You could say Elisheba Haqq’s writing career started with a lie. At the age of 12, her essay “Why my mom deserves roses on Mother’s Day” was published in a small, local paper. Sadly, she later admits, the story was far from true. In fact, she wrote about her stepmother in the piece who was quite cruel and probably not deserving of flowers at all. There was, however, a silver lining to it all.
“That experience gave me the thrill of knowing what it felt like to have words published,” said the author of Mamaji, her first book released in late 2020.
For Haqq, a 58-year-old Rutgers University writing professor and registered nurse, her memoir is the story of her immigrant family who made their way to the Minneapolis suburbs from Chandigarh, India in the 1960s. While paving an American experience? in Minneapolis, Haqq and her seven siblings lost their mother to cancer. She was only three-years-old when her mother passed. When Haqq’s father remarried, she had a difficult time forming a loving relationship with her new stepmother. She was forced to navigate a future largely dictated by her parents’ narrow views and wishes, but that also celebrated close sibling ties. Ultimately, she learned to forgive, heal and persevere.
At the age of 10, Haqq read Louise Fitzhugh’s “Harriet the Spy,” a book about a young girl who snoops on people’s lives and writes about her journeys. The book was banned in some U.S. states, but it inspired Haqq to be a journalist. Her very traditional father objected and ushered her into a nursing career instead, one Haqq doesn’t entirely regret.
“I wanted to be a journalist … but nursing has taught me so much,” she added. “I love people. I love the process of healing. Even in terrible situations, I believe in grit and determination and making the best of whatever circumstances we’re in.”
In her 40s, Haqq went back to college, earning a second undergraduate degree in English and History, then pursued a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. There, she met professor Jeffery Allen, a published author who encouraged her to embrace her life story. She began writing Mamaji in 2014 and after years of rejection notices and editing, she finally got it published through Serving House Books in October 2020.
Embracing an imperfect family, hope for others
Arriving in suburban Minneapolis in 1963, her family was only supposed to stay in America for two years. When her mother passed away in 1965, her father chose to stay in the Midwest as an itinerate Methodist preacher and quickly remarried. Haqq’s relationship with her stepmother drove many of her personal and life-long struggles. The memoir also allowed her to finally open up about living in a flawed, but close-knit, Indian family.
“I kept trying to please people who could never be pleased and I think it sort of took me writing this book to realize I need to stop that,” she said. “Writing this down allowed me to be myself and to actually be honest because a lot of Indian families tend to portray perfection. That’s one of the themes in the book: I didn’t go to an Ivy League school. I didn’t do anything I was supposed to do. … I’m opening these doors that say ‘Guess what? Indian families suffer, too, and guess what? We’re not all these perfect immigrants.’”
Haqq’s first name is Hebrew and taken from the Bible. Her maiden name is Muslim, which she carries it from her grandfather. Her married surname, Stevens, is Christian. Her name often confuses people who first meet her, she says, but she hopes sharing her story inspires others to embrace their own unique stories: the good, the bad, and even the confusing parts of it.
“What happens to you in your past, whether good or bad, doesn’t always determine your future happiness. It really depends on … if you’re willing to use the past to be strong and not allow it to overwhelm you,” she said. “[And] … if you have a broken family, relationship or friendship, I hope you think of how important that relationship may be to you. … It’s hard to forgive people, but I think that’s the only way to move forward in life.”