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book review

Journalist Elamin Abdelmahmoud.HANDOUT

  • Title: Son of Elsewhere
  • Author: Elamin Abdelmahmoud
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Publisher: McClelland & Stewart
  • Pages: 280

Late in Elamin Abdelmahmoud’s memoir, Son of Elsewhere, Abdelmahmoud defines one of several – borderline untranslatable – Arabic terms that arise throughout the book: nas taybeen, which a Sudanese Uber driver the author meets in Nashville uses to describe Southerners. It means “generous people,” with its root word also implying similitude: “These people are like us,” he writes.

Generosity is the guiding and inexhaustible hand of Abdelmahmoud’s first book. The prolific BuzzFeed writer and CBC Pop Chat host has made a name for himself as a culture writer of unmatched variety, humour and insight on topics ranging from limb-lengthening surgery to the artistic legacy of Shrek. As a long-time fan of his thoughtful and charismatic voice, to see Abdelmahmoud go long, ostensibly making himself the focus of his lavish eye, is a joy. And yet, along with the ups come the doleful insights that are inseparable from a truly vulnerable memoir of this nature. To borrow a phrase from Twitter – on which Abdelmahmoud is a warm and reasonable presence – he is as open about his Ls as he is his Ws.

“Elsewhere is not a land, but a sharp edge you inhabit,” he writes. Along that sharp edge, Abdelmahmoud hones his humour, his heart, his abiding love for the country he left behind, as well as the troubled nation in which he came of age.

From Khartoum to Kingston: A journey to becoming Black

From the start, we are taken into the story of a boy whose father sought refuge in Canada after his business was shut down and truck taken away overnight. No longer able to live freely, Abdelmahmoud’s Baba leaves his mother and young Elamin in Sudan to create a new home for them in Kingston. The joy Abdelmahmoud describes in meeting his father again, years later, at Toronto’s Pearson Airport is matched by the discovery that he was, in this Canadian city, something different. “Over here, we’re Black,” he writes – that is, sharply defined in relation to another. At this point, Abdelmahmoud splits into perhaps his first fragment of identity: a Black, Muslim immigrant who did not speak the language, and also, an upper-middle-class boy who lived in a comfortable house in Khartoum, surrounded by cousins.

There is an art to being two people at once: seeing oneself through the eyes of the dominant social forces while also seeing through that fiction. Son of Elsewhere is about Elamin being born, over and over again, to awareness. It is where elsewhere has consistently delivered him, whether he wanted it or not.

HANDOUT

As a white writer, I cringe reading the experiences that Abdelmahmoud writes about with such levity – how he cheerfully adopted the joking mantle of “Stan the Microphone Man” in high school to make his name – and whole identity – easier to shape in white Western mouths. “Stan was a gateway,” he writes. “It was identity that manifested non-Blackness for me.” He recounts that he took no small satisfaction in being called an “Oreo,” while naming the colonizer within him. In beautifully reported paragraphs, he speaks of Sudan’s fractured history of independence, in the same way that he identifies his own young impulse to mimic the colonizer and do what was expected of him by white hegemony: “bending, arching toward whiteness.”

What makes Son of Elsewhere so pleasurable, outside of Abdelmahmoud’s far-reaching intelligence, deft storytelling and ability to make you laugh moments after bringing a lump to your throat, is its graceful structure. Highway 401 is a powerful leitmotif that keeps the figure of Elamin in motion, moving back and forth from Kingston to Toronto, younger, then older, then oldest. It is also a symbol of something that Abdelmahmoud does, by and large: he makes a quiet experience of passage into something concrete and knowable, divided into fast-moving lanes to yet another elsewhere.

The idea of translation comes up again and again, and like his metaphorized 401 corridor, it highlights the process of change as much as its conclusion. In Kingston, Elamin begins his adolescence: a stage of life when being tongue-tied, misunderstood and unheard is already the norm. To learn a new language at the same time seems especially exhausting. And yet, Abdelmahmoud’s coming-of-age/English fluency story is charming and dramatic as any of the TV shows he loves (The OC gets its own rhapsodic chapter). The teenage Elamin embraces comically American interests: he confidently hosts a radio show and develops passionate feelings for professional wrestling, nu metal and country music. In the height of his WWF (now WWE) infatuation, he creates a wrestling alter-ego, Taylor Stanton, named for the two boys at school who contained, to him, all the grace and charisma he lacked. By writing long, impassioned tales about Taylor online, Elamin rises to the top of a fictional universe inside a fictional universe. Once mastered, Taylor is left behind, but this is when Elamin discovers that he has moved beyond fluency and into the realm of art.

As optimistic and charming as Son of Elsewhere is, Abdelmahmoud does not shy away from the pain of leaving his home behind, the pain of racism, the pain of seeing his own religious and cultural background weaponized by the primetime TV shows he and his father enjoyed together. He writes about the Islamophobia he began facing as a cultural critic on TV, the frustration and exhaustion of seeing others denigrate his presence in media based on a religion he himself feels a wobbly connection to. There is pain as well, in trying to make his own choices in spite of his beloved parents’ intractable natures. I think again of nas taybeen – the generosity that is not just about giving – but about having the faith in someone else, somewhere else, to see likeness rather than its opposite.

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