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Q&A with Etaf Rum - Evil Eye

Evil Eye

By Leah Wingenroth

We are honoured to welcome Etaf Rum to The Reading Corner to talk about her new release, Evil Eye, released on the 5th of September 2023.

After Yara is placed on probation at work for fighting with a racist coworker, her Palestinian mother claims the provocation and all that’s come after were the result of a family curse. While Yara doesn’t believe in old superstitions, she finds herself unpacking her strict, often volatile childhood growing up in Brooklyn, looking for clues as to why she feels so unfulfilled in a life her mother could only dream of. Etaf Rum’s follow-up to her 2019 debut, A Woman Is No Man, is a complicated mother-daughter drama that looks at the lasting effects of intergenerational trauma and what it takes to break the cycle of abuse.

Evil Eye

Congratulations on a touching, harrowing, courageous, and hopeful sophomore novel! In so many ways, from Yara’s journal inserts to the painstakingly omniscient narration, this story felt like a memoir. And, in some ways, I could imagine it is. Just because it’s fictional doesn’t mean it isn’t real. What made you sit down and write this story?

Thank you for your kind words. I knew I wanted to write Yara’s story as soon as I finished writing A Woman Is No Man. I was interested in the idea of intergenerational trauma and inherited family “curses,” as well as what happens when we realize that, despite our best efforts to break free from old patterns and narratives, we haven’t truly processed and overcome the wounds of our past.

Like her mother and grandmother before her, Yara finds solace and safety in moments when she can get back in touch with Palestine, the home that was taken from her. Do you think her family would’ve imploded in such a way without this decentralization? How do you see the concept of homeland and diaspora shaping Yara moving forward as she navigates her new life unmoored?

Wow, such great questions. Yes. Yara’s family dynamics and sense of alienation is absolutely the result of the 1948 occupation, when Zionist militias massacred at least 15,000 Palestinians, destroyed 530 villages, and exiled nearly 750,000 Palestinians from their lands and homes in Palestine. This event is called the ‘Nakba,’ the Arabic word for catastrophe, and sparked the creation of the Palestinian diaspora. As Yara begins to unpack her family’s history, she begins to understand how this event—a turning point in Palestinian history— has been an apocalyptic moment, a “curse,” and the start of the Palestinian story of exile, and in turn, the root of her own family’s feelings of displacement, disconnect, and unhealed trauma.

Yara's hyphenated identity as a Palestinian-American will continue to shape her life moving forward as she learns to navigate and embrace both Palestinian and American cultures. Having more access to her Palestinian roots—as well as a voice to express herself through art—will be a source of strength and richness, allowing her to navigate between different perspectives and bridge cultural gaps. Ultimately, as a displaced person forging a new path, she must learn how to embrace and celebrate the complexity of her heritage while forging a path that feels authentic to both her Palestinian and American identities.

Even the best relationships between mothers and daughters can be fraught with patriarchal tension, one that pits us against one another. While reading this story, I kept going back to the concept of the mother wound. Did you have that in mind when situating Yara and her mother’s relationship?

Absolutely. Exploring the concept of the mother wound and the patriarchal tension within mother-daughter relationships was definitely a consideration when developing Yara and her mother's dynamic. It adds depth and complexity to their tense relationship, highlighting the interplay of cultural expectations, generational differences, and mental health struggles, especially for Yara, who feels guilty for not being content with a life that is so much better than her mothers. The Palestinian mother wound for Yara also encompasses the intergenerational trauma, displacement, and struggles that her mother and grandmother have endured. This includes the emotional burden of navigating political and societal challenges in Palestine and America, as well as preserving their cultural identity and, for Yara, resisting oppression and stereotyping. I wanted to explore this topic with sensitivity by recognizing the resilience and strength of Palestinian women and the complexities they face in their relationships.

If you were to write an epilogue a few years down the line, where would Yara be? Would she have her art studio up and running?

As a healed artist, Yara would live a life of freedom and liberation, unencumbered by self-doubt and creative blockages. She would confidently “take space” and express herself through her art, embracing her true voice and unique perspective as a Palestinian-American. She would sustain her cultural roots by upholding active ties to Palestine and keeping her traditions and language alive. She would find joy and fulfillment in finding herself, no longer burdened by past wounds or limitations. As a woman liberated from old narratives, Yara would have the freedom to explore new mediums, take risks, and fully embrace her artistic journey without fear or hesitations. She would live authentically and unapologetically, enjoying the freedom that comes with true healing.

I was so struck by the lingering metaphor of Fadi’s clutter slowly creeping into Yara’s sunroom. Before she knew it, there was no space left for her. Her art and therapy practice were necessary for her to declutter, both physically and mentally. What inspired you to include therapy as such a central aspect of the novel?

Yara's journey of decluttering both physically and mentally was inspired by the idea of finding personal and creative space, as well as becoming aware of needing a space of her own in order to thrive. Therapy plays a central role in the novel because it provides a supportive and healing environment for Yara to confront her past, process her emotions, and ultimately find her own voice. Journaling also serves as a catalyst for her self-discovery and growth, allowing her to navigate and verbalize the clutter of her life and create a space where she can begin to flourish. My intention of highlighting therapy and journaling was to emphasize the importance of prioritizing mental well-being and cultivating a healthy relationship with oneself.

Fadi is a prime example of the ways that patriarchy plagues and punishes men, too. Is Fadi a sympathetic character to you?

Yes. Fadi’s character is a portrayal of the detrimental impact of patriarchy on men, especially men of color. Patriarchy in Palestinian-American communities exists, as it does elsewhere in the world, as a system that upholds male dominance and male hierarchies. And yet these men are victims of the system too, as patriarchy perpetuates harmful stereotypes and expectations that can limit their opportunities and create additional barriers. Patriarchy also places pressure on men to conform to narrow definitions of masculinity, which can lead to a loss of identity and emotional suppression. Additionally, men of color face intersecting forms of discrimination, being both marginalized by patriarchal structures and subjected to racial biases. It’s important that we recognize and challenge these systemic issues, ensuring that everyone, regardless of gender or race, can live free from the harmful effects of patriarchy.

As a born and raised Carolina girl myself, I always get excited to see my home state and the Heels mentioned anywhere. I know you yourself are an NC State alum and still live in North Carolina today. What drew you to the state specifically as one of the settings for this story?

I'm glad you share the excitement for the great state of North Carolina! Choosing it as a setting was a way to celebrate the vibrant and diverse culture of the Tar Heel State. While I am indeed an NC State alum and still reside in North Carolina, the story extends beyond personal experiences and draws inspiration from the richness of the state's landscapes, traditions, and people. It's a wonderful opportunity to showcase the beauty and charm of North Carolina while weaving together a compelling narrative.

Do you see Yara breaking the curse at the end of the novel?

Yes. In fiction and in life, hope offers a glimmer of light in the darkest of times, instilling a belief that things can improve and change for the better—a powerful reminder of the resilience of the human spirit.

Lastly, where can readers get a hold of Evil Eye?

Your local bookstore and wherever books are sold.

Evil Eye

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.


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