it.

 

As Seen on Goodreads:

From the bestselling author of Caucasia, a subversive and engrossing novel of race, class and manners in contemporary America.

As the twentieth century draws to a close, Maria is at the start of a life she never thought possible. She and Khalil, her college sweetheart, are planning their wedding. They are the perfect couple, “King and Queen of the Racially Nebulous Prom.” Their skin is the same shade of beige. They live together in a black bohemian enclave in Brooklyn, where Khalil is riding the wave of the first dot-com boom and Maria is plugging away at her dissertation, on the Jonestown massacre. They’ve even landed a starring role in a documentary about “new people” like them, who are blurring the old boundaries as a brave new era dawns. Everything Maria knows she should want lies before her–yet she can’t stop daydreaming about another man, a poet she barely knows. As fantasy escalates to fixation, it dredges up secrets from the past and threatens to unravel not only Maria’s perfect new life but her very persona.

Heartbreaking and darkly comic, New People is a bold and unfettered page-turner that challenges our every assumption about how we define one another, and ourselves.

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About the Author:

Danzy Senna is an American novelist, born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts in 1970. Her parents, Carl Senna, an Afro-Mexican poet and author, and Fanny Howe, who is Irish-American writer, were also civil rights activists.

She attended Stanford University and received an MFA from the University of California at Irvine. There, she received several creative writing awards.

Her debut novel, Caucasia (later republished as From Caucasia With Love), was well received and won several awards including the Book-Of-The-Month Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction, and the Alex Award from the American Library Association.

Her second novel, Symptomatic, was also well received. Both books feature a biracial protagonist and offer a unique view on life from their perspective.

Senna has also contributed to anthologies such as Gumbo.

In 2002, Senna received the Whiting Writers Award and in 2004 was named a Fellow for the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers.

Danzy Senna is married to fellow writer Percival Everett and they have a son, Henry together. Their residences have included Los Angeles and New York City.