Elamin Abdelmahmoud is entertaining and full of pithy one-liners during his book launch at Vancouver Public Library.
He describes moving from Sudan to Canada as a tween and how his “Arabic is frozen at the age of 12.”
How he “got on a plane and got off and I was black.”
In Canada, he is stereotyped and expected to like hip-hop and Ja Rule. Instead, he’s drawn to Nashville, to Emmylou Harris and to country music, “the music of longing”.
He’s been here 22 years now but like many immigrants is still figuring out what it is that’s missing: not quite here and not quite there, but “elsewhere”.
He focusses on entertaining us rather than any in-depth discussions at the book launch on May 24. Fortunately, there’s much more depth to his written work, “Son of Elsewhere: A Memoir in Pieces”.
He weaves memories of his early life in Khartoum with his time growing up in very-white Kingston, Ontario – one of only three black students in his high school graduating class.
“Son of Elsewhere” is not a book to read straight through: it works best chapter by chapter, sipped over a cup of coffee, savouring the clever one-liners and digesting the more complex thoughts slowly.
Personally, having lived with a local family while working in Khartoum in 2007, I found the Sudanese memories the most interesting.
Abdelmahmoud grew up in an upper middle-class home in Khartoum during the reign of president Omar al-Bashir (now deposed). It was an era of “economic strife and heightened shadeism.”
As a lighter-skinned Arab-African, he never thought of himself as black until he moved to Canada. In Sudan, black meant the Southern Sudanese with really dark skins, often casually and thoughtlessly called abeed or “slaves”.
“Hurt people hurt people and colonized people colonize people and I was no different,” he writes.
“I began to recognize the same dynamic that had played out over decades in Sudan. The British had convinced my people – Arab-African mixed people – that they were worthy of ruling and judging and having power over Southerners, and we believed them.”
Al-Bashir’s government, with its strict Islamic laws, saw the southerners as inferior and western ways of thinking as a sauce of moral corruption.
“I imagine we cannot sustain an intimate look at the ways colonialism has left us deformed, and the ways we keep deforming ourselves in its name. I imagine it is hard to fix our gaze on the ways we are slouching toward whiteness, stooping, stooping, until the light of dignity fades.”
I also appreciated the chapter about the Sudanese love-rage relationship with “America”. As a boy, Abdelmahmoud witnessed the American bombing of a harmless pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum during the Clinton era.
Despite the rage this caused in Sudan, his cousins still dreamed about moving to the States. “One day when I win the lottery and go to America, I’ll bring the whole family…”
It’s the other side of the same coin, he writes. “If America has the capacity to destroy whenever it feels like it, logically the place that’s safest from America’s wrath is America.”
His father, a magazine publisher in Sudan, moved to Canada instead and five years later, his family – including Elamin –joined him in Kingston.
But he’s still drawn to the States and to long road trips, the first one being to Nashville.
“Since the first road trip, I’ve had to confront an annoying fact: I love America,” he writes.
Ah yes, spoken like a true Canadian.