Photo: Kyla Zanardi
From Khartoum to Kingston, Elamin Abdelmahmoud’s memoir recounts what it means to be Black, and an immigrant, in Canada
In "Son of Elsewhere,” the culture writer and CBC podcast host brings vital insight – and levity – to the chasm between two homelands / BY Susan Grimbly / May 19th, 2022
Host of two CBC podcasts, and a culture writer for BuzzFeed News, Elamin Abdelmahmoud has written a witty and affecting memoir that takes the reader on a journey from Khartoum to Kingston, and into the space between two homelands.
“Elsewhere is the sharp contrast between the here and the there,” he writes. “Elsewhere is when you are compelled to note the differences in weather and temperament and attitude and air between a once-home and a now-home, just because you walked past burning incense that reminded you of another world.”
In Son of Elsewhere: A Memoir in Pieces, Abdelmahmoud describes how, at the budding age of 12, life becomes instantly more challenging when he and his mother join his father in mostly white Kingston, Ont., after they emigrate from Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. In an instant, he discovers he has two new identities: “immigrant, and Black.”
In contrast to his first Ramadan during a cold Canadian November (“Save for a modest green minaret, Kingston’s mosque looks like a skating rink”), his remembrances of Khartoum – sleeping outside to catch a breeze, the sweet harmony of the call to prayer, and close connections with relatives, especially his beloved uncle Foofoo – evoke lasting images of warmth and light.
Abdelmahmoud writes in short vignettes, alternating stories about his family and Sudan’s history of civil unrest and political upheaval with those of Canadian life, where he tries to fit in by embracing music, and WWF wrestling (because he overhears fellow students say they like it).
He recounts how, in high school, after he sets up a microphone wrong, he gets nicknamed “Stan the Microphone Man” – which he later shortens to Stan. Nu metal, country music and a television program called The O.C. shape his nightly dreams. His description of the joy of a mosh pit at a concert – where his mother insists she accompany him, with cookies in her purse – is pure comedy.
This beautifully written, observant memoir embraces Canadian culture while fondly cradling memories of Khartoum. In the excerpt that follows, Abdelmahmoud, who moved to Toronto as a young adult, drives east to Kingston on Highway 401 to visit his parents: the 401 being the through line, and constant theme, of this charming, insightful book. His devotion to his parents, while trying to adjust to Western life, will move you to tears and bring you joy.
Mama got double takes all the time because she covered her hair. At their most innocent, they were looks of curiosity, and their worst they were racist glances. But if you’re met with enough of those looks in one day, you start to walk differently. She was aware of the everyday racism that confronted her, and she worried that it confronted me, too. So she was protective – denying any request I made to leave the house.
Perhaps the most pressing force that weighed down on them, and accelerated their transformation to Immigrant Parents in my eyes, was capitalism. Mama and Baba both came from prominent families in Sudan. Baba’s great-grandfather was a significant sheikh, a learned Muslim scholar. There is a village just outside him. When we walked through the neighbourhood, everyone knew who we were. There are still people who sleep and pray next to my great-grandfather’s tomb. They ask for guidance, and they spend weeks inside of it. On Mama’s side, her great-grandfather was a Supreme Court judge. On the other side of Khartoum, there’s a neighbourhood named after him, too.
But in Canada, things changed. They were at the mercy of capitalism, like everyone else. Often, when immigrants arrive, they don’t have much with them – and for Baba, that was no exception. He pulled long days at the store; a thirteen- or fourteen-hour day was normal. Meanwhile, Mama pushed through an English as a Second Language course, and then a college cooking program so she could get a job as a line cook at a Greek restaurant – at forty-two, her first job since she was twenty-six.
My parents made this work, but it wore on them. With the little time they had left to parent, they were too exhausted to look closely while I dove into what Canada had to offer. So they tried to cut it off at the source by imposing curfews.
Immigrant Parents aren’t born that way. They’re created by the battle they wage against the forces lined up at their door, threatening to take what they hold dearest.
On my drives to visit my parents, the highway became the place I processed emotions. It’s on that pavement that the regrets poured in. I regretted not being more gentle in disagreement. The shouting and the clashing. I regretted the superiority I felt entitled to, and fully inhabited, when I said I wanted to break free, not knowing that to them it read as I want to break free from everything that you are. I regretted the unthinking cruelty, the time I spent waging war instead of cultivating diplomacy or laying down a soil of tenderness. I regretted every moment I’d let them think that what I wanted was distance from them. I regretted not recognizing sooner that they were doing the best they could with the tools they had.
Each trip made me softer. Love is a practice, a trail you carve out by travelling the same path over and over and over until it becomes familiar, until it lights the way home.
History weighs on us most when we are its sole custodians – when we are the ones who have to tell it to the next generation. This is often forced, not chosen.
By coming to Canada, Mama and Baba no longer had a whole village of people that remembered their twists and turns, the peculiarities of their biography. They had me. One thorny and stubborn branch, while the rest of the tree grew elsewhere. I grew up in an ocean of their stories, with every family member a wellspring watering me. But now I was the sole headwater, passing on their complexities. This can feel heavy.
Out of the blue, Baba’s hugs have been getting longer. His arms wrap all the way around, and hold on tightly. On Facebook and in text messages, he tells me he’s proud of me; he is exuberant with heart emojis. But in person, he channels all of those emotions into one tight hug.
Out of the blue, my mother started saying “I love you.” This was new for us: it has never been a part of my parents’ literacy of love. Thirty-two years on this earth, and I’d never heard her say it. Now, after we say our goodbyes in Arabic, she shoehorns it in, in English.
She says the phrase in singsong, and I recognize this for what it is: an acknowledgement that this is a part of how I express love in a context that isn’t in Sudan. It’s an effort to speak to me across the divide between the worlds we inhabit.
But, like the highway, her arms are stretched out wide and she is reaching, reaching, because it’s in the reaching that we find grace.
From Son of Elsewhere: A Memoir in Pieces by Elamin Abdelmahmoud. © 2022, Elamin Abdelmahmoud. Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.