Skip to main content Skip to search Skip to search

Interviews, Recommendations, and More

The Chat with Elamin Abdelmahmoud


This week on the The Chat, it’s a pleasure to speak to journalist and commentator Elamin Abdelmahmoud, whose debut memoir Son of Elsewhere: A Memoir in Pieces (McClelland & Stewart) explores his childhood in Sudan and experiences of moving to Canada. The New York Times calls the book “funny and frank,” one which make spaces “for joy and for discovery, but also for anguish and ambivalence.”

Elamin Abdelmahmoud is a culture writer for BuzzFeed News and host of CBC’s pop culture show Pop Chat. He was a founding co-host of the CBC Politics podcast Party Lines, and he is a contributor to The National’s At Issue panel. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, the Globe and Mail, and others. When he gets a chance, he writes bad tweets.


This was such a captivating read, Elamin. As someone who listens to you often on CBC, I had the experience of reading as if hearing your voice narrate the story. A cool experience. In the acknowledgements, you speak of how it took time for the “softness” of the story to come through. Can you talk more about the process of nailing the voice of the memoir?

Thank you so much! I spend a lot of time writing for an internet audience, because that’s my day job. As a result, I’m relatively attuned to the voice necessary for internet writing — a bit snarky, a bit self-aware, that kind of thing. But I wanted the book to be earnest, to be connected to the feelings I am trying to articulate, to be precise about them. I wanted the softness to be evident. But that’s not always possible. Sometimes you’re in a bad mood, sometimes it’s hard to drag yourself to the vulnerable place. So I had to be patient, and sometimes write knowing that I won’t be using anything that I’ve written because it’s not the tone I want to present in the book.

One of the most poignant scenes is your deep sensory memory of leaving Sudan to move to Canada when you were a boy. If you could go back in time and give comfort or advice to that boy, what would you say?

Well, I think I wouldn’t sugarcoat what’s to come! I’d say: Your world is about to be rocked, in ways you don’t yet understand. Your parents are going to face pressures they’ve never faced, and it’s going to fundamentally change the relationship you have with them. Your very appearance is going to suddenly have a meaning it has never had before. But also take a breath, ride out the bumpy parts, find your people and don’t let them go. It’s going to be alright.”

Your world is about to be rocked, in ways you don’t yet understand ... But also take a breath, ride out the bumpy parts, find your people and don’t let them go.

In many parts of the story, you speak about the creative and often nerve-wracking ways you tried to circumvent the restrictions placed on you by your parents, who were trying to keep you safe in a new country. These are such masterful tales…my favourite is the compromise you reach with your mother, in which she allows you to attend a concert of your favourite band, but only IF she is with you! How has your family (both in Canada and Sudan) reacted to the book?

Now this is the kind of question I’d love to answer, but I don’t have that information! And I deliberately don’t have that information. I haven’t asked if my parents have read the book, and I don’t intend to. I know they’re really proud of me and they’re really happy for me, but my mom doesn’t read whole books in English and I haven’t asked my dad if he has read it yet. Far too nervous to ask!

As for Sudan: the first few copies have finally made their way to family members in Sudan, and as per my aforementioned cowardice, I once again do not intend to ask, and hope they never tell me!!!!!

Of course one of the central themes is the search for home, and the kind of split allegiance or hybrid identity of so many migrants, who are in between time and place. In what ways have others responded to this part of your story?

This has been the best part. People have been so eager to share the ways they feel torn between homelands, and how that has affected their lives. It’s a deeply personal thing, and the book seems to have given permission for some people to share their stories — tales of arriving in the 60s or 70s or 80s, and the pressures they felt, and how they differed from mine but also how they were similar.

Finally, it’s clear how deeply music has influenced your life and career. One of the things I didn’t know was how you came to love country music. If you could spend a day with
one band or musician (living or dead), who would it be and what would you do?

Oh man! I’m going to say John Prine, because alongside the extraordinary body of work, he just seemed like the funniest, sweetest person on stage and I’m sure he had some great stories. I really regret not getting a chance to see him live.

Comments here

comments powered by Disqus

More from the Blog