Sunday, November 28, 2010

Beyond FICTION: MY SISTERS MADE OF LIGHT by Jacqueline St. Joan

On Friday at FridayReads I mentioned I was reading My Sisters Made of Light, a truly luminous novel by Denver author Jacqueline St. Joan. The fact I read this book in two days (not counting yesterday, when we hosted our 12-year-old’s birthday party here at the house…though I did fit some reading in last night!) I just turned the last page. And yes, I’m sad it’s over.

Published by Press 53, a five-year-old indie press based in Winston-Salem (that also happens to publish Mary Aker’s terrific short story collection, Women Up On Blocks), My Sisters Made of Light tells the story of a young Pakistani teacher and women’s rights activist, Ujala. Ujala’s story begins with—and in many ways reflects—her parents’ story as the impact of family tensions over religious differences and women’s roles are repeated generation after generation. Determined to break this cycle, Ujala’s parents refuse to arrange marriages for their daughters. Her father—who converted to Islam when he married—returns to his simple Sikh practices after his wife dies. Like her mother, Ujala falls in love with a man who practices another faith. And like her father, the man she loves is determined to love Ujala despite their differences. The devotion with which Ujala’s “Abbu” continues to adore her mother does not fade, even after death. Nor does her father’s willingness to give all his children the freedom and blessings they need to pursue their own paths, despite very real threats to their lives.

Ujala takes her mother’s directive to “teach them” to heart as she first teaches children from impoverished families who can’t afford private schools—and fear for their sons’ safety in the many religious schools that have been built in so many Pakistani villages and cities. Eventually, she follows another example of her mother, a founder of a women’s aid society, and while traveling as a teacher trainer begins helping women abused by their families, especially those attacked—often viciously—or threatened due to trumped-up charges of “honor crimes.”

Author Jacqueline St. Joan, a judge, lawyer, professor, poet, travel writer, and activist, writes with the authority of someone who’s traveled in Pakistan and understands not only its beautiful traditions and customs but its many complexities and paradoxes. Familial love is so intertwined with honor and loyalty and religion so informs the legal system that misinterpretations and misguided limitations often result in life-altering, or fatal, tragedies. And yet, life goes on in all its grandeur and squalor.

Only a writer as thorough, direct, and convincing as Jacqueline St. Joan could have written this book. In her acknowledgements, she thanks a women she calls Aisha, “a grassroots teacher for twenty-five years, a women who [has] been involved secretly and personally in rescue efforts for a number of women condemned in so-called ‘honor crimes.’” Upon meeting Aisha, Jacqueline thought of her as the Harriet Tubman of Pakistan and related closely and sadly with the stories she told, stories of women so similar to those she served as a lawyer activist in the “early battered women’s movement” in the U.S. Inspired by Aisha’s efforts, Jacqueline spent six years traveling to Pakistan not only as an observer and researcher, but as an active participant in Pakistani human rights efforts.

My Sisters Made of Light is not only a fictional account of Aisha’s dramatic rescue attempts; it is an emotional, often shocking, and thoroughly illuminating testament to the strength and determination that drives so many Pakistani women to fight for what’s right; to protect each other as mothers and sisters despite familial constraints and even legal and physical threats to their lives; and to trust that the divine—in whatever guise it takes and whatever religious label it’s given—ultimately will prevail. And the struggle continues: Half of the gross proceeds from sales of My Sisters Made of Light will be donated by Jacqueline St. Joan to a Pakistani non-profit for the construction of a safe shelter for women and children escaping abuse.

Gorgeous cover design by über-talented publishing professional (and another Denver literary lady) Sonya Unrein.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Beyond FUN: Imagination Soup

This month my post on Teaching Diversity in a White-Washed World has been featured on Denver blogger and educational specialist Melissa Taylor’s terrific Imagination Soup site. Named the best books and reading blog in the Scholastic Parent & Child 2010 Parent Bloggers Award competition, Imagination Soup serves up resources, insights, and how-tos on reading, writing, science, math and just plain fun activities for parents and other caregivers to share with kids of all ages.

A mom and former (award-winning!) classroom teacher, Melissa teaches creative writing classes in her home and is book editor-at-large at COLORADO PARENT magazine. In addition to writing articles for CP, she also reviews (and gives away!) children’s books at COLORADO PARENT’s colorful and informative Bookmarkable blog.

Yes, there are a lot of exciting aspects to Melissa’s work, but first and foremost she’s a mom of two beautiful girls who benefit regularly from the many educational projects Melissa introduces to them. Luckily, Melissa also shares her insights on Imagination Soup...and invites other moms to do the same.

Photo of Girls Club quilt by Olivia featured at a 2008 Platte Forum show of quilts created by Denver students

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Beyond FRUSTRATION: Report Documents Discriminatory Political Rhetoric

My last post mentioned some of the obstacles faced this election year by many national candidates of South Asian descent. Those obstacles include negative remarks made by opponents that directly attack cultural heritage and religious affiliations. SAALT, South Asian Americans Leading Together, recently released a report on just this subject. Called “From Macacas to Turban Toppers: The Rise in Xenophobic and Racist Rhetoric in American Political Discourse,” this report reveals not only that xenophobia and racism are being used to “stir negative responses against political candidates of South Asian descent,” but that citizens who are “South Asians, Muslims, Sikhs, and Arab Americans have been the targets of such rhetoric by public officials and political candidates from both sides of the aisle.”

In an essay posted on New American Media, SAALT executive director Deepa Iyer and policy director Priya Murthy state that while “xenophobic and racist rhetoric has been part of our country’s political life for hundreds of years,” the situation has worsened considerably in recent years. During the 2010 campaign, Mike Pompeo, a Congressional candidate in Kansas, posted onto Twitter a link to a blog post that included the following about Raj Goyle, his opponent: “This guy could be a muslim, a hindu, a Buddhist etc who knows, only God, the shadow and ...goyle knows! One thing’s for sure…goyle is not a Christian! This goyle character is just another ‘turban topper’ we don’t need in congress or any political office that deals with the U.S. Constitution, Christianity and the United States of America!”

Pompeo was elected to Congress last week.

Of all the South Asian American candidates for national office featured in the NPR article noted in my last post, not one won.

But watch for Hansen Clarke, a Detroit native newly elected to serve the state of Michigan in Congress. Learn more about Clarke, whose father was from India, in this HuffPost piece by University of Michigan associate professor of history and American culture, Scott Kurashige, who calls Clarke “The Dem’s Rising Star from Detroit.”

Someday we’ll have a government that truly represents our diverse citizenry, and maybe then xenophobia and racism will no longer be part of our political rhetoric. One can only hope, pay attention, and vote.

Photo of Deepa Iyer ©