Etaf Rum, EVIL EYE

Etaf Rum, EVIL EYE

Zibby interviews New York Times bestselling author Etaf Rum about Evil Eye, a striking exploration of the expectations of a Palestinian-American woman, inter-generational trauma, and the ways our unresolved pasts affect our presents. Etaf shares how a lack of Palestinian-American representation on bookshelves inspired her to write fiction that pulls from her own experiences. She also talks about juggling writing, teaching, and motherhood; her experiences with impostor syndrome and depression during COVID; and her bookstore in North Carolina!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Etaf. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” — I can’t even pronounce my own show, but that’s fine — to discuss A Woman Is No Man and The Evil Eye. Evil Eye? Not The Evil Eye. Evil Eye. Thank you for coming on.

Etaf Rum: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. I know I first reached out to you through Claire Gibson, who I had gotten to know and knew you from your neighborhood. I don’t even know. I think I told you back then how much of a fan my mother is of you and all of your work. I just had to put her name out there so she could be really happy.

Etaf: Send her all my love. It’s such a blessing to hear that. I’m really grateful.

Zibby: Of course, she’s not the only one. You’re a New York Times best-selling author, blah, blah, blah, but you know, priorities, got to start with some family. I just wanted to kick off this episode by reading a tiny bit from the beginning of A Woman Is No Man because it’s so striking. People who might not be familiar with you yet might not know what your voice is like. This is particularly voice related. I just wanted to read even this opening. Is that okay? A sentence or two to give a little preview?

Etaf: Did you want me to read it?

Zibby: I was going to read it. Do you want to read it?

Etaf: No, you read it.

Zibby: I’ll be quick. This is how A Woman Is No Man starts, for anyone who has not read it yet. “I was born without a voice one cold overcast day in Brooklyn, New York. No one ever spoke of my condition. I did not know I was mute until years later when I opened my mouth to ask for what I wanted and realized no one could hear me. Where I come from, voicelessness is the condition of my gender, as normal as the bosoms on a woman’s chest, as necessary as the next generation growing up inside her belly, but we will never tell you this, of course. Where I come from, we’ve learned to conceal our condition. We’ve been taught to silence ourselves, that our silence will save us. It is only now many years later that I know this to be false. Only now as I write this story do I feel my voice coming. You’ve never heard this story before. No matter how many books you’ve read, how many tales you know, believe me, no one has ever told you a story like this one.” With that, you’re setting the expectations very, very high.

Etaf: Why would I do that? I’m listening to you, and I’m like, why would I — I’m kidding.

Zibby: No, it’s amazing. You want to be immersed in a world like this. Let’s back up. First of all, your latest book, congratulations. Why don’t you tell listeners about that? Then I want to go back to this book and talk about voice, and voice throughout your books, honestly.

Etaf: My latest book, Evil Eye, comes out September 5th. It’s about an Arab American woman, mother of two, who has worked really hard to escape the demons of her past, is highly educated, is in the art field, and thinks that she has a life that is very different than the life of the women that she’s seen growing up, the powerless women that she’s seen. After an incident at work, her mom tells her that she might be cursed with a curse that’s been in their family for generations. All of a sudden, Yara, our main character, is now questioning everything she thought she knew about her life, her future, and if she’s ever really escaped the past.

Zibby: Can we really escape the past?

Etaf: Yeah, can we? We’re on this journey to figure out, what are the decisions that need to be made for this character?

Zibby: I read you saying that this came from a personal place, part of the story. Tell me about that.

Etaf: Both my novels come from a personal place. I’m a Palestinian American woman. I was born and raised in this country to Palestinian immigrants. Both of my novels are set in the Arab American community. Both of them feature characters that we don’t often see in bookstores, minority women, women who have been taught that a woman’s role is confined in the home as a mother. These women are now looking back at their lives and questioning, what parts of tradition and culture do I resonate with? What parts have I been perpetuating and passing on that don’t really resonate with me? What can we do from here? In that regard, I think both novels do come from an autobiographical place, not just from me as a woman, as a Palestinian American woman, but I think it reflects many women in cultures or in societies or in families that feel like they have to play a certain role and then figuring out, well then, who am I, really?

Zibby: Yes, which is sort of a blanket for many, many people trying to figure out who we are and our place in the world and all of that. If you were writing a memoir now, how would it differ? When did you realize that this part of your identity is something you wanted to explore through fiction?

Etaf: I realized it in 2016. I was teaching full time at a community college. I was teaching American literature and English 111, just writing. I realized that as an Arab American woman, our stories were not present in bookshelves, in bookstores, and in literature in general. We were underrepresented. At that very same time that I was teaching, I was also going through a hard time personally in my life, just questioning how I had gotten to the point that I was at and why, despite all of my accomplishment, I still felt really empty. I still felt like I was pretending, like I was playing a role. I had, obviously, succeeded at the role. I was teaching. I had a master’s degree. I had children. Everything was perfect. I managed to hold onto my culture and to my American dreams, but something was really wrong. It was the combination of being in the classroom and teaching and realizing how little of my identity and my community is in this country, is seen in this country for what it really is and not just the terrorists on the news or, Palestine is being bombed. Outside of that, the domestic lives of these women, what do they look like? I wanted to portray that. I wanted it to be accessed easily. Then I also had a lot of questions myself about how I got here. Who am I? As a woman, where are my limits? I wanted to explore all that through fiction. I thought it was cathartic for me as someone that was depressed and going through this difficult time. Also, I wanted to use that pain to get answers for myself, but hopefully to help someone else that could possibly be in my position, if they read the story and resonated with it, if it could give them some clarity. At that point, I felt like I did not have any clarity or guidance.

Zibby: Did it work?

Etaf: Yes, it did. It was hard and uncomfortable and ugly and messy. Writing A Woman Is No Man and even writing Evil Eye helped me pierce into some truths that I couldn’t really pierce through in memoir. We don’t look at ourselves objectively. We’re so much in denial. There’s so many façades and layers of pretending and layers of conditioning and programming, especially when you come from these strict societies and cultures. I had so many layers of trauma and so many façades to unpeel. I could not do that in memoir. I did not have the courage to do that in memoir. Whereas with fiction, I felt, okay, I know what I want to find. I know that I’m looking for truth. I can look for it at my pace with these characters that I’m pretending are characters, but they really are people in my mind, voices in my head that I can use to work through some things and get to a place of healing. I think that both those books, because they were fiction, helped me find healing.

Zibby: That’s amazing. What do you need healing on now? Are you working on something else?

Etaf: Don’t we all need healing? Does it ever end?

Zibby: I’m working on healing myself through the aging process. I’m going to delve deep in that into fiction and see how I feel about it.

Etaf: You’re beautiful. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t know what you’re saying. Your smile is so radiant.

Zibby: Thank you. We’re all working through something.

Etaf: Exactly. We’re all working through something. Much in the same way that reading helps us escape and work through emotional problems with different characters, for writers, that writing process is just as powerful.

Zibby: It’s so true. Were you surprised, then, after writing your first book — I’m curious when you found time to do that when you were still teaching — I’m assuming you’re still teaching and parenting and all the rest — and how you felt once that hit big and then where you found the time to write Evil Eye. Could you still protect your sanity in trying to write a second book?

Etaf: First of all, great question. Evil Eye was really challenging. After A Woman Is No Man got written — I wrote it very quickly. I wrote it in between classes or on my lunch break or in the mornings. I wake up really early. I would write before the kids went to school. I’d take them to school, go to work, do my routine, and find some times to write. I will say that A Woman Is No Man wrote itself. That novel, my heart cracked open, and everything just came out. It was years and years and years of memories. It started out as a journal entry, so a lot of it was direct memories and things that I was working through. It just poured out of me. Evil Eye, it was a COVID novel. When A Woman Is No Man came out, it was 2019. I went on tour. I came back end of 2019. I’m like, all right, it’s time to start writing. I could do this. I still have more to say. Then COVID happened. A Woman Is No Man blew up at the same time. I had this imposter syndrome. Wait a minute, I can’t write anything that’s going to match the level of success that this novel has gotten. Also, it was COVID, and my children are home from school. I was running businesses with my husband that I had to either close down or — there was a lot going on. I don’t need to explain to you happening in the world. I will say that it was harder to write this novel because I had the first novel. Then also, I hadn’t worked through as much as I thought I had in terms of inner work. I had, but there was more layers. This novel was showing me the layers, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it. I got depressed. This is probably too personal for this interview.

Zibby: No, no, I love the personal. Keep going.

Etaf: I got depressed. It was COVID. I was depressed because I just felt alone. I was hurting for this world that I created in both novels and for the women that go through this, the specific women in my mind, in my life, and other women. On a separate note, I get a lot of DMs from women that read A Woman Is No Man who say, this book has really changed my life. I really never looked at it in this way. Now I have the courage to talk to my mom or to talk to my sister, or to take certain steps because they were able to work through some emotional pain in the novel. I think that responsibility was now even clearer. When I was writing A Woman Is No Man, it was just for me to write out that story. It was the idea of helping people, and helping people find some sort of resonance with the work. Then when you know that they have found resonance and now you have to do it again, it just really scared me. That was a difference between the two.

Zibby: What did you do on the moments that you were most doubting yourself and it was just you and the screen?

Etaf: I just told myself to keep going. I knew that if I didn’t push through it, that — I had worked so hard to get to that moment. I had a place and a paper and a pen and an ability to reach people. I knew that even if it wasn’t what I wanted it to be and it didn’t turn out the way that I wanted it to turn out, the fact that I was here was an immense privilege. I am constantly reminded of my immense privilege when I think about women all over the world that are living in far less circumstances, children in Palestine that are being bombed, people that are feeling unsafe every day, that don’t have access to food or clean water, that can’t go to school. I have so much in my life. That’s the thought that always comes when I’m having a dark moment. I made it here. My parents brought me to this country. I was able to get an education. I got myself here, and so I need to keep going. I don’t know if it’s survival mode. I don’t know, but it pushes me to complete the day.

Zibby: It’s almost like guilting yourself into it.

Etaf: You better do this right now.

Zibby: Whatever it takes. I want to pivot for one second and talk about your bookstore. When did that come into the equation?

Etaf: That came into the equation at the end of 2019 right before COVID. I was so excited about the opportunity to open up a spot in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, where I live, where I can create a space for people to just gather. I live in a small town, so we don’t have many places here where you can come and grab a cup of coffee, browse through a small library. We have so many diverse books on our shelf, in our library, and on our for-sale shelf that fits — I wanted to create that space here. That happened in 2019. I just came back from there. It’s exciting. It’s exciting to see people come in and watch what books they choose to buy and kind of judge them a little bit. All right, this is what you like. It’s really nice. To know that someone’s choosing to spend their time in that space, someone’s choosing to go have a coffee before dinner or just go sit down and read — girls will come in and just sit there and read. To me, I’m thinking, this is the best that there’s a space here for you to do that.

Zibby: Awesome. I started a bookstore also this year.

Etaf: Really?

Zibby: In Santa Monia called Zibby’s Bookshop. I’m wearing the sweatshirt today, which I wear all the time. Although, I think this is my husband’s.

Etaf: Congratulations.

Zibby: It’s the most fun and rewarding and amazing thing to put yourself at the center of this literary connection fest, essentially, and just watch people as they browse and ask questions, and then what they pick and how they interact with everybody else in the store. I think it is the most amazing thing. I think everybody should spend an entire day in a small bookstore and just watch and listen.

Etaf: Yes. It’s so intimate because there’s nowhere to go. People are coming to either escape or for personal growth or for just some time, for self-care time. You’re there watching and in that. It’s so rewarding, like you said. It’s really nice.

Zibby: Somehow, you have a bazillion followers on Books and Beans, and I have none for my store that I just started. How did you grow that following?

Etaf: The reason why I have so many followers is because I started the account when I started writing A Woman Is No Man. It was years before I ever opened the store. The following was more — it was my personal account. I was going to bookstores and talking about books and getting quotes of books that I liked with coffee. It started in 2016. It was before the algorithm in Instagram changed. If you were to ask me right now, how do you do that? I would tell you I have no idea. This was before Reels. It was easier to grow back then because there weren’t many people on Instagram.

Zibby: More like the Threads of today or something, just starting out, maybe. Although, not really. Would you ever open a second store? Have people asked you to expand? Would you?

Etaf: People have asked me to expand in different space or in other locations here in town. I don’t think that — no, I wouldn’t, I guess is the answer. I wouldn’t. I think that I’m just such a creative and a person that wants to explore. I think that it’s hard with businesses because you have to run the business. With the way the world is now and the lack of help for businesses, it’s hard to find staff to help. I would love to if I had — I have the vision to open so many things. Practically, I don’t think I would because I don’t have the time.

Zibby: When do you find time to read?

Etaf: I find time to read at night. Sometimes I’ll just go take a thirty-minute break and read during my day. If I have a block of time and I don’t know what to do with it, I’ll go have a cup of coffee or something, and I’ll just read. It’s even hard finding time to read. I have to schedule in or make it part of my nightly routine. All right, this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to go brush my teeth, sit down, and just read and then go to bed. I have to tell myself, these are the times. Throughout the day, there’s just so much to do.

Zibby: I seem to have gotten reading in. I always read before bed. Now I’m trying to teach my kids. It was so sweet, last night, my daughter, when I went to straighten up her room this morning, which she should’ve done herself — I know. I’m a bad mom. Anyway, whatever. I found her book was right there on her bed. She had fallen asleep with it right there. I was like, this is a dream come true.

Etaf: I know. It is. It’s so important to teach kids that. It’s so important. Teaching your kids to love reading or to enjoy it, at least, is the best thing you can do for a child, in my opinion. It teaches them so many things.

Zibby: Then they wanted to stay up reading the other night. I was like, how could I contradict myself by making them go to bed and put down the book? All I do is try to get them to pick up books. This is the one time. I’m like, okay, fine. Stay up until midnight and read. I don’t even care. I’m going to bed, though.

Etaf: Right now, I’m being a hypocrite, but it’s fine.

Zibby: How about your kids? Are they readers, or have you had trouble with that?

Etaf: Yeah, they are. My daughter, we were at the beach yesterday. At the beach house, there was a selection of books. I go right in. I go into the books. I’m going through them. This person has good taste in books. There’s Flannery O’Connor in there. There was an Elizabeth Gilbert book in there. There was the book that I made her read. Now I can’t remember it. I completely forgot. Anyway, she read the whole book in the day, in a day.

Zibby: Wow. How old are your kids?

Etaf: She’s fourteen. My son is eleven. They’re both readers.

Zibby: Awesome. Are you working on a new book now? Are you feeling depressed now? How do you feel in general at this point?

Etaf: No, the depression was more of a COVID thing. I just felt trapped with this novel. I couldn’t go out. I just had this novel to finish. I’m not currently working on anything. I’m taking some time to figure out what I want to work on that is maybe a little bit different. I feel like both A Woman Is No Man and Evil Eye are heavy. I want to work on something a little less dark next time. I know that if I start a book now from this place, I won’t give it the attention that it needs in terms of, what do I want to write about? It’s not a good place right now for me, at least.

Zibby: Are you going out on the road — I’m sure — to tons of places for Evil Eye? What is that going to be like?

Etaf: The book comes out in September, so I officially start going on tour then. For now, I have been just doing a bunch of interviews and podcasts. That’s been really exciting, knowing, all right, this is a real book now. It’s not in my head anymore. It’s out in the world. People are reading it. It’s exciting to get to this stage. It’s so exciting.

Zibby: Amazing. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Etaf: Keep writing every single day if you can. Make it a priority to put your thoughts on paper. I think discipline is the best advice I can give. With discipline, after you’ve mastered yourself — yourself is the number-one person that’s going to get in your way and the number-one person that’s going to help you succeed. So often, we self-sabotage. We say, I want to do something. Then we’ll think of a million reasons why we can’t do it that way. At least for me, I realize that there’s a voice in my head that wants to procrastinate if I let it. I’ve learned to master that voice and to just keep going.

Zibby: That’s huge.

Etaf: That’s why I say, when people are like, what advice would you give? really, it’s managing yourself, learning how to discipline yourself, learning how to be in charge of yourself and not let your mind be in charge of you. It covers many things, including being authentic and writing authentically. There’s a lot of time to our writing. We think we have to write a specific story or tell it in a specific way. It’s about people pleasing and market pleasing or even, I’m writing because I want to hit the list. I’m writing because I want to sell for this amount. All of those reasons are not the reason to write, and so asking yourself, why am I writing? What about this story? What about these words or this process? What’s the truth here that I’m trying to get at? That truth is what’s going to help you be disciplined because it means more than hitting a list. You can’t control that. You can’t control hitting a list. You can’t control getting fame and whatever external motivator people have to achieve goals. Those external circumstances are very shallow and superficial. I think if we dig deep and look for the authentic reasons why we’re doing things, it can help us do that thing better, make it more, not noble, but impactful because it’s real. It’s a real thing. It’s not another performance.

Zibby: I love that. Etaf, this has been so nice. I want to come see your bookstore. How do you even get to your store? Where do you fly into?

Etaf: You fly into Raleigh in North Carolina.

Zibby: Then how far is it?

Etaf: Have you ever been to North Carolina?

Zibby: Yes.

Etaf: Do you like it?

Zibby: Yeah, of course.

Etaf: Then it’s an hour away from the airport. It’s in a town called Rocky Mount. You can look it up.

Zibby: I’ll look it up. My brother went to Duke, so I was down there.

Etaf: Boo! I’m just joking. When people say UNC Chapel Hill or Duke, you have to look around the room to see —

Zibby: — Oh, sorry. Should I not have said that?

Etaf: No. I don’t have a preference for either. It’s just a North Carolina thing. You just notice people are like, what? Duke?

Zibby: He just went there for law school, so maybe he doesn’t — anyway, good luck with your release. I’m so excited for you. I hope to stay in touch. If you want to come to LA and do an event at our bookstore, we have events all the time. If you have any interest in getting out west or you are already going to be out there, it’s in Santa Monia. It’s really cute.

Etaf: I would love to. I can share my publicist’s information. Really, if I get invited somewhere, my publisher will send me there. If you think you want to do an event at your bookstore or something, that’ll be cool.

Zibby: That’d be great. Amazing. Thank you so much.

Etaf: It was nice talking to you. Bye.

Zibby: Great to talk to you. Bye.

EVIL EYE by Etaf Rum

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