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