Interview by Tizzy Brown
Firstly, the story of how you came to write this book is breathtaking. Can you take us through your journey growing up in a Palestinian-American community in Brooklyn to your arranged marriage, your education, and ultimately what led you to where you are today?
Growing up, I was raised on the notion that the most important aspects of a woman’s identity are marriage and motherhood, and that without them, a woman has no worth. Divorce is frowned upon and education is only considered valuable after the primary responsibilities of marriage and motherhood are met, and even then, only to a limit. Ironically, I began to realize the limitations we place on women after I become a mother, especially because I have both a daughter and a son, and so I was able to see clearly the ways in which we raise our girls differently than boys and the different values we instill in them. Wanting a better future for my own daughter was what gave me courage to break free from the cycle of misogyny and oppression and forge my own path —it was all for her sake.
You’ve said in interviews that you chose to write your debut novel because there isn’t a lot of visibility of Arab-American women sharing their stories. Do you hope that by sharing this story that others will follow suit?
Yes, absolutely. I hope that women everywhere – not only Arab-American – can begin to recognize the many ways in which we’ve been shamed and silenced, and gain the courage to speak up against these injustices.
I’ve heard you say that one thing you wanted to make clear through this story is that religion and culture are two separate things. How do you see the distinction in your own communities?
The Islamic religion and conservative Arab culture are two very different things, and I wanted to highlight that in this novel. I think this is also true everywhere, though – for example, we can’t make the claim that American culture, with its obsession with sex, drugs, and alcohol, is representative of the Christian religion. There are so many other elements at play.
This book is semi-autobiographical. Is there a character that you see yourself in more than the others?
As a woman, I see myself and my struggles reflected in all the female characters in the book. I mostly identified with Deya because that was exactly how I felt at her age when I was sitting with suitors, but I also identified with Isra when I ended up in an arranged marriage at 19 and had kids shortly after.
One of the things that struck me most about this novel was the role that women play in the oppression that Isra, Deya, Sarah, and other women in this story face. Why do you think it is that this dynamic occurs?
The oppression of women by other women was something I’ve seen personally, and I wanted to explore the reasons behind it in the novel. Why do we, as women, enforce patriarchy even though it hurts us?
I think shame, fear, and a culture of silence play a role here. When a woman is already shamed and devalued in her community, she comes to realize that the most traumatic events of her life will never be recognized or addressed as legitimate, and so her experiences become unspeakable. She is afraid to speak up against these injustices, and instead of reaching out, she is taught to reach in, conceal, pretend. Before long, she herself begins to enforce the silence on other women, teaching her daughters and granddaughters to do the same, a passing down of silence.
While we know the fate that Isra ultimately faces, the final chapter follows her attempted escape from her abusive situation, and, had the reader not known what would eventually happen to her, we feel her sense of hope for the future. What was writing this final passage like for you? What did you hope to convey to the reader?
Writing the final passage was hard because even though I knew Isra’s fate I wanted to express it in way that felt truer to the overall message of the novel, which is one of hope. The point of the ending is not Isra’s literal fate, which the readers knows all along, but her inner growth as a character and what her strength and courage will ultimately mean for her daughters in the future. It was an ending of hope.
The book just came out on March 5th, and you’ve already received high praise from the media and from the literary community. What has the success of your debut novel been like?
It’s been surreal. To be honest, I still feel like this is all a dream and that I’ll wake up any moment. To go from being unseen and unheard in an insular community to a woman who is not only seen and recognized but helping other women and telling their stories – I still can’t believe it. It’s an honor to be able to stand up on behalf of women everywhere.
We have so many readers who are aspiring writers. Can you discuss the process of writing this book a bit? How did you find time to write? Did you do outside research? Did you have people who helped you through the writing of your first draft?
Writing this novel took a lot of discipline. I never studied creative writing, and A Woman Is No Man was the first piece of fiction I ever wrote, so I definitely didn’t consider myself a writer, nor did I have experience writing. But once I set my mind on telling this story, I wrote for two hours every day for a year with no exceptions until I had written the first draft of the novel. After that, I found my agent, Julia Kardon, who helped me edit it before we sold it to Harper Collins, where I worked with the brilliant editor, Erin Wicks until the book became what it is today.
So, in short, there was lots of writing and rewriting!
What are a couple of books that you’ve read recently that you’ve loved?
- Sadness is a White Bird by Moriel Rothman-Zecher
- Salt Houses by Hala Alyan
- The Affair of the Falcons by Melissa Rivero
- The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar
This obviously your first novel, and we hope to see many more. Do you have any plans for what comes next?
I’m at work on my second novel now. It’s too early to say where it’s going, but I feel like I will always be writing about women, marriage, family, society, duty, and love from the perspective of a woman of color.