Son of Elsewhere: A memoir about finding home

In Elamin Abdelmahmoud’s new memoir, the personal and the political intertwine to create a rich portrait of an immigrant childhood in Canada. 

Read more: Son of Elsewhere: A memoir about finding home

The night of the bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory was a dark but breezy one. There was a power outage, and in an upper-middle-class neighbourhood in Khartoum, Sudan, a young boy was getting ready to go to bed when a fiery light illuminated the night sky. 

It was August 20, 1998, and the explosion was a missile attack as part of Operation Infinite Reach, launched by the Clinton administration against suspected al-Qaeda cells. That night, the bombing destroyed the plant, a modern, one-year-old factory that up to that point had been the main producer of an anti-malaria medication many Sudanese depended on. 

Elamin Abdelmahmoud, the young boy who witnessed the operation take place just around the corner from his house, grew up to become a respected journalist and broadcaster in Canada. In a new book, Son of Elsewhere: A Memoir in Pieces, Abdelmahmoud looks back into his childhood and youth in Sudan and Canada to come to terms with the intricate ties between history, tradition, and identity. 

Written as a series of interconnected essays, Son of Elsewhere is a poetic, deep, and at times very funny, memoir about growing up between countries and cultures and the long journey a young boy must follow toward self-acceptance. 

Becoming Black

Elamin Abdelmahmoud grew up in Khartoum, Sudan. At age 12, he moved with his mother to Kingston, Ontario, where his father had settled five years earlier and worked to reunite the family.

Upon his arrival in Canada, Abdelmahmoud went through an initial shock. While in Sudan his identity has been one as a Muslim and an Arab, in Canada, as his older, cool cousin informs him, he will be seen as “Black.” Abdelmahmoud, an accomplished cultural critic today, then provides a fascinating exploration of what “becoming Black” in Canada means. 

 In Sudan being Black meant being part of the less economically powerful, “several shades darker” South Sudanese population (Abdelmahmoud’s family is mixed Arab and African, as most Northern Sudanese are). In Canada, it meant listening to hip hop and following the cultural clues of artists such as Dr. Dre or Ja Rule. However, hard as he tried, the young Abdelmahmoud could not embrace the culture of hip hop and the version of Blackness it offered, so he spent many years trying to be as far away from that identity as possible.

“In my corner of Kingston,” he writes, “the only place I saw Blackness was in the world of hip hop. And everything about my life in Sudan (religion, private school, wealth—pick one!) told me to run away from that world. So that’s what I did.”

Years later, when asked to write his nicknames on his school yearbook, he proudly listed “Oreo” (Black on the outside, White on the inside) and “Stan,” two names that he felt put him in closer proximity to “whiteness.” Abdelmahmoud dives into this existential inner conflict with honesty and humour, but also backs up his personal experience with illuminating passages about colonialism and racism and how the legacy of these two concepts impacted his search for identity. 

Son of Sudan

Before moving to Canada, Abdelmahmoud’s father owned a publishing company in Sudan. During the Second Sudanese Civil War, which raged between the north and the south of the country from 1983 to 2005, he received threats for distributing the official publication of the opposition government, a dark incident a very young Elamin witnessed as he watched TV with his dad one night. 

Similar to this telling anecdote, Abdelmahmoud uses many personal experiences and memories as entry points for painting a rich picture of the Sudan he grew up in during the late 1980s and 90s, immersing the reader in the sounds, smells, and political and historical realities of the North African country.

“Adhans were the ostinato of my daily rhythm,” he explains when recollecting his hometown’s many calls to prayers. “The adhan for the Maghrib prayers at sunset meant it was time to come home from playing outside. The adhan for the Isha’ prayers meant there was half an hour before I had to go to bed. You could hear the adhan in every room of the house.”

These sections on Sudanese culture, politics, and history are some of the most fascinating of the book, giving us an insight into a country we seldom hear about in Canadian mainstream news or as part of political or cultural conversations. 

The memoir also pays loving tribute to the small, but tight-knit Sudanese community that welcomed Elamin and his family after their arrival. Soon, the local Kingston mosque became a refuge, where the Sudanese, but also a diverse Muslim community welcomed him as one of their own: “[The mosque] was where I met kids with names that were hard to pronounce, like mine,” he explains. 

Escaping through pop culture

Despite Abdelmahmoud’s efforts to close the divide between his emerging Canadian identity and the expectation of his more traditional parents, he never quite managed to do it growing up. 

As the journalist explains, at the same time he was struggling to find his place in the cultural and racial landscape of Canada, he was fighting a silent battle with his parents who, in an effort to preserve their Sudanese culture, severely restricted their child’s steps towards embracing more liberal, “Canadian” values. 

A scene when a 15-year-old Abdelmahmoud is allowed to attend a metal band concert only under the condition that his mother accompany him is a hilarious but poignant illustration of the difficult dance many immigrant children must go through to bridge their parents and their own experience of a new culture.

Abdelmahmoud is the host of Pop Chat and the co-host of Party Lines, two CBC podcasts covering pop culture and politics. Though highly knowledgeable of both subjects, it’s Abdelmahmoud’s love of pop culture that permeates the majority of the essays. Music, TV, and wrestling are all used as prisms through which he reflects on his experience of growing up as an immigrant. Moving constantly through internal and external signifiers of belonging and identity, he finally finds “Elsewhere,” a place uniquely his own. 

“I am interested in the constant calculus of how much of yourself to allot to each homeland, and how you navigate the anguish that comes with giving one of them less. This is Elsewhere,” he writes at the beginning of his book. And as Abdelmahmoud describes it, this “elsewhere” is a beautiful place to be. 

Son of Elsewhere: A Memoir in Pieces, was published on May 17, 2022, by Penguin Random House Canada. 

The Year That Was

A late 2020 meme or trope has been circulating. It takes issue with people who are ready to say goodbye to 2020 and to welcome 2021. The criticism is that people are placing their hope on a new year as if the pandemic will magically disappear as soon as the clock strikes midnight on December 31st.

Trying to Make Sense of the World During a Pandemic

The moment of the day when the reality of the situation continues to hit the hardest is the minute before I wake up.

Sometimes it’s in the middle of the night, sometimes at 5:00 am just before the alarm goes off. I go to bed thinking about coronavirus, and I wake up thinking about it. I’m sure it’s the norm right now for everybody. Our collective dreams must be made of this new reality.

We are Pilgrims, in el Camino, and in Life

Narcissus was analytical, a thinker; Goldmund, a dreamer with the heart of a child.

Field and heath lay before him, dry, fallow stretches and dark forest. Beyond it might be farms and mills, a village, a town. For the first time the world lay open before him, wide and waiting, ready to receive him, to do him good or harm. He was no longer a student who saw the world through a window; his walking was no longer a stroll ending in the inevitable return. […] He was small in this large world, no bigger than a horse, an insect; he ran through its blue-green infinity. No bell called him out of bed, to mass, to class, to meals.

Herman Hesse, Narcissus and Goldmund

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou: A Piercing Look at the Myth and Bust of Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes

For five years, during the entirety of my master’s degree and beyond, I worked as a TA. I was a French literature and film studies student at the Department of French at my university. A native Spanish speaker, I was a fluent French speaker by then and taught the introductory French course for first-year students, French 100.  The class was taught in English at the beginning and gradually moved into an almost French class at the end as students learnt the basic language for communicating in the classroom.

Bad Endings, Short Stories by Carleigh Baker

I grew up in Maracaibo, Venezuela. Bordered by Lake Maracaibo and the humid rainforest of the Sierra de Perijjá, Maracaibo is a city of heavy smells, heavy sun, heavy heat, heavy clouds. It could not be further from the cold waters, lush and cool forests, and thunderless rain of the Pacific Northwest. Bad Endings, a short story collection by Vancouver writer Carleigh Baker is a book set firmly in the Northwest landscape, one where lead coloured skies, chilling winter rain, and the proximity to wild and majestic nature are part of the everyday palette of sights and experiences.

The Measure of My Powers – A Memoir by Jackie Kai Ellis

I deeply believe in dedicating time to the things we love; it’s the name of this blog and the life philosophy I credit with giving me a second chance at a happy life. There is no “getting over it,” “you are too old for this,” and specially, “you are a mom, so you should not be doing x or y…” Motherhood, on the contrary, was one of the catalyst of my decision to not only never abandon the things I was passionate about—music, movies, reading, writing—but to pass these passions along to my son as the most beautiful gifts of being alive.

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

Everyday, women of all ages around the world look in the mirror and hate what they see. As women, our criticism of our bodies is often ruthless; our rolls, dimples, stretch marks, and cellulite a reflection of our laziness, carelessness, our excesses. In an unending cycle, we hate, try to lose the weight, become overwhelmed by the difficulty, give up and then start all over again. This hate is not innate; rather, it has been ingrained in us from an early age through a culture that measures the values of girls and women through their bodies, each pound gained, and year aged, lowering that value.

Just Kids – A Memoir by Patti Smith

I grew up on classical music and progressive rock. I also grew up in 1990s Venezuela, where musical cliques were so closed-off in their own lanes, it was almost considered treason to listen, or even to admit to like, anything that was considered to be outside the approved bands within the genre.  While in later years these cliques began to open up to a more general appreciation of all that could be considered “rock,” I grew up never listening or learning anything about entire genres, from pop, to soul, to hip hop, all the way to punk

Wab Kinew’s The Reason You Walk – A Memoir About Reconciliation

This year Canadians celebrated their 150th anniversary since Confederation. Though the Canadian Government made a great effort to celebrate this milestone anniversary, in true Canadian fashion, the date brought a lot of conflicted feelings and introspection to many Canadians. So while most of us still celebrated the extraordinary accomplishments of this country, many also took the time to reflect on our past and the historical wrongs that have been inflicted towards our Indigenous peoples.